Preventing CCL/ACL Tears in Dogs: How to Keep Your Dog from Busting Their Cruciate Ligament

Among the most frequent injuries and causes of hind limb lameness in dogs are cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tears, also referred to as ruptures.

These occur in the hind limb, at the knee (stifle joint).

Preventing CCL/ACL Tears in Dogs: How to Keep Your Dog from Busting Their Cruciate Ligament

I am frequently contacted to provide consultation services and treatment for CCL tears, both partial and full.

Is there a way to prevent CCL/ACL tears in dogs?

The CCL, correlating to the ACL in humans, tears most often from repeated movements and excessive stress on the stifle joints.

These tears are usually slow and gradual, where the ligament starts to degrade and eventually, if not treated, ruptures completely. Once the stability of the CCL becomes compromised, the stifle joint is lax and knee cartilage can also tear or degenerate.

The first outward sign is decreased weight bearing/lameness on the affected limb.

Inflammation, painful motion, loss of strength and functional decline follow next. Some purebred dogs are more prone to cruciate injuries, such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers, GSDs, Newfoundlands, and Rottweilers.

It is prudent to identify which breeds are at risk and follow preventative practices.

Breeders can play a big role in prevention, by tracking the incidence of CCL tears in their offspring lines and using responsible techniques to ensure the health of future generations. While breeders essentially hold control of genetic lines, there are ways the average pet owner can help prevent the likelihood of CCL tears.

Top 10 tips to preventing CCL/ACL tears in dogs

1. Achieve and maintain proper body weight
2. Avoid having your dog jump on and off furniture or out of trucks or SUVs

Keep in mind that jumping down/landing holds a higher risk for ligament rupture than climbing up.

3. Consider proactive laser treatments for breeds at high risk for CCL tear
4. Avoid having your dog run on wet grass, ice, or other slippery surfaces such as backyard decks with composite floors

Wooden deck floors are less slippery, unless they become dirty or covered with mold. It is important to understand that slippage on these surfaces causes horizontal translatory shearing force which the cruciate is very susceptible to, because of the anatomical angle at which it attaches to the tibia and femur in quadruped animals.

5. Before letting your ‘at risk’ dog leap and play on safe surfaces, have them warm-up just like an athlete

A warm-up example: slow controlled leash walks with gradual increasing speed, inserting mini intervals of ‘burst’ movement, ending with moderate walking speed, total duration of 6-12 minutes (multiples of three work well).

6. Keep the buttock and hamstring muscles strong

Such as via tunneling (dog walking through a round tunnel, under a table or low ceiling causing the hip and knee joints to bend during the movement); retro steps (holding a treat under the dog’s chin and walking toward the dog, encouraging them to step backwards); sit to stand exercises: starting position with the dog’s rump backed into a corner.

7. De-load the hind limb joints

You can do that by placing the dog over a physio ball (have a physical therapist advise you of the correct size) or over a stack of pillows or blankets. This can be performed several times per week, for 2-3 minutes duration.

8. Reduce the use of stairs if possible, and minimize slippage on stairs by use of carpet or anti-skid pads
9. Avoid repetitive ‘twist and turn’ activity

If your at-risk dog loves it, allow them to navigate cones or low hurdles in a controlled manner, using a lead attached to a chest harness. Be aware of the escape artist and prevent this dog from getting loose, running and chasing.

10. Prime and lubricate the joints with a prophylactic range of motion exercises

Flexion and extension of the stifles, instructed by your veterinarian or physical therapist. The job of ligaments is to control motion at the joint and provide stability. Thus, keeping the articulating joint surfaces healthy reduces the workload on the cruciate ligament.

If one CCL tears can the other side be prevented from tearing as well?

Statistics are quite high in regards to ‘other side’ tears, but with increased access to canine physical therapy and rehabilitation, I hope to see those figures reduce in a few years.

One of the best ways to avoid a tear in the sound limb is early post-op rehab treatment in the torn side. This will reduce pain, promote motion and encourage early weight bearing on the operated side and reduce overuse of the sound side. Timing is critical, so plan to start PT early.

Related articles:
Talk to Me about CCL Injuries

Further reading:
Protect Your Dog from Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries

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