Ask the Dogtor, I: Treatment Options for Strained Knee Ligaments

Written by: Dr. Bo Bergman, DVM

A torn or ruptured knee ligament can affect a dog’s mobility and cause varying levels of pain.
Photo via

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Bo Bergman—a.k.a. “the Dogtor”—has graciously agreed to answer questions about dog health and care from Orvis Dogs readers. If you have a question for the Dogtor, leave it in the comments section below. Click here to read his introductory post.]

Last week, Bill asked about treatment options for his dog with a strained “ACL.” Most people have likely heard of athletes tearing or rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in their knee, and the same thing can happen in dogs (and cats)—only we call it the cranial cruciate ligament. The cruciate ligament helps to stabilize the knee, and its rupture or tear can cause instability and inflammation. Such an injury not only limits mobility, but it’s also painful!

Every cruciate injury presents with a variety of factors to consider before selecting which treatment is best for you and your pet. I always remind clients that this is not a life-threatening issue—it’s a quality-of-life issue. Surgery is often the best treatment for an unstable knee to get the dog back to normal function. Non-surgical options include:

  • weight loss

  • rest

  • anti-inflammatory drugs

  • physical therapy

  • therapeutic options, such as therapeutic laser treatments and stem-cell therapy (both of which we use often at West Mountain Animal Hospital)

Any of the aforementioned options might work well in certain scenarios, but you’ll have to consider the age of the dog, its level of activity, your finances, or any concurrent diseases the dog may suffer from.

Pain Management

Determining how much pain your pet is in can be a challenge. We can’t ask them to describe how they feel, but we can make reasonable assumptions based on careful observation.  For example, watch for any of the following and  your veterinarian what you see:

  • Is the pet limping?

  • Can it climb the stairs?

  • Can it jump into the car normally?

  • Does it put full weight on a particular limb?

When choosing a treatment, I also encourage clients to use foresight—the more inflammation, the more likely arthritis will develop in the future. I always warn clients that 30-50% of patients will tear the ligament in the opposite knee. Maybe the pet can get around by limping on one leg, but can it limp on two hind legs?

Bill has a 13-year-old dog who sometimes holds up the leg with the strained cruciate. Choosing the best treatment depends on what her lifestyle is. Does he want her taking long hikes, chasing after frisbees, doing agility competitions? If so, it might push the scales towards surgery. But if she’s content being a house dog, rest and physical therapy might be the best options. A glucosamine joint supplement and a veterinary prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory often help as well.

Knee braces for dogs are fairly new to the market, and the jury is still out on their effectiveness.
Photo via

Want other options? Take a look at the football games on Thanksgiving Day and count the number of knee braces you see. Dog-knee braces are newer in the veterinary world and have potential to help, but there’s not much proof from the scientific world yet. That said, we have used custom-fit braces in our clinic in a few cases with some benefit, but unfortunately it’s not as easy as putting an Ace bandage on. Often it requires sedating the dog and building a cast molding to to ensure that the brace fits properly.

My hope is this has helped shed light on the world of cruciate disease in dogs. For more specific information, I like this handout from the Colorado Veterinary School. And remember that your personal veterinarian will know you and your pet best!

Dr. Bo Bergman, DVM, is a graduate of NC State University College of Veterinary Medicine and works at West Mountain Animal Hospital in Vermont.

7 thoughts on “Ask the Dogtor, I: Treatment Options for Strained Knee Ligaments

  1. Audrey

    Thank you for highlighting non-surgical options for canine cruciate ligaments. When this happened to my dog, I got enormous pressure from my vet to have the surgery. He didn’t even have a complete tear! I just thought there had to be a better way to manage this injury that didn’t involve going under the knife. I used a brace from Woundwear and put my dog on a diet (he had put on some pounds as he got older and became lazier). Anyway, I’d say “the jury is in” about the effectiveness of these types of braces and I’d definitely recommend it!

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