What does vet medicine cost? The expense of cruciate ligament repairs (Part 2)

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Feb. 22, 2008
What does vet medicine cost? The expense of cruciate ligament repairs (Part 2)

OK, so now you’ve got your diagnosis: It’s a cruciate ligament tear or rupture with possible injury to the meniscal cartilage of the knee, too. Ouch! What you really need right about now is an expert opinion on the optimal treatment for this injury given your budget (OK, so maybe you need a tissue, too). To that end, here’s the skinny I promised…

Common Cruciate Options

  1. Surgery (one of the so-called “leveling osteotomies” is recommended for medium and large breed dogs, the most common of which is called a TPLO).

  2. Surgery (a procedure called an “extra-capsular repair”—increasingly considered a good option only for smaller breeds) …and when funds are scarce:

  3. Rest, anti-inflammatory (pain) medication, weight loss and nutraceuticals (all of which are also crucial to the success of options 1 and 2).


Though some board-certified veterinary surgeons may quibble with this statistic, the most commonly reported rule of thumb is that cruciate injury patients weighing over 25-30 pounds are best served by the surgical procedure called TPLO (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy), which employs cutting the bone, leveling it, and holding it with a metal plate to help stabilize the joint. (My local surgeons routinely recommend TPLO for patients as small as 12 to 15 pounds and find they do much better as well.)

This surgical procedure is typically accomplished by boarded vet surgeons (who have completed three-year residencies and passed a grueling examination along with specific training for this technique). Non-boarded surgeons (regular vets like me) who take a special interest in orthopedics may take a course and gain sufficient knowledge and proficiency, too. There’s no law that says boarded surgeons need be your only option.

The price of this repair typically ranges from $1,500 to $4,000.

Extra-capsular Repair

The next most common surgical approach is called an extra-capsular repair. Though dogs may appear to gain some immediate relief with it (and some vets swear by its efficacy), in the long run it doesn’t statistically compare to the success of the TPLO approach in the larger breeds most commonly afflicted.

This repair is generally less expensive, however, since fancy hardware isn’t required. And dogs under 25-30 pounds may be sufficiently well served by this simpler extra-capsular repair.

The price of this procedure runs as low as $500 and as high as $2,500.

Why the Range?

As with many medical procedures, the frequency with which the practitioner performs either of these surgeries is an excellent indicator of proficiency. Most vets would agree that docs doing one or more a week are typically considered experts. All others may be great, even more proficient in some cases, but the stats are not so much in their favor.

In fact, cruciate repairs are one area in surgical vet medicine where skill is considered especially critical to success. That’s because no knee surgery will return your dog to 100% pre-cruciate injury normalcy. The earlier it’s undertaken after the ligamentous insult the more likely you are to see a dramatic improvement and less future arthritis, but an experienced surgeon can make all the difference, even when chronic tears have already allowed for significant accumulation of arthritis in the joint.

Good surgeons like to say that these surgeries are easy to do, but difficult to do well.

The prices for this procedure usually reflect this — but not always, as some less experienced practitioners may look to the average price of the procedure in an area and govern their own prices accordingly. (I’ve certainly seen that happen in my vicinity.) I’ve also seen some pretty competent vets undercut the high-priced competition and manage a high number of these procedures every month as a result. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual buyer to beware of the competency of their chosen surgeon—and it’s not an easy task.

Then there’s the standard issue of hospital policies and procedures and the cost of these oft-unseen variables. Some hospitals will spare no expense when it comes to materials and staff and other safety nets designed to provide the best surgical experience possible. Others will cut corners to get at a more affordable price point for their clients. Both are absolutely valid approaches as long as you know what you’re getting. It’s up to you to decide what fits you best.

Unfortunately, the fact that these variables are unseen means you don’t always have access to the information you need to make the most educated choice when it comes to these issues. Asking around (your regular vet is a gold mine here) is your best bet.

Consider, also, that larger dogs will require more medication, and larger, more expensive TPLO plates. Their repair is invariably going to cost 10 to 50% more than for the same kind of surgery in a smaller dog.

What if I Can’t Afford Any Surgery?

While not all owners can afford the expensive surgery this condition typically requires, weight loss, arthritis medications and nutraceuticals (glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, typically) can impact dogs’ comfort levels markedly.

Though in general this “conservative” approach is considered much less effective than a TPLO, it does provide owners who can’t afford this surgery the opportunity to take responsible action.

In fact for most bigger patients, it seems that weight loss is far more effective than choosing the extra-capsular repair option. In other words, if you can’t go for the recommended kind of surgery, no surgery might be your best option. (Of course, this determination depends heavily on the skill of the practitioner and the size of the dog.)

One Final Point

And finally, beware, great surgeons often don’t have stellar bedside manners. Try your best to overlook this and concentrate instead on their experience level and other objective concerns, especially if this is a vet not well known to you (as is typically the case with excellent quality cruciate repairs).

But ultimately, it doesn’t have to come down to the nickels and dimes. In the end, trust alone is often worth whatever premium you feel you might be paying for sticking with a vet and a hospital that answers all the right questions and treats your pet just right.


Patty Khuly, DVM


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