Don’t let Fido blow an ACL in Vail this spring |

Don’t let Fido blow an ACL in Vail this spring

Humans aren’t the only animals with tendons and ligaments just begging to be thrown out of whack.

I know that sounds like common sense, but pet owners occasionally forget that our dogs, cats, horses and other active animals are prone to the same injuries and ailments we face in the high country. When you get a side cramp from drinking too little water on a hike, chances are your dog is feeling the same effects of dehydration. If you huff and puff up steep pitches on a skinning trek, again, then chances are your pup is dealing with the same muscle and cardio fatigue. Well, that would be true if there were any snow to skin on, that is.

The point is, animals of all kinds can suffer from stress injuries to joints, ligaments and tendons. Yet dogs in particular are more susceptible than the rest because they tend to spend more time outdoors, often doing the exact same activities as their owners. And one of the most common canine injuries is the same that often plagues active humans: an ACL tear.

The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is otherwise known as the cranial cruciate ligament, or CCL, when talking about pets. (I’ll use the human term interchangeably here.) As it is for humans, it’s a vital support structure for the knee. The anatomy and function of the CCL are even similar to a human knee, and again, like humans, pets can over-stress this ligament to the point of injury.

ACL injuries are more common in larger breeds than smaller breeds. Why? For starters, it has a lot to do with activity: big dogs tend to play harder, stay out longer and, every so often, take rougher spills than dogs with shorter legs and less mass. In winter and even into spring, most dogs will injure an ACL when it gets yanked at an odd angle while running through the snow.

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Again, these large breeds — including Labrador retrievers, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands and even Rottweilers — are predisposed to injury simply because of their lifestyle. Recent studies have also shown genes play a role, such as the preponderance of international knee rotation in labs.


But how will you know if your pet has a torn ACL or just needs to slow down for a few hours? Like any injury, if you’re in doubt and your dog is in pain, bring it to a veterinary clinic to get checked out. Often, sudden lameness in a limb is caused by a ruptured ACL that might have gone unnoticed.

Of course Fido can’t use words, so pay attention to the signs of an ACL tear. One major indicator is “toe tapping,” when an animal consciously shifts weight to one side of the body to avoid using one hind limb. You can also look for swelling and instability in the knee.

Across the U.S., fixing a ruptured ACL has fast become the most common orthopedic procedure for dogs. If you suspect any sort of knee issue, a vet will look for cranial drawer sign, the knee issue that often signals a ruptured ACL. Large dogs typically need sedation before the drawer sign test. A vet might also use radiographs, MRIs and arthroscopic surgery to diagnose the cause of the injury.


If surgery is the only option, then don’t fret. Most dogs recover in three to four months like their human counterparts, and once the ligament has been repaired, it’s often strong enough to handle anything your pet wants to do. I recommend the surgery for young, active dogs that spend more time outdoors than indoors.

That said, skipping an operation could have devastating effects down the line. Dogs can develop arthritis from misaligned joints, and recent data shows the majority of dogs with partial ACL tears develop full tears in a matter of weeks or months.

The best solution is prevention. Try to be careful with the type of exercise you’re doing and where you’re doing it — don’t let your pooch bound through a slushy field of snow after spending the entire winter cooped up inside.

And if you do suspect an ACL injury, then treat it like the serious health concern it is: repair it now to avoid complications far into summer, when the last thing any animal (or any human) wants to do is stay cooped up inside.

Have a question? Email it to Dr. Charlie Meynier is a veterinarian and owner of the Vail Valley Animal Hospital and ER, with locations in Eagle-Vail and Edwards. Call 970-926-3496 or visit for more information.

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