The Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) in dogs is similar to the Anterior Cruciate ligament (ACL) in humans. The CCL connects the femur bone, or the upper thigh, to the tibia, below the knee of the hind legs. Just like humans, dogs can tear their CCL. There are two ways your dog can tear their CCL from degeneration of the ligament or trauma.
Trauma usually happens in dogs that are very active and have twisted their knee joint while being active. This can happen if your dog is running really fast then suddenly changes direction. Trauma can also be caused by being hit by a car, or there being a great fall that your dog experiences.
The most common way that the CCL tears or ruptures is from degeneration. Degeneration of the CCL is the most common cause of hind limb lameness in dogs.
Your dog can get a tear or a rupture in their CCL. A tear can sometimes heal on its own. A full rupture usually cannot. A rupture is when the knee joint destabilizes, twists, and slips causing pain. A tear of the CCL may cause a limp in your dog. A complete rupture will cause your dog to walk on three legs, unable to bear any weight on that leg.
This tear or rupture of the CCL can happen to any breed of dog at any age. There are some breeds that have a higher risk. They are Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Golden Retrievers. Dogs that are overweight are also more prone to these tears or rupture. Older dogs are more susceptible to degenerating cranial cruciate ligaments.
Degeneration of the CCL is so common because a dog’s hind legs are always load bearing. They are always ready to pounce, run, or move. If a dog has a tear in on CCL they will most likely favor their other leg. This can actually lead to them injuring both knees. Half of the dogs that have ruptured one CCL will rupture their other one.
If you notice your dog is limping it is important to get them to the veterinarian quickly so they can diagnose if something serious is going on. When you take your dog to the veterinarian they will do an exam. This exam will include them feeling the knee area of your dog for inflammation, as well as stability in the knee. Most dogs that have ruptured their CCL will not be able to put any weight down on that leg, and will cry out in pain when the knee is touched. In some cases of bigger dogs X-rays may be necessary to get a clear look of if the CCL is just torn or if it has ruptured.
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Tiny dogs that weigh under 30 pounds may make a recovery within 3-6 weeks of the tear. Especially if you limit their exercise and encourage rest. Sometimes anti-inflammatory medication may be given to help aid in recovery. Tiny breeds have a better likelihood of recovering because their back legs are bearing much weight. This also helps their healthy leg not be put under too much stress during recovery. Larger breeds may need more intervention. Surgery is a permanent solution but recovery may be long and hard for some dogs. Larger breeds will need increased recovery time and are at a higher risk of injuring their healthy knee since they have so much more weight to try and support.
CCL surgery is done by an orthopedic veterinarian. Surgery will allow the doctors to clean out any leftover ligaments from around the bone and fasten a new artificial ligament. This artificial ligament will help stabilize the joint and prevent any abnormal motion. After surgery recovery will be between 6-8 weeks. During this recovery time it is important to limit activity. Keeping the dog crated for this time, and when taken outside kept on a short leash as to not overdo on the leg too quickly. Usually if surgery goes well, good function of the leg should be back by three months after surgery. The problem with surgery is that arthritis can still develop even after surgery which can cause trouble in your dog’s back legs as well. Surgery for a torn CCL can be expensive and sometimes the recovery is harder on dogs.
Not treating an CCL tear or rupture can be an option for some tiny breeds. For some dogs with a torn or ruptured CCL that isn’t treated can develop arthritis in that knee and may not ever gain function back of that leg. While other dogs have shown to have some regain of movement and strength in their legs after a few weeks of the first sign of a tear or rupture. Degeneration of the cranial cruciate ligament is very common in dogs, tears and ruptures can happen quickly. If your dog is limping or won’t put their leg down to walk at all get them checked out so you can get the best treatment plan.