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ACL Surgery and Red Light Therapy for Dogs

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

agility dog jumping over hurdle ACL health

As a dog owner, you're undoubtedly well-acquainted with the unpredictable nature of injuries and illnesses that can affect your furry companion. These unexpected health challenges can be both frustrating and financially burdensome. One common injury that plagues dogs is the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tear, a condition that often requires surgical intervention and can come with a hefty price tag ranging from $1500 to $4000. If you find yourself in the shoes of an anxious pet owner grappling with questions about your dog's recovery timeline and the cost of post-surgery physical therapy, take a deep breath. This blog aims to equip you with valuable insights into ACL surgery and explore alternative therapies that can aid in the rehabilitation process for your beloved four-legged friend. With the right knowledge and approach, you can help your furry companion on their journey to recovery, ensuring they regain their mobility and enjoy a healthier, happier life.

What is an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) in Dogs?

The term "ACL," which stands for Anterior Cruciate Ligament, is a familiar one to anyone with even a passing interest in sports medicine. But did you know that dogs have their own equivalent of this crucial ligament known as the Cranial Cruciate Ligament, or CCL? Much like the ACL in humans, the CCL plays a pivotal role in the stability of a dog's knee joint. It is a connective tissue band located in the middle of the knee, connecting the femur bone (thigh bone) with the tibia bone (shinbone).

The CCL, often referred to as the cranial cruciate ligament in dogs, serves as a weight-bearing structure when your canine companion stands, walks, runs, or plays. It is integral to the smooth functioning of their hind legs. However, just as in humans, injuries to this ligament can occur, resulting in a rupture or tear. When a dog experiences lameness in their hind legs, it may be an indication of such an injury, mirroring the way humans suffer from ACL ligament ruptures.

CCL injuries in dogs can stem from various causes, including their level of physical activity, age, breed, and the intensity of their activities. It's important to note that CCL injuries are among the most prevalent orthopedic issues faced by pet dogs, and understanding them is vital for providing proper care and support to your furry friend. In this blog, we will delve deeper into CCL injuries, their causes, treatment options, and what you can do to aid your dog's recovery and ensure their continued well-being.

What are the symptoms of CCL injuries in dogs?

anterior cruciate ligament injury

Detecting a CCL injury in your dog can be a challenging task, as dogs often try to conceal their discomfort. However, there are several key symptoms and signs to look out for:

  • Lameness and Inability to Bear Weight: One of the most prominent indicators of a CCL injury is lameness or limping in your dog's affected leg. They may be unable or reluctant to put weight on the injured limb. This change in gait can vary in severity, from subtle to severe.

  • Swelling on the Knee: Often, a noticeable swelling can develop on the inner side of the affected knee joint. This swelling may be accompanied by heat and tenderness in the area.

  • Drawer Sign: Veterinarians use a diagnostic technique known as the "drawer sign" to assess CCL injuries. If you stabilize the femur (thigh bone) and move the tibia (shinbone) forward or backward with ease, it can indicate a CCL injury. However, the absence of this sign does not rule out the possibility of an injury.

  • Stiffness: Dogs with CCL injuries may exhibit stiffness, particularly after exercise or periods of rest. They may appear to have difficulty getting up and moving around comfortably.

  • Difficulty Jumping and Raising Leg: Dogs with CCL injuries may struggle to perform actions they once did effortlessly, such as jumping onto furniture or raising their leg to urinate.

  • Limping and Lameness in Hind Legs: Lameness is a noticeable unevenness in gait, and dogs with CCL injuries may limp or appear to favor one leg over the other, especially after physical activity.

It's essential to recognize these signs promptly and seek veterinary care if you suspect a CCL injury. Early intervention and proper diagnosis are crucial for managing the condition effectively. It's also worth noting that if a dog experiences a CCL injury in one leg and doesn't receive appropriate treatment or activity modification, they are at a higher risk of injuring the other knee as well. Approximately 60% of dogs with a CCL injury in one leg go on to injure the opposite knee. Therefore, swift attention to symptoms and a comprehensive treatment plan are vital for your dog's long-term well-being.

Breeds at Risk of Torn CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament):

The susceptibility to CCL injuries in dogs varies among breeds, and several factors, including genetics and activity levels, contribute to this risk. Here are some breeds that are more commonly associated with a higher incidence of CCL injuries:

German Shepard dog high risk for CCL injuries
  • German Shepherds: German Shepherds are known for their agility and athleticism, but they are also among the breeds at a higher risk of CCL injuries.

  • Newfoundlands: These gentle giants are prone to CCL injuries, likely due to their large size and weight.

  • Rottweilers: Rottweilers, known for their strength and power, can be susceptible to CCL issues.

  • Golden Retrievers: Golden Retrievers are active dogs, and their propensity for physical activity may contribute to their risk of CCL injuries.

  • Labrador Retrievers: Labs, like Golden Retrievers, are active and energetic breeds, making them more susceptible to CCL problems.

It's important to note that while certain breeds may be predisposed to CCL injuries, these injuries can affect dogs of all breeds and sizes. In addition to genetics, other factors also play a significant role in a dog's risk of developing a torn CCL:

  • Activity Level: Dogs that engage in strenuous physical activities or those with high levels of energy may be more prone to CCL injuries.

  • Obesity: Overweight or obese dogs are at an increased risk of CCL problems. The extra weight places additional stress on their joints, making injuries more likely.

  • Neutering Age: Some studies suggest a potential link between early neutering (before 12 months of age) and an increased risk of CCL injuries later in a dog's life. This association underscores the importance of discussing the timing of neutering with your veterinarian.

Understanding your dog's breed-specific predispositions and taking steps to manage their weight, provide appropriate exercise, and discuss spaying/neutering decisions with your veterinarian can help reduce the risk of CCL injuries. Regular veterinary check-ups can also aid in the early detection of joint issues, allowing for timely intervention and treatment if needed.

Diagnosis of CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament) Injuries in Dogs

When your beloved canine companion is in pain, showing signs of lameness, or experiencing difficulty raising their leg, it's crucial to seek immediate veterinary attention. A qualified veterinarian will perform a comprehensive examination to diagnose a CCL injury and assess its severity. Here's a breakdown of the diagnostic steps involved:

  • Physical Examination: The diagnostic process begins with a thorough physical examination of your dog. The veterinarian will observe your dog's gait, range of motion in the affected leg, and any signs of pain or discomfort. They may gently manipulate the knee joint to assess its stability.

  • Medical History: Your veterinarian will inquire about your dog's medical history, including when you first noticed symptoms, the progression of lameness, and any recent injuries or incidents that may have contributed to the issue.

  • X-ray Imaging: X-rays are a valuable diagnostic tool for assessing the knee joint. They can reveal crucial information, such as the presence of fluid within the joint, signs of arthritis, and any potential fractures or bone abnormalities resulting from the CCL injury. X-rays help confirm the diagnosis and provide a comprehensive view of the joint's condition.

  • Drawer Sign Assessment: As mentioned earlier, the "drawer sign" is a diagnostic technique used by veterinarians to assess CCL injuries. By stabilizing the femur and manipulating the tibia, the veterinarian can evaluate the degree of joint instability, which is a strong indicator of a CCL tear.

  • Additional Diagnostic Tests: In some cases, additional diagnostic tests such as joint fluid analysis or advanced imaging techniques like MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans may be recommended to gain a more in-depth understanding of the injury's extent, especially if surgery is being considered.

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options with you. Depending on the severity of the CCL injury and your dog's individual circumstances, treatment may involve surgical intervention, conservative management (rest and rehabilitation), or a combination of both. Early and accurate diagnosis is crucial to determine the most appropriate course of action to help your furry friend regain mobility and alleviate pain.

Treatment Options for CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament) Injuries in Dogs

When it comes to addressing CCL injuries in dogs, there are several treatment options available, each with its own set of considerations. Understanding these options can help you make informed decisions about the best approach for your furry companion's specific needs. Here's a detailed look at the available treatments.

Surgical Procedures:

  • TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy): TPLO is a widely performed surgical technique for CCL repair. It involves reshaping the tibial plateau to reduce the need for the CCL, effectively stabilizing the knee joint. TPLO is particularly suitable for larger dogs and those with active lifestyles.

  • TTA (Tibial Tuberosity Advancement): TTA is another surgical method that alters the biomechanics of the knee joint. It involves repositioning the tibial tuberosity, which reduces stress on the damaged CCL. TTA is often recommended for dogs of various sizes.

  • Extracapsular Repair: This surgical approach involves placing an artificial ligament outside the joint capsule to stabilize the knee. It is a common choice for smaller dogs or those with specific health considerations.

Non-Surgical Approaches:

dog resting to prevent CCL surgery
  • Conservative Management: For dogs with mild CCL injuries or those who are not suitable candidates for surgery, conservative management is an option. It typically involves strict rest, limited physical activity, and pain management through medications. The aim is to allow the ligament to scar and stabilize the joint naturally.

  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy plays a pivotal role in both surgical and non-surgical CCL injury management. Therapeutic exercises can help improve muscle strength, joint flexibility, and overall mobility. This approach often includes underwater treadmill sessions, range-of-motion exercises, and balance training.

  • Braces or Orthotics: Custom-made knee braces or orthotic devices can provide additional support to the affected leg, reducing discomfort and aiding in the healing process. These devices are especially beneficial for dogs with partial CCL tears or those who are not surgical candidates.

  • Nutritional Supplements: Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin may be recommended to promote joint health and reduce the risk of arthritis development in the affected knee.

  • Red Light Therapy (Photobiomodulation): red light therapy is an emerging non-invasive treatment option for CCL injuries. It involves the use of low-level laser or LED light to stimulate cellular repair and reduce inflammation in the injured knee joint. This therapy can be a valuable addition to the recovery process, helping to alleviate pain and accelerate healing.

The choice of treatment depends on several factors, including the dog's size, age, activity level, overall health, and the extent of the CCL injury. Consultation with a veterinarian is essential to determine the most appropriate treatment plan. In some cases, a combination of surgical and non-surgical approaches may be recommended to optimize your dog's chances of a successful recovery and long-term joint health.

Recovery and Rehabilitation for CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament) Injuries in Dogs

The journey to recovery following a CCL injury in dogs is a critical phase that requires a combination of time, care, and targeted interventions. Whether your furry friend undergoes surgery or follows a conservative management plan, rehabilitation plays a pivotal role in helping them regain mobility, strength, and comfort. Here's an in-depth look at the recovery and rehabilitation process:

Rehabilitation Post-Surgery or During Conservative Management

  • Physical Therapy Exercises: Physical therapy is a cornerstone of the rehabilitation process. Specially designed exercises are employed to:

    • Strengthen the muscles around the affected joint, providing enhanced stability.

    • Improve range of motion, preventing stiffness and promoting joint health.

    • Enhance overall mobility and function.

    • Correct gait abnormalities that may have developed due to the injury.

  • Controlled Exercise: Controlled exercise is essential to prevent reinjury and support healing. Veterinarians often recommend:

    • Leash-walking to limit the dog's activity and reduce the risk of sudden movements.

    • Underwater treadmill sessions, which provide a low-impact way to rebuild strength and improve joint function.

    • Gradual increases in exercise intensity and duration as your dog's condition improves.

  • Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial during the recovery process. Excess weight places additional stress on the injured knee joint, slowing down healing and potentially increasing the risk of complications. A balanced diet and portion control are vital aspects of weight management.

Managing Pain and Discomfort

Pain management is a critical component of CCL injury treatment, ensuring your dog's comfort and well-being during recovery. Here are some essential considerations:

  • Medications: Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medications, anti-inflammatories, or joint supplements to alleviate discomfort, reduce inflammation, and support joint health. Follow your vet's instructions carefully when administering these medications.

  • Alternative Therapies: Complementary and alternative therapies can be valuable in managing pain and promoting healing. These may include:

    • Acupuncture/Acupressure: Acupuncture/acupressure sessions can help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and improve blood flow to the injured area.

    • Laser Therapy (Photobiomodulation): Low-level laser or LED light therapy can stimulate cellular repair, reduce pain, and enhance the healing process in the injured knee joint.

  • Monitoring: Regular check-ups with your veterinarian are essential during the recovery period. Your vet will assess your dog's progress, adjust the treatment plan as needed, and address any emerging issues promptly.

By actively participating in your dog's recovery, adhering to the prescribed rehabilitation plan, and diligently managing their pain, you can significantly contribute to their successful rehabilitation. The patience and care you provide during this time will play a pivotal role in helping your furry friend regain their mobility and enjoy a better quality of life.

How Red Light Therapy Helps CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament) Injuries and Recovery in Dogs

Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation therapy, is a non-invasive treatment that utilizes low-level laser or LED light to stimulate cellular repair and reduce inflammation. While it has been widely used in human medicine, it is gaining recognition as a beneficial therapy for dogs, particularly in the context of CCL injuries and recovery. Here's how red light therapy can assist in the management of CCL injuries:

dog receiving red light therapy for ACL surgery recovery in a park
  • Pain Relief: CCL injuries often come with pain and discomfort for dogs. Red light therapy has analgesic (pain-relieving) properties that can help alleviate pain associated with the injury. It does this by increasing the production of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

  • Reduced Inflammation: Inflammation is a common response to injury, and excessive inflammation can delay the healing process and contribute to discomfort. Red light therapy can modulate the inflammatory response, reducing swelling and promoting a more balanced healing environment.

  • Accelerated Healing: Red light therapy enhances cellular function by increasing the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is essential for cellular energy and repair. This can expedite the healing of damaged ligaments and tissues, aiding in the recovery process.

  • Improved Blood Flow: Enhanced blood circulation is a key benefit of red light therapy. Improved blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to the injured area, helping to nourish tissues and remove waste products more efficiently.

  • Stimulated Collagen Production: Collagen is a crucial component of ligaments and tendons. Red light therapy can stimulate collagen production, aiding in the repair and strengthening of the injured CCL.

  • Non-Invasive and Painless: Red light therapy is non-invasive and painless for dogs. They typically tolerate the treatment well and may even find it soothing.

  • Complementary to Other Treatments: Red light therapy can complement other treatment modalities, such as surgery, physical therapy, and medications, to provide a comprehensive approach to CCL injury management.

Below, recoery photos from TPLO surgery using Red Light Therapy

This is Oakley after his TPLO surgery on January 12th. Oakley's owner used the red light therapy wrap 2-3 times a day for about 20 minutes each time. The description of each photo starts clockwise from top left.

dog tplo surgery recovery sutures
  • January 14th - this is day two of red light therapy. The first day (Jan. 13th) of red light was done over the bandages.

  • January 16th - a lot of the redness and swelling has gone down and only 4 days of red light therapy. His hair is starting to come back.

  • January 19th - the hair is growing back and the incision site is healing up!! We can see the redness is gone and minimal swelling.

  • January 25th - the stitches came out a day early of the recommended 14 days. This is the 13th day after surgery and the 12th day of red light therapy. The hair is coming in very well, the scar is flat and not protruding. It’s light pink and beautiful!

Tailored Red Light Therapy Sessions and Rentals by Poll to Pastern

At Poll to Pastern, we understand that every dog's journey to recovery from a CCL injury is unique. That's why we offer specialized in-home sessions tailored to your furry companion's specific needs, ensuring the most effective and compassionate care possible.

Our In-Home Tailored Sessions:

  • Our experienced professionals provide in-home red light therapy sessions designed to address your dog's CCL injury and promote optimal healing.

  • Each session typically lasts around an hour, during which we focus on the targeted application of red light therapy to the affected area.

  • We also incorporate acupressure point work using the healing power of light therapy, a technique known as photopuncture, to enhance overall wellness and balance.

Red Light Therapy Pad Rentals:

  • In addition to our tailored in-home sessions, we offer convenient red light therapy pad rentals designed for post-surgery recovery. These pads are user-friendly and safe for owners to use between sessions, allowing for continuous healing benefits.

  • You can rent the red light therapy pad and use it up to three times a day, ensuring your furry friend receives the full advantages of red light therapy while recovering from their CCL injury.

Benefits of Poll to Pastern's Approach:

  • Customized Care: Our team takes the time to understand your dog's unique condition, tailoring each session to address their specific needs and stage of recovery.

  • Comfort and Convenience: In-home sessions provide a comfortable and stress-free environment for your dog, minimizing travel-related anxiety.

  • Continuous Healing: With the option to rent a red light therapy pad, you can extend the benefits of therapy beyond our sessions, promoting consistent healing and pain relief.

  • Holistic Wellness: Our use of acupressure point work and photopuncture adds a holistic dimension to your dog's recovery, supporting their overall well-being.

At Poll to Pastern, our mission is to support your dog's journey to recovery with compassionate, evidence-based therapies. We're dedicated to helping your furry companion regain their mobility, alleviate discomfort, and enjoy a better quality of life.

If you're interested in our tailored red light therapy sessions or red light therapy pad rentals for your dog's post-surgery recovery, please don't hesitate to reach out. We're here to provide the care and support your beloved pet deserves during this crucial time.

Preventative Measures for CCL (Cranial Cruciate Ligament) Injuries in Dogs

Preventing CCL injuries in dogs is not always possible, but there are several proactive measures you can take to reduce the risk and promote overall joint health. These preventative measures are especially important for breeds that are predisposed to CCL issues or for dogs with a history of such injuries. Here's a closer look at strategies to help safeguard your canine companion's knee joints:

puppy sitting on floor licking his nose
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: One of the most effective ways to prevent CCL injuries is by keeping your dog at a healthy weight. Excess weight places unnecessary strain on the knee joints, increasing the risk of ligament damage. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the ideal weight for your dog's breed and size, and establish a balanced diet and portion control plan accordingly.

  • Regular Exercise: Provide your dog with regular, moderate exercise to maintain muscle strength and joint flexibility. Avoid sudden bursts of high-intensity activity, as they can stress the knee joints. Tailor exercise routines to your dog's age, breed, and individual needs.

  • Avoid High-Impact Activities: Limit activities that involve jumping or quick direction changes, especially for dogs prone to CCL injuries. These actions can place excessive strain on the ligaments. Instead, encourage low-impact activities like swimming, which provide exercise without stressing the joints.

  • Joint Supplements: Consider providing joint supplements containing ingredients like glucosamine and chondroitin. These supplements can support joint health and reduce the risk of ligament damage. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the most suitable supplement for your dog.

  • Regular Veterinary Check-Ups: Schedule routine check-ups with your veterinarian, especially as your dog ages. Regular examinations can help detect early signs of joint issues or arthritis, allowing for timely intervention and preventative measures.

  • Discuss Neutering Timing: If your dog is not spayed or neutered, discuss the timing of the procedure with your veterinarian. Some studies suggest a potential link between early neutering (before 12 months of age) and an increased risk of CCL injuries later in life.

  • Environmental Modifications: Make your home environment safer for your dog. Remove hazards that could lead to slips and falls, and provide non-slip mats on slippery surfaces. Consider using ramps or steps to help your dog access elevated areas.

  • Quality Nutrition: Feed your dog a high-quality diet that supports overall health and joint function. Consult with your veterinarian to choose a diet that meets your dog's specific needs.

  • Educate Yourself: Learn about the breed-specific risks of CCL injuries if you have a breed predisposed to such issues. Understanding your dog's unique vulnerabilities can help you make informed choices regarding their care and activities.

  • Proper Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Prior to vigorous exercise or play, engage in a warm-up routine with your dog to prepare their muscles and joints. After activity, allow for a gradual cool-down period to prevent stiffness and injury.

By implementing these preventative measures and staying attentive to your dog's health and well-being, you can significantly reduce the risk of CCL injuries and contribute to their long-term joint health and mobility.

dog running in yard chasing a ball doesn't have CCL issues


vet portrait

Dr. Saba Afzal, DVM, UVAS Lahore, Pakistan. I am a professional and qualified veterinarian and deal with pets on a daily basis. Writing is my passion. I love to play with words to write about pets, especially dogs and cats.

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