Is Your Dog Limping After ACL Surgery?

Is your dog limping after acl surgery? This post is designed to help you understand exactly what happens when a dog tears his or her anterior cruciate ligament.  Is your dog limping after ACL surgery? Generally, it’s nothing to worry about. Dogs, like people, heal at a difference pace. 

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It’s normal for dogs to limp a little for as long as six to eight weeks after having ACL surgery.   There will be swelling around the knee (stifle), tenderness, and a natural reluctance to put weight on the affected knee.  

There are a few types of ACL surgery for dogs, each with its own pros and cons. This post will cover them all in detail. In addition, you’ll read about post-operative recovery time, what you can do at home to help your dog, the cost of acl surgery for dogs, and how to heal a torn dog acl without surgery. 

Is Your Dog Limping After ACL Surgery?

It’s quite normal to see a dog limping after acl surgery. In fact, you can expect to see your dog limping after ACL surgery for as long as six to eight weeks.  The length of time it takes to heal varies from dog to dog. 

During the first week after surgery, the only exercise your dog should be getting is a short walk to use the bathroom. In the second week, the stitches come off but it’s still important to keep your dog as calm as possible. 

Some veterinarians recommend leashing your dog to your waist while you’re at home. That way, if there is a sudden noise or company at the door, your dog doesn’t have a chance to react with a lunge or a jump.

If your dog is limping after ACL surgery, consider it normal. However, if weeks go by and you don’t see any improvement, make sure to contact your veterinarian or bring it up at the next postoperative visit.

There will be check up appointments with the veterinarian after the first and second week, and then at four, six, and eight weeks.  There might be a little clear discharge tinged with blood for a few days right after the surgery, but this is normal. 

If the discharge changes color, persists, develops a foul odor, or appears red inflamed, your dog could have an infection (although this is rare).

Why do Dogs Get Torn ACL’s?

Torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) are very common in dogs and account for about 85% of clinical presentations. 

Most people think that dogs get torn ACL’s as a direct result of active play or exercise.  However, in a lot of cases, the activity is simply the “last straw” for the weakened ligament. 

Dogs, like us, can develop osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that wears away cartilage from the stifle joint (knee).   I complain a lot about the painful arthritis in my hands, but dogs have more class. They don’t complain and you can’t tell what’s happening under the skin.  Sometimes there are no signs or symptoms (like stiffness after being at rest) to alert the dog owner that anything is wrong.  Most times, however, your dog will be limping. 

As the cartilage wears away, the ligaments lose their integrity and weaken.  And then it happens. You’re having a normal day walking your dog and the next thing you know, he or she is limping.  It can happen when the dog jumps up to greet you, plays with other dogs, or stops and starts suddenly. 

How Can I Tell if My Dog has a Torn ACL?

The first sign of a complete or partial tear is limping.  The first place most people look for signs of trauma are the paws. If you don’t find anything wrong on the paw, have a look at the knee joint.  The joint might not look any different right after the injury. If you suspect a torn ACL, you can do one or two tests:

Tibial Compression Test

For this, you need to place one palm just above the knee joint and the other hand at the base of the leg (above the paw).  Without pushing down or applying too much pressure, gently try to pull the bottom half of the leg (tibia) forward.  A healthy joint won’t allow this to happen. Watch to see if your fingers that are resting at the top of the knee joint actually lift a little bit. 

Cranial Drawer Test

This test involves grasping just above the dog’s stifle joint (knee) with one hand, while grasping just below the knee joint with the other. You will have your thumbs anchored on the back of the dog’s knee. Again, gently try to pull the tibia forward. If it moves, there’s an injury that needs to be seen. 

The two tests noted above are easier explained than done. The reality is, your dog will probably be in pain. I don’t know about you, but if I twist my knee I definitely don’t want anybody fooling around with it.  I have an older dog who limps from time to time, but it’s always a “walk it off” situation. He might be stiff after sleeping or his paws are a little sore. The point is, the limping goes away pretty quickly. If your dog is still limping at the end of the day, you should bring him in.

Types of ACL Surgery for Dogs

When a dog presents with a torn ACL, it’s known as a cranial cruciate ligament rupture (CCLR).  The reason for the rupture, as stated above, is often related to arthritis.  The largest population of dogs with torn ACL’s are between the ages of three and six years old. However, it can happen to any dog, and at any age.

Lateral Suture Surgery

This type of surgery has been going on for many years. It is less expensive than the other two options (pro), but doesn’t prevent the ligament from rupturing again in the future (con).  Lateral suture surgery is less invasive than the other two types of surgery and can be used for partial or complete tears. 

For this surgery, a hold is drilled into the tibia bone, just below the kneecap.  Then, a strong monofilament suture is woven in and around the joint that holds the femur and tibia bones together. This simulates a working healthy ligament by keeping a normal range of motion from the knee joint.

While lateral suture surgery is being performed, the doctor will check to see if the meniscus is also torn. The meniscus is the cartilage cushion (or connective tissue) that sits tucked between the bones.  If there is a tear, the doctor might perform a meniscus release by cutting a small piece. In theory, this is supposed to allow for more flexion and prevent an already weakened meniscus from tearing completely.

PROS OF LATERAL SUTURE SURGERY:  Less expensive than other surgeries. 

CONS OF LATERAL SUTURE SURGERY:  Not ideal for large, active dogs.  

Dr. Tibor Lazar does an amazing job of explaining the tibial tuberosity advancement surgery. Do yourself a favor and watch!

Tibial Tuberosity Advancement (TBA surgery) 

This type of surgery costs more but is considered a better long-term solution.  If your dog has degenerative joint disease like arthritis, there’s a 50% chance that he or she will tear the other ACL eventually. Of course, your veterinarian wouldn’t recommend TTA surgery as a preventative, but it’s good to know that once a ligament is repaired through this technique, there’s no chance of the ligament rupturing again.

For this, the tibial bone is cut at the tibial tuberosity (the area just under the knee, at the top of the shin) so that its position can be changed. The surgeon will adjust the tibia bone so that it can’t grind against the femur bone.  Essentially, the surgeon lifts it a bit and inserts a titanium cage under it to keep it in place.  

Some surgeons will perform a medial meniscus release during this surgery. The meniscus is the cartilage cushion that sits between the bones. The procedure, which involves placing a small cut in the meniscus tissue, is thought to be a good way to prevent damage in the future.  The problem with NOT performing the meniscus release is the chance of your dog rupturing it in the future.  If that happens, the only option will be to undergo surgery again. 

PROS OF TTA SURGERY:  Long-term solution that works best on dogs over 50 pounds. 

CONS OF TTA SURGERYMore expensive and, although rare, plates, screws, and the plate used can break.

I love this video. It’s really easy to understand and informative.  Have a look!

Tibial Plateau-leveling Osteotomy

With this surgery, the bone is cut and the tibial plateau (the upper part of the shin bone) is actually rotated.  This procedure completely alters the way the knee works. It provides stability while taking the need for a ligament totally out of the picture. 

The difference between TTA and TPLO surgeries have to do with the way the bone is handled (cut versus cut and rotated). With TTA surgery, the idea is to replace the need for a natural ligament by securing the stifle joint (knee joint) within a titanium cage.  TPLO surgery does the same thing in a slightly different way.  In both cases, the knee is stabilized using implants.  Expect to see your dog limping after acl surgery, especially the more invasive surgeries like TTA or TPLO.

PROS OF TPLO SURGERY:  Excellent long term solution with a less than 5% complication rate.

CONS OF TPLO SURGERY:  Risk of infection rises when implants are used for orthopedic surgery. Expensive.

How A Dog’s Knee Joint Works

Essentially, the knee joint (stifle) stays in place through a complicated joint and bone structure.  A dog’s stifle joint operates under the same mechanics as a human knee. The knee joint joins three other bones together. They are the femur, patella, and tibia.  In addition, there are three smaller joints inside and these consist of the femoropatellar joint, medial femorotibial joint, and lateral femorotibial joint.

That whole system is held in place by very strong ligaments (think of them as tough exercise bands). The cranial cruciate ligament keeps the knee from going wonky and stops it from over-flexing in any given direction. 

That’s a pretty rudimentary explanation, but you get the idea. Any weakening to that ligament can result in a complete acl tear. Suddenly, your dog’s knee has nothing to keep it in place. Movement aggravates the condition and results in bone-to-bone connection which is extremely painful. 

What is the Dog ACL Surgery Recovery Time?

You will notice your dog limping after ACL surgery, which is normal and disappears over time.  The overall dog acl surgery recovery time depends on the dog, but usually takes (at minimum) 3 to 6 months.  That doesn’t mean your dog’s exercise needs to be restricted for that long, it just means that it takes a while for lost muscle-mass and strength to rebuilt.  That said, it also depends on the size, age, and general health of your dog in the first place.

You can expect the normal recovery process to look like this:

Pre-Surgery:  A licensed veterinarian will assess  your dog’s injuries through x-ray analysis. Depending on the type of surgery being performed, he/she may need to ensure detailed measurements of the stifle joint are taken.  This is really important in TTA and TPLO acl surgeries because the steel/titanium implants are made to fit the dog. 

During Surgery:  A licensed veterinary technician (the equivalent of a Registered Nurse) may be present, along with other licensed professionals, to monitor your dog’s vitals.   

Postoperative ACL Surgery: This is the information that’s most important to you, the dog owner. At this stage, it’s up to you to make sure your dog’s exercise is restricted.  In the first week, the only “exercise” your dog should get is to go outside to the bathroom.  Is your dog limping after acl surgery? That’s normal.  In fact, it could take up to 6 weeks or longer for the limp to disappear. 

Don’t expect too much from your dog after acl surgery. It’s going to take time to recover. Expect to see your dog limping after acl surgery.

In fact, the success of the surgery largely depends on how well you’re able to immobilize your dog and for how long.  You will have to do some passive stretching on your dog (gently move the joint around while the dog is resting) and may want to consider rehabilitation therapy. 

After surgery, you’ll be given an antibiotic to prevent infection (standard procedure) along with an anti-inflammatory for pain control. 

How Much is ACL Surgery for a Dog?

This is always a difficult question to answer with direct certainty.  Prices vary depending on where you live, the surgeon used and even the clinic. However, the following figures should give you an idea.

Lateral Suture = $1000 to $2000

TPLO = $3000 to $4000 or more depending on the size of the dog, implants, etc. 

TTA =  $2000 – $3000 depending on the facility.

Dog ACL Surgery Alternatives 

The only other option to treat a torn acl in dogs is through surgery or rest.  Unfortunately, the cost of surgery is often too high for the average dog owner. For that reason, non-surgical procedures are preferred.  

Dr. Andrew Jones really explains alternatives to acl surgery perfectly in this video.

If you didn’t take some time to watch the video above, it’s not too late to go back. Dr. Jones has a very easy-to-understand approach and discusses your best acl surgery options.  In the video above, Dr. Jones talks about the need for scar-tissue to develop around the stifle joint. Once scar tissue is present, it acts as a natural stabilizer to hold the knee in place. 

A lot of healing has to take place before that happens, however. That means strictly restricted activity for at least eight weeks. You will need to keep your dog crated when you’re not home. When you are at home, you will have to ensure your dog doesn’t suddenly jump, lunge, or run.  If your dog is anything like mine, he/she will jump with excitement when I get home from work or run to the door when someone knocks. 

In order to allow that scar tissue to develop, you will have to keep your dog as still as possible. It’s not an easy thing to do!  One excellent suggestion to consider is getting a professional quality dog brace for acl.  With a brace over the knee, there’s less chance of your dog accidentally over-straining the injury again. 

In the video, Dr. Jones mentions a few dog braces including ones found at orthodog.com and the A-Trac Dynamic Brace.  These braces are not cheap, but likely a lot less expensive than full surgery.  When purchasing professional grade braces, you will have to get precise measurements of your dog’s stifle joint from a veterinarian.  This is so that the company can custom-fit the device. Having a custom fit dog knee brace is ideal, because it ensures proper alignment when bones are healing. 

A dog limping after acl surgery is going to recover from that limp in less time if he/she has surgery. However, given the cost, it’s certainly understandable why people would choose non-surgical options.

To Sum It All Up

A dog limping after acl surgery is normal and take months to fully resolve.  The longer your dog is able to remain inactive, the quicker the results. It’s important for bones and joints to heal properly; however, the risk of future degenerative joint disease like osteoarthritis is higher in dogs who’ve had torn acls.

The three types of acl surgery commonly performed on dogs include the less expensive lateral suture, and the more expensive and invasive tibial tuberosity advancement and tibial plateau levelling osteotomy.  Large dogs benefit from either the TTA or the TPLO because the chances of injuring that joint again in the future are practically non-existent. There is, however, the possibility of implant break-down over time. Although rare, steel implants can break down and require further surgery. Again, this isn’t a common occurrence, but it’s important to know that it can happen. 

Non-surgical acl options include complete rest, rehabilitation exercises, and professionally fitted braces for stifle joint stability. 

I want to thank you for taking the time to read this post.  Did you know that 85% of orthopedic surgery in dogs is for acl tears? Now that I’ve answered your question,”Is your dog limping after acl surgery,” why not take a second to share, post, or tweet?   I’m not a veterinarian, but I have done a fair bit of research on this.  Please let me know if you have any questions or if you believe there is an error.  I can be reached directly at latheriault@hugspetproducts.com.

Is your dog limping after acl surgery?

Image of a torn acl in a dog

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About Lisa Theriault

Lisa Theriault wants you to know right up front that she is not a veterinarian. None of the articles/posts on this website are meant to take the place of veterinarian care.That said, Lisa has had a lifetime of experience dealing with dogs and plans on further education on dog anatomy and canine massage. In the meantime, Lisa's posts are all professionally researched and carefully crafted. The last thing she wants is to do or say anything that would hurt your dog.Stay tuned for more updates to Lisa's bio.