Can a Dog Retear an ACL After Surgery?

Pet Care


October 20, 2021

Few three-letter acronyms are more feared in the world of athletics than “ACL.” Once upon a time, an ACL tear could spell the end of an athlete’s career. That has proved less true in recent years, thankfully, with improvements in sports medicine helping many athletes make successful ACL comebacks, including Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Kendrick Perkins, and Maria Sharapova.

But what about dogs tearing their ACLs? Can a dog retear an ACL after surgery? Your dog may not be a world-class athlete, but its recovery is no less important, so see what an ACL tear may mean for your dog.

ACL 101

First, let’s get a better idea of what we’re dealing with. An anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is the band of ligaments connecting your thigh and shin bones around the knee joint. It is tough, tightly stretched tissue that runs diagonally down your knee’s interior. An ACL is supposed to give your knee joint extra stability and aid in the back-and-forth motion of your lower leg.

This is also why an ACL tear can be so devastating for an athlete or a dog. With that vital connective tissue torn, a leg’s walking motion is completely cut down from the knees upward. Because of its vital location, tearing an ACL typically results in the individual not being able to walk properly for a long period of time, potentially several months depending on the severity of the tear.

Athletes can tear their ACLs in a variety of ways, including stopping and starting suddenly, a major collision (such as when football players suffer ACL tears after crushing tackles), and a bad or wobbly landing after a jump.

How Dogs Can Tear Their ACLs

Your dog probably isn’t getting tackled by linebackers or stopping on a dime during a tennis rally, however, so why does it tear its ACL? Well, while the causes may not be exactly the same, some of those athletic causes of ACL tears can apply to dogs. For example, if they start and stop too abruptly, or their knees suffer significant blunt force trauma, they can still tear their ACL.

However, it’s actually more common for dogs’ joints to simply be worn down instead. Think of the ACL as a rubber band. In this case, instead of it snapping as the result of sudden stress, it is gradually eroded by age or wear and tear until it finally snaps. Some dog breeds are more prone to ACL tears, including:

  • Australian Shepherds
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Bloodhounds
  • Bouvier des Flandres
  • Collies
  • Giant Schnauzers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Irish Setters
  • Labradors

Additionally, dogs are more at risk of tearing their ACLs if they are overweight or “under exercised,” which is yet another reason why diet and exercise are so important to keeping your dog happy and healthy.

Treating an ACL Tear and Surgery

While surgery may be the first thing you think of when it comes to treating a torn ACL, it isn’t necessarily the only option. If the tear is mild enough, you may be able to opt for other treatment options instead. Pain medication can help while they rehab. Smaller dogs are more likely to be able to recover without surgery than larger ones, with weight being one reason why.

If your dog does require surgery, it will likely be CCL or TPLO surgery that’s required. Your dog will likely need to go through physical therapy afterward. Even if you do this, however, you may notice its ability to walk or run is degraded from before the injury.

In some cases, your dog may require a knee brace that can support its torn ACL. This will likely be necessary whether or not your dog needs or gets surgery. You will of course need to keep your dog less active than before so as to avoid it causing further damage to the ligament.

Dogs Retearing an ACL

As alluded above, a dog can retear its ACL if they engage in heavy activity after a tear. It is vital that you keep your dog from engaging in fast running, playing, or any kind of intense activity for at least a few weeks after the surgery and during rehab. If your dog does not complete its rehab, it is likely to be at elevated risk of injuring itself again.

Not only can doing too much too soon result in a dog retearing its ACL, but resuming its old activities in general can be a problem. For example, if your dog used to run fast or jump a lot, it may not be able to do so now, at least not to the same degree. Your dog trying to reach those same speeds and heights may result in retearing a repaired ACL.

That said, a sedentary lifestyle can also result in problems. If your dog doesn’t exercise at all and then suddenly runs after something, it can result in your dog retearing its ACL. This is especially true if your dog is obese. This is yet another reason why it is so important to make sure that you don’t feed your dog too much and that it gets enough (mild and ACL-friendly) exercise.

Should You Get ACL Surgery for Your Dog?

If you have the money, you should definitely consider getting ACL surgery for your dog. By some estimates as many as 90% of dogs who undergo ACL surgery are able to regain most of their former lifestyle. You wouldn’t want to hobble around in pain on a bad leg for the rest of your life, and your dog shouldn’t have to, either, if you can help it.

Of course, for some people, that’s a big “if.” There’s no getting around the fact that ACL surgery for dogs is expensive, costing $3,500 to $5,000 on average by some estimates.

This is yet another reason why pet insurance is so important. With insurance, these surgeries can be far more affordable. However, not every policy may include ACL surgery for dogs, so you’ll want to check before you sign on the dotted line, especially if you have a breed that is especially prone to tears.

No one wants to think about the possibility of their dog not being able to run and jump. However, you’ll need to take steps to ensure your dog doesn’t take a big step backward in the wake of ACL surgery.

The last thing you want is for your dog to tear its ACL and then retear it after a surgery. Not only are you out thousands of dollars in such a situation, but recovery can be much more difficult.

Take it slow after surgery, consult your dog’s physical therapist, and work to achieve the recovery your dog deserves.