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Knee Injuries in Dogs

Emergency & Critical Care

Knee Injuries in Dogs | Author: Dr. Cliff Redford, Veterinarian

Knee injuries can occur in dogs regardless of their age or fitness level. Dog owners will often discover this suddenly after their dog takes off to chase a rabbit, or simply goes out. An injured dog will return limping, holding up a rear leg and placing less weight on it. He or she may not cry out in pain from the injury. Other than the lameness, you may still find your pet doing well and happily wagging their tail. However, this is one injury you will want a vet to check out. Early diagnosis and treatment can help ward off a life-time of pain and suffering.

The Cranial Cruciate Ligaments

85% of all dogs with hind leg lameness have either torn or ruptured one of their cranial cruciate ligaments. These two ligaments sit behind the knee in a cross-pattern, hence the name, “cruciate”. Their structure is very similar to that in human knees. They connect the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (the shin bone) and form the main stabilizer for the knee joint in dogs, preventing unstable movements of the tibia in reference to the femur. An injury to these ligaments can also damage the meniscus, a layer of shock-absorbing cartilage that sits between the tibia and femur.

Dogs mostly injure their knees during athletic events like slips, falls or traumatic twists of the knee. However, overweight dogs can also experience degeneration of the ligaments over time from everyday wear and tear. Usually, partial tears will progress to full ruptures. And almost half of the dogs that present with cranial cruciate ligament injuries in one knee, will develop a similar problem in the other knee in the future.

Diagnosing Knee Injuries in Dogs

To confirm a cruciate ligament tear, we will ask you to bring your dog in for a check-up. After taking a full history, we will perform the physical examination to look for pain or resistance when bending your dog’s knee. We might detect swelling deep within the joint which feels like a thickened joint capsule. Clicking sounds from bending the knee can indicate meniscal tears.

Depending on the extent of the knee injury in your dog, we may have to perform a more in-depth orthopedic examination. These can be painful and, consequently, we will sedate your dog for that session. Once under, we will look for an instability called a drawer sign. We detect it by moving the tibia firmly forward while holding the femur in place. We will also radiograph the knee and hip to get a thorough picture of what is going on in the limb.

Surgery & Therapy for Knee Injuries in Dogs

Once diagnosed, we can advise you of the treatment options. Typically, a torn cranial cruciate ligament will require surgery. Without it, the knee injury in your dog has the potential to degenerate. Severe arthritis will eventually set in, keeping movement in the limb unstable and your dog may experience constant pain.

Following surgery, we will guide you with the physical therapy and exercise your dog will require to heal and prevent muscle atrophy. This can involve administering ice packs, massaging the large thigh muscles and controlled walking. We will prescribe a gradual increase in exercise to ensure the joint heals and the hind legs become strong and flexible.

In fact, a regular exercise routine along with a focus on maintaining a healthy body weight are, by far, the most effective ways to prevent knee injuries in dogs.


Dr. Cliff Redford, DVM, is an experienced veterinarian and owner/operator of the Wellington Veterinary Hospital in Markham Ontario. Fondly known as Dr. Cliff to his clients, he has tended to the wellness of pets and animals for over two decades. Hands-on experience in his clinic, combined with animal advocacy and rescue missions locally and across the globe, has allowed him to curate a vast body of knowledge on animal health and welfare, including preventative counselling, soft tissue surgery, advanced dental procedures, internal medicine and emergency care.

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