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ACL injuries in dogs

ACL Injuries in Dogs: why they occur & how to prevent them

ACL injuries in dogs are on the rise. FInd out what’s behind the trend, and how to help reduce the chances of your dog getting hurt.  

Most dogs are built for activity. They love and LIVE to run, jump, and play. Roughhousing, tumbling each other on the ground, and sprinting side-by-side are typical playtime fun for just about all breeds.

But in recent years, as we review the trends in canine health, the U.S. has been seeing an unfortunate rise in instances of canine ACL injuries. 

What is an ACL injury?

ACL stands for Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) – the front part of the connective tissue in the knee area. The purpose of the tissue is similar in dogs as in humans, connecting the bone above knee to the bone below knee. (A ligament is that thin connective tissue between two bones.) 

While it may not sound like a big deal, an ACL injury in a dog can significantly impact its movement and posture. This can include sitting, running, and walking, abnormally; sticking a leg out when standing, having a swollen knee, and avoiding jumping. Untreated ACL injuries cause long-term strain on the damaged tissue and the bones it connects, resulting in worsening symptoms and increased pain for the dog.

Why Are ACL Injuries in Dogs Increasing?

Research shows that obesity is a main contributor associated with the higher risk for canine ACL injuries. Importantly, it’s not just a dog’s weight that’s the issue, it’s how he or she gets that way: lack of exercise! 

Just like humans, our day-to-day lifestyle has changed over time. We’re simply less active. Walks with our dog are more like short, leisurely strolls, and these don’t provide enough exercise to ensure either of us maintain good physical strength and burn excess calories.

Obesity in dogs puts enhanced stress on their knee joints, wearing down the connecting tissue between the bones. Lack of activity reduces muscle mass and makes existing muscles weaker – and less muscle means they burn fewer calories, too. 

As muscles become weak, and weight increases, connecting tissues become more vulnerable.

While it’s true that some breeds are more prone to ACL injuries (e.g., Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Rotweillers, German Shepherds), obese dogs overall are definitely more likely to experience them, no matter their breed. 

What Activities Increase the Risk for Dog ACL injuries?

Unfortunately, when a dog’s muscles and bones are weak, just about anything can cause trouble. And just like the aches and injuries of human “Weekend Warriors,” a sudden jump in vigorous activity can increase problems for dogs.

In general, quick or unusual movements that wrench joints and/or put extra stress on weakened connective tissue are the most problematic. For instance:

  • Sudden directional changes, like jumping, twisting or sliding to a stop; 
  • Postural changes, like getting up on hind legs.
  • Combinations of these, like how the two dogs are playing in the snowy scene with this article.

For sedentary dogs, however, even normal daily activities can cause tiny tears that build up over time and lead to a greater risk of tearing the connective tissues. 

These are all good reasons to focus on injury prevention. And yes, it IS possible to reduce the risk of ACL injuries in dogs… 

How Can You Reduce Your Dog’s Risk?

The most effective way to reduce the risk of ACL injuries in dogs is to ensure a healthy diet and enough exercise to maintain a healthy weight. 

Daily exercises should include varied movements to allow overall muscle, bone, and connective tissue development and strengthening in a dog.

  • Gradually increase exercise (this is especially important): add 5-10 minutes to their walks, and/or increase the speed of your walk for short intervals. Read here for even MORE fun-filled incentives and ideas for enjoying the outdoors
  • As he or she gets stronger – or if your dog is somewhat active now – add short intervals of sprinting (e.g., chase a ball or frisbee, or run with you) or other fun games, to help your dog build more strength and stamina – and help make up for any treats you share with your furry friend now and then!
  • Consult with your vet or a knowledgeable pet food store about your dog’s nutrition needs – don’t just reduce the amount of food without getting guidance.

And recognize the early signs of trouble. If you see your dog favoring one leg, or avoiding certain activities, that’s a good time to check in with your veterinarian. 

Want even more fun and exercise to share? Join an Outing Club!

If you’re near Holderness, NH consider joining us for our Outing Club. It’s designed to engage dogs and their humans in various activities, such as trail walks and hikes on our 15-acre campus, treasure hunts, snouting, obstacle courses, hide and seek, bog walking, village walking, and games. Click here to learn more about College for Pets Outing Club.

Getting your canine pals more active is among the best ways to reduce the risk of ACL injuries in dogs. They’re also mood boosters that will help you AND your dog feel happier, more energetic, and love your life together!

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