How to Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL

Three Parts:Alleviating Your Dog's PainChanging Your Dog's RoutineUnderstanding Your Dog's Condition

A torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is a common cause of hind-leg lameness in dogs. The condition is caused when the anterior cruciate ligament within the knee joint either stretches or tears completely.[1] The lameness presents in two forms: a chronic (long term) low-grade lameness or an acute (sudden onset) severe lameness where the dog can not weight bear on the affected leg. Luckily, with medication and rest, your dog's health can fully improve.

Part 1
Alleviating Your Dog's Pain

  1. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 1
    Keep your dog rested for two weeks. A dog with a torn ACL will redistribute his weight onto his remaining three legs, which places extra strain on them. He is therefore less mobile and needs to be rested.
    • For the first two weeks this means strict rest to let the initial inflammation in the joint settle down. Keep your dog from jumping on furniture or into the car, and stop him from using stairs. He should not be walked at all, and when he goes outside to the toilet he should be kept on a lead in case he runs off, chasing whatever he sees in his periphery.
  2. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 2
    Put up ramps and stair-gates to keep him off his leg. Part of caring for a dog with a torn ACL is making sure he rests. To stop him going upstairs, try putting a child's safety gate across the bottom of the staircase. Likewise, try to avoid having your dog jump up or down to and from the car. For large dogs that are too big to carry, invest in a collapsible ramp for him to walk up and down.
    • Move his things as necessary. If his room is upstairs, make a temporary, make-shift spot for him downstairs so he can feel more comfortable and have a space all his own. This will help him ease into this new, more confined routine.
  3. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 3
    After two weeks, take short, 5-minute walks twice a day. The principle here is not to overstress his good legs and to give the injured leg time to heal. He must be kept on a lead because running or chasing places a strain on the joints and could disrupt the tissue healing.
    • By resting the dog you are waiting for fibrous tissue to bridge the ends of the torn ligament and this scar tissue eventually stabilizes the joint. Some of the surgical procedures, such as the de Angelis suture, provide temporary stabilization whilst scar tissue forms, and it is this fibrous tissue that eventually provides permanent stability.
  4. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 4
    Give your pup NSAIDs, like Metacam. A torn ACL is a painful condition and moderate pain relief through medication can be incredibly helpful to your dog. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) have a high safety margin (when used correctly), provide a good level of pain relief and are safe for long term use. NSAIDs commonly prescribed by vets are meloxicam (Metacam), carprofen (Rimadyl), and robenacoxib (Onsior).
    • The maintenance dose of metacam is 0.05mg/kg by mouth, with or after food, once daily. The oral suspension contains 1.5mg/ml; a typical 30kg Lab requires 1ml daily on his food.
    • NSAIDs are prescription drugs that reduce inflammation and dull pain by inhibiting the COX-2 enzymes that mediate inflammation within joints. They also having fewer effects on the COX-1 enzymes that maintain blood flow to the stomach and kidneys. Because of this, these drugs are less likely to cause the potentially serious side effect of gastric ulceration and have a higher safety margin than drugs such as aspirin or paracetamol.
  5. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 5
    Carefully consider giving your dog aspirin. In a healthy, well-hydrated dog, aspirin has a place if no other pain relief is available – especially if your vet gives you the okay. The recommended dose is 10mg/kg given twice a day, with or after food. Aspirin commonly comes in 300mg tablets, so a typical dose for a 30kg Labrador would be one tablet twice a day with food.
    • Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) can provide mild to moderate pain relief, but long term use can be associated with side effects such as gastric ulceration. This is because the aspirin reduces the blood supply to the stomach, gut lining, and kidneys. The side effects are minimized if given with or after food.
    • Aspirin should never be given to a dog on steroids or on NSAID medication. This is because the combined drugs are even more potent and will more likely cause gastric ulceration, with possibly fatal consequences.
  6. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 6
    Much like aspirin, carefully consider paracetamol as a pain reliever. A veterinary approved prescription is preferred, but if no other pain relief is available, it is acceptable to give your dog paracetamol with food, as long as care is taken to observe the correct dosage.
    • The dose is 10mg/kg by mouth, twice a day, with or after food. Most tablets are 500mg and so a 30kg Labrador can take a maximum of three-fifths of a tablet twice daily. If in doubt, always give a lower dose and for small dogs, consider using the pediatric suspension.
    • Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) provides mild to moderate pain relief. Overdose causes liver damage by overloading the liver with a toxic metabolite called N-acetyl-p-aminobenzoquinonimine. Great care should be taken not to exceed the recommended dose or liver failure could result.

Part 2
Changing Your Dog's Routine

  1. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 7
    Consider putting your pup on a diet. It is possible the ACL tore because of extra weight causing additional strain on the ligament. Also, a dog with one torn cruciate is at risk of tearing the ligament in the opposite leg, because he is putting all his weight on three legs rather than four. Thus, losing weight is important to increase his mobility in general but also to decrease strain on his other joints.
    • Putting an overweight pet on a diet is an essential part of caring for him. Talk to your vet about what's appropriate for your pup as each dog will require a different diet regimen. While you're discussing how much he should be eating, ask about what foods to feed him, too. Your vet may be able to recommend a special diet while he's healing.
  2. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 8
    Take your dog swimming. Swimming is excellent non-weight bearing exercise that will help keep your pup's muscles toned and give him mental stimulation as it's not likely it's something he does often. After the initial period of strict rest and lead walks, if the dog is showing signs of improvement, then two or three hydrotherapy sessions a week can help improve his muscle tone and keep joints supple.
    • This is another issue that's wise to ask your vet about. You don't want your dog over-exerting himself and ruining what progress he's made. Your vet will know if his ACL has healed enough for this to be an appropriate part of his healing regimen.
  3. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 9
    Keep him off linoleum or laminate flooring. When caring for a dog with a torn ACL it is important that he walks on surfaces with good grip. The enemy of any dog with mobility issues is linoleum or laminate flooring because they are slippery. The last thing you want is a dog who is struggling on three legs to slip and cause himself an additional sprain or strain.
    • If necessary, cover your linoleum or laminate flooring with non-slip rugs. Don't be tempted to use towels or blankets – those will just slip and slide over the floor, potentially worsening the likelihood of slipping.

Part 3
Understanding Your Dog's Condition

  1. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 10
    Learn what a torn ACL looks like. The main symptom of a torn ACL is that of a hind limb lameness – that is, he'll be limping on the injured leg. Your suspicions should be increased if your dog has a painful or swollen knee that came on after physical exertion, such as chasing a Frisbee or jumping up wildly.
    • However, don't diagnose your pup yourself. It's always best to get a professional's opinion.
  2. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 11
    Take your dog to the vet for a proper diagnosis. While checking your pup's ACL, your veterinarian will need to check the dog for other problems such as fractures, dislocations or a sprain, too. It's possible a torn ACL is just a fraction of the problem.
    • Your vet will probably suggest sedating your pup in order to perform an "anterior draw" test, as well as screening radiographs. A positive anterior draw test demonstrates that the tibia (shin bone) slips forward against the femur (thigh bone) when pressure is applied to the lower limb.
  3. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 12
    Carefully consider surgery. There is considerable debate amongst canine orthopedic experts as to whether surgical correction of a torn cruciate (ACL) is essential or not.[2] The argument for surgery is that an unstable joint is more likely to develop arthritis in the long term, plus the recovery time to full function is shorter after surgery than with conservative management.
    • Arguments against surgery include: surgery being painful and invasive, the cost, the risk of complications and the fact that a lot of dogs do well without surgical intervention. Complications from surgery can include serious infections that necessitate revisional surgery to remove infected implants, or even nerve damage that may be so severe it necessitates limb amputation.
  4. Image titled Care for a Dog with a Torn ACL Step 13
    Rest assured that most animals can and will recover normally with time. A majority of animals will recover good use of the affected limb after several months with just conservative treatment. This is especially true for smaller dogs that weigh less than 15kg (33lbs). With your care, your pup will be just fine.
    • The recovery time for larger breeds is longer and it can be physically more demanding for a heavier dog to cope with using only three legs for a few weeks.[3] However, recovery is still possible.


  • Conservative management involves resting the patient and providing pain relief. A ruptured cruciate is not a surgical emergency and should you wish it, there is time to care for your dog conservatively for a few weeks to see if there is any improvement before deciding on surgery.

Sources and Citations

  1. A guide to canine orthopedic surgery. HR Denny. Blackwell Scientific Publications 2nd edition
  2. Treating common articular disorders in dogs. Innes.J. Vet Record 2013 Mar 30:172(13)332-5
  3. Surgical versus nonsurgical management for overweight dogs with cranial cruciate ligament rupture. Baker & Baker. Journal Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013 Aug15:243(4):479

Article Info

Categories: Canine Health