Cruciate Ligament Injury In Dogs

I used to think that cruciate injury was a human problem.   You know, one of those injuries responsible for benching a footballer for the season.  But it’s really common in dogs too.

Even though I believe physiologically a ligament is a ligament, cruciate ligament injury in humans is thought to come about differently to dogs.  How so?  Well, in humans, cruciate damage is usually caused by sudden physical trauma, for example, as a result of a sports injury.

However, in dogs, it’s said to be more likely to be caused by disease.  So, this means over time diseased ligaments fray, and become ropey and weak.  In these cases, it’s thought that even a small amount of force can cause a ligament to rupture.

What Are These Things They Call Cruciate Ligaments?

Ligaments are incredibly, strong, fibrous tissues that connect bone to bone all over the body.  They are designed to limit movement.  In other words, they stabilise the movement of the bones which they connect.

Cruciate ligaments are found in the knee, or stifle, as it’s known in the dog, and they help to stabilise the stifle joint.  They even have their own names.  The cranial cruciate ligament (CrCL) and the caudal cruciate ligament (CaCL).

Right, let’s check those bad boys out.

In the image, you can see how these ligaments criss-cross between the bottom bone, the tibia, and the top bone, the femur.  This positioning prevents the tibia from sliding forward.

The image on the right shows a complete break or rupture of the CrCL.

Cruciate Ligament Diagram

Do you know damage to a ligament is called a sprain?  Therefore, cruciate ligament damage is actually a sprain, and yet we throw the word sprain around like it’s no big deal.  Sprains are really painful and are graded according to the level of severity of the damage they’ve suffered.

There Are 4 Grades of Sprain


I   :   Minimal tear

II  :   Partial tear
III:    Complete rupture
IV:    Complete rupture but this time the ligament takes pieces of bone with it.

Ok, so we’ve covered what a ligament is, where the cruciate ligaments are, what they do, that they have fancy names, that in dogs a cruciate injury is thought more likely to be caused by disease, and that there are 4 grades of injury.

What does the science say about the likelihood of my dog sustaining a cruciate rupture?

Factors Contributing to Cruciate Disease

Breed Predisposition 

Any breed can injure their cruciate ligament.  However, cruciate disease is much more common in breeds like Labradors, Rottweilers, Boxers, West Highland White Terriers, and Newfoundlands.

Labrador in a field of Lavender
Obesity is a huge problem in our dogs right now.  Because, when a dog is overweight it causes excess loading and wear and tear on joints.  If these dogs have weak ligaments too, the extra weight is going to pretty much seal the fate of the cruciate ligament.                           

Over Exercising.  Exercising a dog to the point of exhaustion is not conducive to maintaining healthy joints, muscles, tissue nor is it helpful for a dog’s emotional wellbeing.

Early Neuter/Spay    Research has found that early neuter/spay has a negative effect on the development of ligaments, bones, and joints.

Hormonal Imbalance   Could this be connected to early neuter/spay?


My Thoughts…..

Could early neuter/spay have a bigger part to play in the disease of the cruciate ligaments than we think?

And….  If the weight and breed of our dogs are contributing factors, could cruciate injury also be a mechanical failure of the stifle joint due to the size of the breed and their leg shape?

How Do You Know Your Dog Has A Cruciate Injury? 

Only your vet can make a diagnosis, but you will likely see:
  • Sudden crying out in pain
  • Lameness/hobbling
  • Can’t weight bear on the affected leg
  • Swelling – heat – inflammation
  • Lagging behind on a walk
  • Doesn’t want to straighten the leg
  • Sitting with the leg sticking out to one side

The Diagnosis

Your Vet will manually test the knee for excess movement.  Sometimes X-rays are also used to find the cause of pain, instability, and or lameness.


It’s Confirmed!  Cruciate Injury, What Next?

Well, that depends on the grade of injury.

Your Vet will recommend the best way forward.  The decision will be based on your dog’s medical history, the grade of sprain, age, weight, fitness, health, and lifestyle.

Grades I & II may be managed conservatively with anti-inflammatories, weight control,  physiotherapy, clinical massage etc,.

Grades III & IV will need surgery.

The most common cruciate surgeries performed in the UK today are the tibial tuberosity advancement (TTA), and tibial plateau levelling osteotomy (TPLO).



Cruciate Injury Surgical Options

Cruciate Surgery courtesy of Fitzpatrick Referrals

   Image Credit: Fitzpatrick Referrals

Fitzpatrick Referrals website is a brilliant resource if you’d like to know more about cruciate surgery procedures and they also have helpful videos too.


What Can You Do To Limit the Risk of Sprain?

There are more factors involved in cruciate injuries in dogs than sudden trauma to the joint.

Here are 5 quick wins that you can control which will help your dog to avoid injury

1   –    Don’t over-exercise your dog

2   –    Keep them a healthy weight

3   –    Keep the muscles around the joints mobile, supple, strong, and healthy.

4   –    Cover slippy floors at home!!!

5   –    Stop Ball Launching


Are You Worried About How To Help Your Dog Long Term?

I may be able to help.

I’m Angela Day and I founded Born to Run based in Suffolk.

I’m a Small Animal Rehab specialist, Canine Massage Practitioner and Core Conditioning Instructor.  Core conditioning is an incredible low impact means to keep your dog fit for life and help prevent injury.

Rehabilitation and Massage treatments combined successfully release tight sore muscles, reducing pain, and improving mobility helping dogs return to full function after surgery.

If you’d like to chat about any concerns you have about your dog I’d love to hear from you. Click here to get in touch.

Angela Day,   MCICM (grad), CM (Dip), MIAAT, MIRVAP (MT)

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