What is Cruciate Ligament Injury in Dogs?

When dogs sustain an injury to the ligaments in the knee, they experience pain and cannot walk properly. Let’s learn all about cruciate injuries in dogs in the following guide.

Aug 21, 2023byLisa Szymanski
cruciate ligament injury dogs

The meniscus, cartilage, and cruciate ligaments are some of the major structures in a dog’s knee. The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) consists of tissues or fibers that join the knee to the leg bones. When the CCL is injured, it causes joint instability, making it difficult for dogs to walk. Without treatment, this type of injury can lead to arthritis, chronic pain, and possible joint collapse. To better understand what a cruciate ligament injury in dogs is, we look at the symptoms, treatment options, and high-risk breeds.

What is Cruciate Ligament Injury in Dogs?

dog wearing a leg brace
A knee brace supports the joint during rehabilitation.

The cruciate ligaments keep the knee joint balanced and flexible, but when they are injured, the joint is no longer supported, and mobility is compromised. A cranial cruciate ligament injury is caused by constant strain on the ligament itself and usually occurs when dogs are running or jumping. The ligament can suffer from a partial tear, in which a few fibers remain attached, or a full tear, where the ligament snaps. If the ligament completely pulls away from the joint, it is known as a rupture. This painful condition can limit your fur companion’s mobility and requires treatment based on the severity of the tear.

The Symptoms of Cruciate Disease in Dogs

examining the leg of a dog for signs of injury
Examining the leg for signs of injury.

Dogs that have suffered from a damaged cruciate will hold the affected leg up. They will limp or appear lame, and they may start licking or chewing the knee. Canines may hobble as they walk and will hesitate to get into the car or climb stairs. You will notice swelling as the knee becomes inflamed, and many dogs will yelp or flee when the joint is touched. While limping and pain are signs of a torn cruciate, other types of health problems in dogs, such as meniscus injuries, may cause similar symptoms. A veterinarian can confirm the presence of ligament damage by observing your pet’s gait, feeling the joint, and performing radiographs.

What is the Cause of Cruciate Ligament Injuries in Dogs?

german shepherd dog running
German shepherds are at risk of cruciate disease.

This type of injury is common in dogs that frequently run and jump, causing the ligament to overextend and tear. All breeds can experience cruciate damage, but boxers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, pointers, rottweilers, labradors, and mastiffs are at high risk of knee injuries. Dogs that are overweight place extra strain on the joint, causing the ligament fibers to deteriorate and wear over time. For some dogs, the incorrect alignment of the hips and hind legs increases pressure on the knee joints, causing the connected ligaments to weaken. Unfortunately, there is no way to protect your pet from this injury, as it can occur during simple play or obedience training in the healthiest dogs.

Will a Cruciate Ligament Injury in Dogs Heal on its Own?

dog lying in crate with toys
Dogs can be crated to restrict movement after surgery.

Despite some dogs appearing to use the injured leg after some time, without treatment, they develop advanced arthritis, causing permanent lameness. Partial tears of the ligament in dogs, of reasonable weight, can improve with conservative care. This includes the use of a brace on the affected leg along with specialized exercises to strengthen the knee. Furthermore, dogs must be confined for the first 3 weeks, only leaving their crate or room to relieve themselves and exercise by walking slowly. Smaller canines do well with non-invasive therapy, but larger breeds often require surgery because of the extra weight and pressure on the damaged leg.

Does Cruciate Injury in Dogs Require Surgery?

vet examining dog leg
A veterinarian examines the knee of a small dog.

Surgery is a common treatment for an injured CCL in dogs, along with rest and exercises to rebuild supporting muscles in the leg. In most cases, dogs will need surgery to repair the damage to the knee and protect the joint from diseases such as arthritis. A full tear or rupture requires surgery to restore joint support by inserting a synthetic ligament or a stabilizing plate into the knee. Invasive therapy is typical in large canines because of the stress on the joints owing to their size. Depending on the extent of the injury and the condition of your pet, a veterinarian will determine which approach to treatment is best.


Labrador holding hind leg up
A torn cruciate ligament causes limping.

A cruciate ligament injury in dogs affects the normal functioning of the knee, causing pain, difficulty walking, and a reluctance to place weight on the leg. A ligament tear can happen very suddenly, and you may notice your pet holding its leg up after resting or limping after play. This type of injury can affect all breeds but is most common in active pets over the age of 5 years. A damaged cranial cruciate ligament can take up to 6 months to recover, with rehabilitation consisting of gradual exercise and surgery. Without treatment to align the damaged joint, dogs will develop arthritis in the knee, causing permanent mobility issues and discomfort.

Lisa Szymanski
byLisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the \"queens of the yard,\" Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.