Preventing ACL/CCL Injuries In Dogs: What Can I Do to Prevent My Dog from Busting Their Knee Ligament?

Is there anything you can do to prevent cruciate ligament injury in your dog?

Prevention is always the best treatment for any injury or disease. For example, recovery from a CCL injury will take anywhere from four to six months out of your dog’s active life, and an unstable joint will contribute to the development of arthritis.

Further reading: Talk to Me About CCL Injuries in Dogs

Preventing ACL/CCL Injuries In Dogs

What is a ligament?

A ligament is a band of tough connective tissue that connects bones and supports a joint. Ligaments help keep bones in their place while providing enough flexibility to allow the joint to move. Think of them as powerful rubber bands.

Just like a rubber band, a ligament is designed to withstand a substantial amount of mechanical stress. When the stress exceeds its threshold, the ligament gets damaged.

Because of stifle anatomy, the crucial ligaments in dogs are especially vulnerable to injury.

Further reading: Talk To Me About Dog ACL/CCL Injuries: My Dog Ruptured Their Cruciate Ligament

Acute injuries

In some cases, the knee joint may be perfectly normal, but a severe injury overwhelms the ligament causing it to rupture. For example, think of a football player blowing out his knee. These injuries occur most often in young, large breed dogs. However, it takes a major twist or impact to injure an otherwise healthy ligament in an otherwise healthy knee. Therefore, acute CCL injuries are much rarer than you’d think.

Ruptures due to degeneration

However, gradual degeneration of the ligament is the most common cause of ACL rupture. In this case, middle-aged or older dogs that are overweight are most commonly affected. Because their cruciate ligaments have been weakened over time, even regular activity (e.g., jumping off the sofa) can cause a rupture, and the likelihood of the other knee failing in the future is high.

Prevention of ACL injuries is three-fold:

  • minimizing the amount of stress on the ligaments
  • keeping the ligaments strong and healthy
  • keeping the leg strong and healthy

Weight management and exercise

Extra pounds impose undue stress on your dog’s knees. Keeping your dog slim and trim will help prevent ACL injuries. Seriously. With every extra pound of fat, you’re that much closer to a ligament injury.

Keeping your dog in good physical condition will also help prevent injury to the crucial ligaments. Strong muscles help stabilize the knee and protect the ligaments. Sounds trivial? It is not.

If your dog is at risk of a cruciate ligament injury, encourage forms of exercise that don’t overstress the knees, such as swimming or leash walks on even surfaces that are not slippery. In addition, activities that involve lots of fast starts and stops and sharp turns (e.g., catching a frisbee) should be avoided.

Strong and healthy ligaments

A quality balanced diet is essential for your dog’s overall health, as well as for maintaining the strength of his ligaments.

Metabolic and endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism and immune-mediated diseases, have been linked as contributing factors to the degeneration of the crucial ligaments. In addition, other structural abnormalities affecting the knee, such as a luxating patella, also increase the risk of an ACL injury developing in the future.

Some studies have also linked early age spay/neuter to an increased risk of ACL ruptures later in life. Just like anything in medicine, spay/neuter has both pluses and minuses, and for the most part, the pluses outweigh the minuses… but in larger breeds, this is something to take into consideration.

Taking care of underlying conditions and keeping your dog slim and in good physical shape will minimize the risk of ACL injuries.

The twist

No organ is an island. Do you think the ligament is what the health of the knee hangs on? It sounds like it, but it is not so.

As it turns out, the cruciate ligament is more of a backup plan than what the knee’s stability hangs on. So even though the canine knee looks like nature screwed up, it didn’t screw up that badly.

Other structures ought to keep the knee functioning properly, including:

  • collateral ligaments
  • menisci
  • joint capsule
  • muscle and tendons

It takes many things to go wrong first before the cruciate ligament should even get the chance to rupture. Focusing too much on the ligament itself fails to find a real solution.

An example

My own Rottie was a good example. Her problems started with the iliopsoas injury first. She chased a squirrel and pulled her iliopsoas when making an incomplete jump over a fallen tree.

To allow her iliopsoas to heal, she was on severely restricted exercise for a long time. At the end of that period, her cruciate ligaments were in jeopardy. With the lack of activity, her muscles kept weakening. As a result, it took very little for her to injure her cruciate ligaments.

Further reading: Canine Cranial Cruciate Ligaments: Hanging by a Thread? Stabilizing Forces in the Canine Stifle

A new study and a bigger twist—dog knee injuries and core strength

It seems logical that the health of the legs reflects in the vulnerability of the cruciate ligament. However, what about the rest of the body? Could that matter?

According to a new study by Washington State University, it can.

While the study focused solely on dogs participating in canine agility, it makes sense that core strength might make a difference for any active dog.

Example exercises to improve core strength and prevent CCL injuries include:

  • balance exercises
  • wobble boards
  • other core strength exercises

Further reading: Canine Core Strengthening Exercises: Paring Down to the Canine Core
Strengthen your dog’s core muscles—16 exercises to strengthen your dog’s core

Other canine activities that lower the risk of CCL injuries include:

  • dock diving
  • barn hunt
  • scent work

Interestingly, the study didn’t find that playing fetch or frisbee contributed to higher risk even though you’d think so. However, the activities that did increase the odds of injury were weekly walks or runs—weekend warrior syndrome? Expectedly, though, flyball turned out the riskiest activity. I could never watch that without thinking busted knees, let alone ever engaging my dog in that sport.

Further consideations

The survey confirmed that early spay doubles the risk of cruciate tears later in life.

The breeds most at risk for CCL injuries were:

  • Australian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers with twice the rist
  • Rottweilers and Australian cattle dogs with more than four times the risk!

Larger dogs doing agility tend to be less balanced, so it is not surprising a Rottweiler or Australian Shepherd may be at a higher risk of a rupture compared to smaller breeds

Denis J. Marcellin-Little, Department of Surgical and Radiological Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA, USA

Further reading: Risk factors for cranial cruciate ligament rupture in dogs participating in canine agility

In closing

The more fit you can keep your dog, the lower their chance of injuries. Weekend warrior syndrome is never a good thing. Balance and core strength contribute to a positive outcome. And please, don’t spay your female dog too early.

Related articles:
Talk to Me About ACL Injuries
Preventing CCL/ACL Tears in Dogs: How to Keep Your Dog from Busting Their Cruciate Ligament

Further reading:
Protect Your Dog from Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries

Categories: CCL injuriesConditionsJoint issuesKnee issues

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

  1. FiveSibesMom

    Excellent article, as always, Jana. Having four out of five of my Huskies who had CCL injuries – two having double imbrication surgeries and long recovery, and two that were treated with Conservative Care, arthritis does indeed set in. But as you said, keeping them as healthy as possible with walking, exercise, supplements, laser, etc. I totally agree with the core strength. Pinning this to share with others!

  2. It seems that fitness and strength are important to every dog but to some dogs it is absolutely critical to avoid injury! Consistent more general more low level exercise in much more beneficial than a long walk and exercise once or twice a week (like people do when they suddenly go running on Sundays 😉 ) is my takeaway from your helpful post.

    This kind of thing seems so obvious when you write about it but so many people must have no idea until it’s too late!

  3. This is great information. While I would naturally know that it’s a good thing to keep my dog in shape and slim to protect form CCL issues, I wouldn’t know about how to strengthen the CCL. I also wouldn’t have thought that weekly walks and runs would increase the odds of having a CCL injury. Terrific information to prevent and strengthen the CCL.

    • Weekly walks have always been a problem. So much so that it earned a term–“weekend warrior syndrome.”

      The problem is that activity that infrequent is
      a) not enough to build and maintain strong muscle
      b) the pent-up energy leads to ever more vigorous activity when it is possible.

      Those two things combine to a high-risk scenario.

  4. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips and information. I don’t own a dog however, I was also surprised to learn that activities do increase the odds of injury include weekly walks or runs. I never would have guessed that. I also found it interesting that building core strength helps too. I’ll have to pin and share this post.

  5. I’ve read a lot about knee injuries in dogs, but not so much about ways to help prevent them. It was fascinating to see scent work listed as an activity that can lower the risk of CCL. I do scent work with both of my dogs, especially so with my senior. It’s such a great, low impact, activity to keep him active and mentally stimulated.

    • Interesting indeed. Core strength isn’t typically something one considers thinking about knee injuries; more likely to consider for protecting the spine. So pretty cool. Never hurts to have a strong core for both canines and humans.

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