Treating a Dog’s Torn Ligament: Understanding the Options

Any time your dog is injured, it’s traumatic for you and stressful for your dog. What should you do first? How can you best help your dog? When a dog’s leg collapses underneath them and their leg is unable to support their weight … or your dog is showing signs of leg pain – it’s time to go to the veterinarian.

Signs of Canine Ligament Injuries

Signs from a canine ligament injury can be very similar to other leg injuries. Dogs with torn ligaments will show noticeable changes in their activity levels and mobility. They may become less active or seem reluctant to play. When dogs are in pain, they are less apt to exercise voluntarily and may sleep more. This is why pet parents must pay attention to behavioral changes and any change in sleep patterns. Sleep is not always just a sign of an older dog “slowing down”; it can also indicate a difference in its health or mobility. 

Signs of ligament damage include:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Visible swelling or bruising around the joint that is painful to touch
  • Visible limping
  • Inability to bear weight on the injured leg.

A dog that exhibits any signs of a leg injury should be examined by your veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment. These common symptoms of a ligament tear are very similar to any number of canine leg injuries. Only a veterinarian can help diagnose your pup and determine the medical care your dog needs. 

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Canine Ligament Tears: Choosing Surgery or a Conservative Approach

Deciding between surgery or a more conservative approach to fix your dog’s leg isn’t one that a pet parent can make. Both options have their benefits and drawbacks. Only a pet professional can decide on the best treatment plan for your dog or cat’s leg injury.

Surgical Repair

Surgery is often the best option to repair a dog’s torn ligament with a high probability of success. During surgery, the dog’s joint is stabilized, helping to avoid permanent damage, and relieve pain. Cruciate tears are the number one cause of hind leg weakness in dogs. A CCL tear is commonly treated with Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy (TPLO) surgery. The knee is stabilized through surgical repair, and the dog can usually walk on the repaired leg in just a few days.

Surgery is the most recommended solution in most cases, but not every pet is an ideal candidate. A dog’s age, overall health, and ability to recover all play a deciding factor in whether or not surgery is the right choice. Surgery can be expensive, but it is the preferred treatment option most of the time.

Dog Leg Braces or Orthosis

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An orthosis or custom-fitted leg brace provides joint support and stabilization exactly where your dog needs it. Even a small tear can be slow to heal and may have a months-long recovery time. A leg brace or support can be worn in cases of a partial ligament tear, or in cases where surgery is not recommended. This support helps protect the leg from sustaining further injury. A brace allows dogs to continue to move naturally and lessens leg pain while keeping your dog’s leg safely supported. After surgery, a leg brace may be used to stabilize the leg.

Just like surgery, a conservative management approach isn’t right for every dog or every injury. An orthotic could be used before surgery, as a part of post-operative care, or in cases where surgery isn’t an option. Talk to your veterinarian and ask if a brace or leg support would work for your best friend.

Canine Rehabilitation

Structured exercise and rehab therapy are a must for any injured dog. Canine rehabilitation is recommended for most dogs with torn ligaments. Rehabilitation may be incorporated in post-operative recovery, before surgery, and as a surgery alternative. Expect rehabilitation to be a part of your dog’s recovery and healing process.

During therapy, your dog works on improving the range of motion in the injured leg and increasing muscle strength to stabilize the joint.

Can a dog’s torn ligament heal on its own?

A dog can recover from a torn ligament to heal independently, without surgery. Immediate care and diagnosis are imperative to ensure that your dog is treated correctly. Only a veterinarian or canine orthopedic specialist can help determine whether your dog requires surgery, or the best treatment plan for your injured pup. Surgery alternatives for a CCL tear may include a combination of any of these treatment methods:

  • A dog leg brace or custom orthosis
  • Rehabilitation therapy and exercises
  • Medical management, including regular monitoring, medication, and supplements
  • Crate rest and limiting exercise

Yes, there are tools and therapies available to help a dog heal after a severe leg injury, but there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Your veterinarian will help you determine the right option for your dog and will make their decision based on the dog’s current health and the amount of damage to the leg. A dog’s recovery time will vary depending on the severity of the injury and the prescribed treatment plan. Although a dog can heal without surgery, many ligament tears will require surgical repair to heal correctly. Ligament repair surgery has a high level of success and recovery is often the best treatment option. 

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