The most common joint injury in dogs, and what you can do to prevent it - Dr. Marty Becker

The most common joint injury in dogs, and what you can do to prevent it

Thursday, Feb 23rd, 2017 | By Dr. Marty Becker

I travel a lot, and often see a Flabrador Retriever playing a vigorous game of fetch with their highly-motivated owner.

People take the Chuck-It and throw the tennis ball across the ditch, over the stream, and into the bushes, where the corpulent canine’s exquisite nose will sniff it out, after which he’ll grab it, swim back across the stream, and jump over the ditch back to mom or dad.

Over and over the ball is thrown and the dog retrieves it…until the doesn’t. Literally dozens of times over the past 40 years, I’ve witnessed the exact moment when a dog blew out his anterior cruciate ligament; I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of them in the eight veterinary practices I’ve owned or worked at.

This is especially a problem for dogs who are overweight or obese and are being asked to do extreme acts of athleticism. The anterior cruciate (cruciate means cross; along with the posterior cruciate ligament, they keep the dog’s knee stable) is a key ligament that can be partially or completely torn, which can also result in more damage to ligaments, joint surfaces, and other supporting structures of the joint.

The tear typically occurs when a dog jumps over something, lands funny, or turns quickly, cries out in pain, turns to look at or lick the joint, and limps. Don’t ignore these signs! Take the dog to the veterinarian, where they will perform several diagnostic tests including:

1. Drawer movement. The vet will take the end of the femur in one hand and the head of the tibia in the other, and see if they can move the tibia forward. If it moves, it’s called drawer movement, and means that the anterior cruciate ligament is torn.

2. Radiographs. Although these don’t show torn ligaments, they sometimes show a displaced joint or swelling of the joint capsule. Many specialty practices do MRIs or CAT scans, which show ligament damage in great detail.

I highly recommend that most of these anterior cruciate tears be surgically repaired. I injured my anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus in eighth grade football, had surgery, and have not had a problem into my 60s. Surgery can stabilize the joint and minimize joint damage.

There are two things you can do to help prevent anterior cruciate damage from occurring:

1. Keep your pet at or near his ideal body weight (what he weighed as a young adult). Have you ever been at the mall or on the street and noticed that most of the people who are overweight or obese limp? Guess what? Our knees aren’t made to carry those heavy loads. It’s the same for dogs.

2. Don’t engage your dogs in extreme activities that are like the Canine X-Games. Don’t let your energetic, big dog jump out of the pickup truck; teach him to use a ramp instead. Don’t toss the tennis ball over-the-hill and through-the-dale. Find a nice level patch of grass instead.