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Your Guide to CCL Surgery in Dogs

CCL injuries in dogs severely restrict mobility and reduce quality of life. Here, we help you understand what a CCL injury is, symptoms to watch for and surgeries used to treat this painful knee issue.

Your Dog's Cranial Cruciate Ligament

Our knees have a thin piece of connective tissue called the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). This ligament does the essential job of attaching our lower leg bone (tibia) to our upper leg bone (femur) and helping our knee function efficiently.

Your dog also has connective tissue joining their tibia and femur however, in dogs this tissue is called the cranial cruciate ligament or CCL. 

Although the dog's CCL and the person's ACL function somewhat differently, pet owners and vets will often refer to the dog's cranial cruciate ligament as the dog's ACL, CCL or 'cruciate' interchangeably.

CCL Injury in Dogs

ACL injuries in people generally occur suddenly, while performing a particular movement. On the other hand, CCL injuries in dogs typically come on gradually and become progressively worse with activity. For many dogs there is no defining moment when their CCL injury suddenly occurred, instead, it is more likely that through continued exercise, symptoms that began as mild gradually became more pronounced and painful for your dog.

CCL injuries fall into two general categories, chronic and acute, although the symptoms of these are pretty much the same except for the speed at which symptoms appear.

Chronic CCL Damage

When it comes to CCL tears in dogs, many cases are chronic onset ruptures caused by degeneration and aging. CCL injuries are commonly seen in dogs in middle age, around five to seven years old. 

Acute CCL Injuries

Acute onset ruptures are most commonly seen in pups four years or younger. These tears are caused by injuries a dog will sustain just running around living their daily lives.

Sign That Your Dog May Have a CCL Injury

If your dog has a CCL injury, you will likely notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A crackling sound caused by bones rubbing against each other
  • Decreased range of motion in your dog's rear legs
  • Poor hind leg extension
  • Signs of pain when the joint is touched
  • Lack of motivation to exercise
  • Uncharacteristic irritability
  • Reluctance to exercise or climb stairs
  • Stiffness, especially after exercising
  • Swelling/Inflammation around the back knees
  • Thick/firm feel of the joint
  • Standing with weight shifted to one side
  • "Pop" sound when walking

If you notice any of the listed symptoms above, contact your vet and schedule an examination for your pup. If your dog suddenly develops a severe limp, contact your nearest animal emergency hospital for guidance.

The Mechanics of a CCL Injury

When a dog's CCL has been injured, the tibia slides forward in relation to the femur. This forward sliding movement is known as a 'positive drawer sign' or 'tibial thrust' and results in knee instability which can lead to osteoarthritis or damage to the cartilage and surrounding bones.

Treatment for Dogs with CCL Injuries

If your dog is showing signs of a CCL injury it's important to see a vet to have the condition diagnosed so that treatment can begin before symptoms become more severe. Many dogs with a single CCL injury will often go on to injure the other leg soon afterward.

Non-Surgical Treatment

In dogs under 30 pounds, there is a possibility of recovery that doesn't require surgery through ample rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical rehabilitation. This is dependent upon the size of your pet, their overall health, and the severity of your dog’s CCL injury.

Your veterinary surgeon will advise you on the best course of action for your dog.

CCL Surgery in Dogs - Options

CCL surgery is the most common surgery performed in dogs and is estimated to make up about 85% of all orthopedic surgeries performed every year on dogs. Given that this is such a common injury, several procedures have been developed over the years to repair the ligament. Each technique has its pros and cons, so it is important to discuss the options with your veterinarian to determine which procedure would be best for your dog's situation. Below are the most common methods of repairing the injury.


Arthroscopy is the least invasive means of visualizing the structures of the stifle, the cranial, and caudal cruciate ligaments. The technique offers enhanced visualization and magnification of the joint structures. The technology developed for this procedure allows for minimal surgical incisions for partial CCL and meniscus tears. This method may not be an option for completely torn ligaments.

Lateral Suture or Extracapsular

Often recommended for small to medium-sized dogs, this surgery stabilizes the stifle (knee) through the use of sutures placed on the outside of the joint. This is one of the most frequently performed surgeries for this type of injury and is usually performed on dogs that weigh under 50 pounds.

TTA (Tibial Tuberosity Advancement)

TTA is a method of surgery that corrects the need for the CCL by cutting the top of the tibia, moving it forward, and stabilizing it in its new position using a plate. Therefore, the goal with TTA is to replace the ligament entirely, rather than repair it.

TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy)

TPLO surgery is becoming increasingly more popular and is the best option for larger dog breeds. The procedure entails cutting and leveling the tibial plateau. From there, the surgeon stabilizes the tibial plateau using a plate and screws. This surgery also eliminates the need for the ligament.

Dog CCL Surgery Recovery

No matter which operation is performed to repair the ligament, it is the care your dog receives after surgery that will determine how successful the operation is. Be sure to follow your veterinarian's post-op instructions very carefully. Your vet's instructions may vary somewhat from those laid out below.

The first 12 weeks following surgery are a crucial time for recovery and rehabilitation. Limited exercise and encouraging your pup to begin using their leg are keys to a successful recovery. Very short on-leash trips outdoors for bathroom breaks are typically the recommendation for the first two weeks of recovery following CCL surgery.

At 2 weeks postoperatively, you can gradually increase the length of your dog’s leashed walks. By the 8th week, your dog should be able to take two 20-minute walks each day and perform some of their basic daily living activities.

After 8-10 weeks post-operatively, your vet will take X-rays to assess how the bone is healing. Your dog will be able to gradually be able to resume normal activities at around 12 - 16 weeks.

At Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists, we often recommend enrolling recovering dogs in a rehabilitation program to optimize the recovery process. Whatever rehabilitation facility you attend should have experience in post-op recovery from orthopedic injuries.

Some dogs have also experienced positive results through acupuncture treatments and/or cold laser therapy.

Patience is the Key to a Successful Recovery for Your Dog

When it comes to CCL surgery, recovery is never a quick process, although some dogs recover more quickly than others. While most dogs are able to return to normal activities after 16 weeks, your dog may require longer.

We cannot stress enough the importance of following the post-op instructions provided by your vet. A re-injury caused by overdoing movement too soon could send your dog right back to square one, and prove to be a very costly experience for you.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your dog limping, or struggling to get up off of the floor? Contact Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists today to book an examination for your beloved pooch.

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Pacific & Santa Cruz Veterinary Specialists is always accepting new patients! Our experienced vets are passionate about restoring good health to Santa Cruz companion animals. We are open 24/7 to provide your pet with care, whenever they need us.

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