By Monica Weymouth
If you’ve ever injured your knee—even just a simple twist—you understand how debilitating the pain can be. Unfortunately, many of our pups know the feeling all too well. The good news is that although canine knee problems are common, there are plenty of ways to both prevent and treat them. Here, the experts explain how to keep your best bud as healthy as possible.
Any dog—large or small, purebred or proud mutt—can experience knee problems over the course of his life. Some breeds, however, are more likely to have issues. Understanding your dog’s risk factors can lead to quicker treatment and, in turn, less pain should a problem arise.
One of the most common type of injuries, a cranial cruciate ligament tear, is more prevalent in larger dogs, explains Dr. Lauren May, a staff surgeon at Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern, Pennsylvania. “Breeds affected include Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Newfoundlands, Staffordshire Terriers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Mastiffs, Akitas, and Saint Bernards,” she says of the condition.
As for smaller dogs—including Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Miniature Poodles, and Boston Terriers—patellar luxations are a concern, May says. The condition, in which the kneecap moves from its natural position, is almost always congenital.
Your dog can’t quite tell you about his knee pain, so it’s important to recognize the signs that he’s uncomfortable.
“Most commonly, we see animals that are lame on the affected leg,” says Dr. Timothy Schwab, a staff surgeon at Metropolitan Veterinary Associates in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. “They may off-load the limb when standing, hold it off of the ground, or limp after exercise. Some animals have difficulty rising.”
Other signs include a gait that resembles walking on eggshells and a limp resembling a skip, a telltale symptom of patellar luxation.
Chances are, your gym routine has changed since college. Similarly, as dogs age, their exercise needs and limitations evolve, and an overly vigorous romp can be dangerous and lead to knee injuries.
“With seniors, avoid high impact, propulsive type activities like running a fence line and really aggressive fetch,” Schwab advises.
However, he notes that regardless of activity, some senior dogs are still at risk of ligament tears due to years of gradual, degenerative wear-and-tear.
An ACL tear is usually due to an inherent weakness in the ligament, adds Dr. Katie Grzyb, medical director at One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. “Thus, they tear slowly over time and that final tear could be secondary to something as mundane as walking.”
If your BFF is approaching his golden years, consider a joint supplement to help support his knee health.
“There are many types available, and it can become overwhelming to choose one,” says Heather Frankfurt, a veterinarian at Hillside Vet Clinic in Dallas, Texas. “Look for a product that contains MSM, chondroitin, and glucosamine. These ingredients, when combined, promote healthy joints.”
Maintaining a healthy weight—especially during the senior years, when activity begins to decrease and arthritis looms—is also important for joint health, she notes.
As always, consult with your dog’s veterinarian before making changes to your pet’s diet or adding a supplement. If you are prescribed a new supplement, monitor your dog’s health, as they can cause gastrointestinal problems.
Depending on the type of knee injury or disease, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. While mild patellar luxations can usually just be monitored, cruciate ligament injuries, in particular, almost always require a trip to the operating room.
“Treatment for this painful condition requires surgical intervention in the vast majority of cases,” Schwab says. “The goal is to stabilize the joint to allow normal joint movement, thereby alleviating pain and allowing for normal activity and a happy, healthy quality of life.”
Small dogs and cats, he notes, can occasionally be treated with a combination of pain management, joint supplements, and limited activity.
Like humans, dogs with knee injuries benefit greatly from physical therapy. In combination with rest, weight management, and pain management, it’s almost always prescribed as a complement to knee surgery, if not as an alternative.
“Physical therapy is an extremely important component of treatment in our orthopedics patients, regardless of if surgery or medical management is recommended or pursued,” May says.
Small-breed dogs, in particular, may be able to avoid some knee surgeries with the proper physical therapy plan, she notes.
Some underlying health conditions may prevent your pooch from being a good candidate for knee surgery. Relief, however, is still possible. “For animals that are unable to undergo surgery, there are braces that can be custom made to externally stabilize the knee,” Schwab says.
Fortunately, medical technology has come a long way since that time you twisted your knee in high school. Lightweight and flexible, these modern, streamlined braces allow your pup to maintain an active lifestyle.
Custom braces that are specifically measured to the patient are very expensive, Grzyb notes. “An owner should never place a brace or bandage on their dog’s limb without discussing with a veterinarian first.”