Causes of CCL Injuries
The stifle joint of the dog is especially vulnerable to injury, because it has no interlocking bones to provide structural support. Instead, a dog’s stifle, or knee joint (in its hind legs), depends upon a meshwork of ligaments and muscles for stability. The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) provides most of this support for the stifle and, when partially torn or completely ruptured, leaves only the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the stifle to hold the stifle joint in place. The cranial cruciate ligament in dogs is called the anterior cruciate ligament in people. The CCL can be damaged from acute trauma or from chronic repetitive injury. Most acute (sudden) CCL injuries in dogs happen during strenuous or exuberant athletic activities, such as romping, roughhousing, running, hunting, playing, chasing, jumping or engaging in other enthusiastic antics. Owners often report that their dog suddenly stumbled, possibly yelped and then “came up lame,” or held its rear leg up at an exaggerated angle.
The affected ligament probably experienced excessive wear and tear well before observable signs of damage became apparent. Chronic damage develops slowly over time and can be caused by poor neuromuscular coordination, conformational abnormalities or poor muscle tone. Obesity certainly can contribute to chronic ligament damage as well, because it puts abnormal stress and weight on the stifle joint.
Prevention of CCL Injuries
Unfortunately, there is no fool-proof way to prevent stifle injuries in dogs, other than keeping them from playing and running around exuberantly, which is not a good option. Conditioning seems to be the best approach. Dogs that are in poor physical condition are at the greatest risk of injuring their CCL, while healthy, well-conditioned dogs are better able to avoid injuries, because their stifles are protected from outside stressors by strong surrounding musculature. Owners should keep their dogs on a high-quality diet and give them regular, moderate exercise. After a period of inactivity, a dog should not be asked to engage in rigorous physical activities all of a sudden. He should be allowed to gradually work up to a point where vigorous activities are enjoyable and not overly stressing. Finally, dogs with conformational abnormalities in their rear legs that predispose them to CCL injuries probably should be spayed or neutered and not bred. This is something best discussed with the dog’s breeder and its attending veterinarian.
Helping a Dog Cope with a CCL Injury
Most dogs with CCL injuries require 8 to 12 weeks of restricted activity following surgical correction. It is difficult to keep playful and energetic dogs quiet for that long of a period of time, but owners need to be diligent about helping their dogs maintain a low level of activity. Restricted activities are especially important during the first few weeks of recovery post-operatively. Owners should physically help their dog during this time to get up and down, and to walk outside to go potty. The dog should have a very soft, large, comfortable bed to rest on, and food and water dishes should be placed close to the dog’s bed for ease of access at all times.
As a dog recovers from CCL injuries and surgery, low-impact therapies such as swimming and moderate amounts of walking may be recommended by the veterinarian. To help their dog recover, pet owners will need to take the extra time to help their dog through these therapies. Most dogs adore this extra attention.
It can be hard to keep dogs from gaining weight when they are on restricted activity levels. However, it is important for dogs with stifle injuries to maintain normal, and not excessive, weight, to prevent repeated CCL injuries. Overweight dogs should be placed on a strict diet. Dogs that are not overweight, but are recovering from a CCL injury, should have their weight closely monitored. In many cases, dogs that are recovering from CCL injuries eventually need to be placed on a low calorie diet.