One of the most terrifying mishaps in the life of any pet parent is when your dog 🐶 gets a leg injury.
You never want to see your fur baby limping, and you know when they start that it could be the beginning of months (or longer) of therapy 🏥, restricted movement, and other health issues.
Knee injuries, in particular, are terrible. After all, it's not like you can just talk to your dog and tell them they need to rest their leg!
One common solution to knee injuries is a brace, but there's a lot of controversy about them in the canine world. Are they effective, are they meaningless, or worse, actively hindering healing?
In today’s post I go an inch deep and a mile wide about dog knee injuries and the role of knee braces. I’ve also added a great educational video 📽️ on one of the most common dog knee injuries cranial cruciate ligament Injury (CCL). This is a must watch!
As usual my blog is packed with research-backed 📚 knowledge. For pet parents looking for reliable, unbiased and fact-based dog care guides, I have sprinkled some additional great ones throughout the post.
There's a lot of ground to cover, and you might be surprised at some of the factors at play.
Dog knee braces are recommended when limited to no motion is required for limb injury healing or to prevent further damage in a joint.
In most cases knee braces, also known as stifle braces, are necessary to limit motion of an injured knee in a dog.
In particular, Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) injuries are some of the most common knee injuries in dogs. Wearing a knee brace limits movement of the leg thus allowing the tendon(s) to tighten up and heal.
In addition to cranial cruciate ligament injuries, stifle braces can also be used for a wide variety of hind leg injuries including patellar luxation and other conditions such as arthritis.
Dog knee braces have been around for a long time, but for most of that time, vets have shied away from them.
It's not necessarily because they're bad, but more because they weren't properly designed.
You see, when dog parents encounter a limping pup, they want to help in any way they can.
Often, they get the idea that a brace – something we use on our own joints when they are sore or injured – could be the solution. Pretty logical right?
The trouble is most casual pet parents aren't canine anatomists. As humans we understand what bone versus soft tissue injury is and can gauge if and what treatment can be done at home.
With our fur babies you’d have to be able to visually diagnose the cause of the limp, to determine what treatment is appropriate.
Using a brace to immobilize or restrict the motion of a knee is a good way to allow it to heal, by preventing further aggravation to the affected area. However, there are two problems with this DIY approach:
First, you have little way of knowing what particular part of the knee was injured. Did your fur baby tear their ACL or their CCL? Did they crack their patella or one of the other bones in the area? Is it a more complex injury, or even just a dislocation?
And second, without knowing the specific injury, you don't necessarily know what kind of motion needs to be restricted.
More importantly, if you put a brace on your fur baby and they go wild with all of their pent-up energy, they could end up overcompensating and tearing their other knee, leaving them in a much worse position for healing. Nobody wants that, right?
Anyway, all of these different factors combined into one perfect storm of skepticism and distrust.
Vets were still working on developing treatments for various knee issues (read more about common dog knee injuries down below), but medical developments take a long time and a lot of testing to get right.
Meanwhile, braces started to hit the market, designed for dogs and sold by pet parents just trying to help their fellow pet parents.
These braces were initially inconsistent in quality and often not quite right in design.
As a result, they would fully immobilize a leg, or immobilize the wrong kind of movement and leave the leg open to further injury, or even fail to provide support the way they would need to for healing.
Vets saw these braces, recognized that they often either did nothing or did more harm than good and shied away from them.
Vets would then recommend surgical procedures and the accompanying rest and support rather than something simple and non-invasive like a brace.
Of course, surgical procedures are invasive, take a long time to heal, and are expensive to boot. Many pet parents couldn't handle it.
Who would choose to pay thousands of dollars and months of recovery for a surgery when a $30 brace from a pet parent blog might do the job?
Early dog knee braces didn't work for a few different reasons.
The first is that a lot of them were made out of some kind of fabric. Fabric is flexible and stretchy; that means it can support a knee without getting in the way of your fur baby's ability to live their life, right?
Well, yes, but that's the problem. Fabric stretches, and when you're looking to immobilize a knee, that flexibility means it doesn't actually do what it needs to do.
The brace might provide some additional support to allow your pup to move more confidently, but when the injured knee is allowed to slip around, it can tear other ligaments, wear away at the joints, and cause arthritis.
On top of that, fabric is mobile. Even a bit of subtle rubbing back and forth, all day, every day, is enough to wear out fur and skin, leaving rope-like burns and irritation at best.
Another problem with early dog knee braces is that they were often improperly sized.
Think about it. If you wanted to make a brace to support a dog's torn knee, what size would you make it?
Obviously, you'd need a few different sizes; some dogs are larger than others.
You can't even begin to use the same brace on a Mastiff that you would on a Chihuahua. The brace for one would be a full bodysuit on the other!
Of course, the people making braces early on didn't have the resources to custom-make every single brace they sold and would just do the best they could and make a few different sizes, often a small/medium/large set for small/medium/large breeds (for nine total braces.)
In humans, with all our variation, there are 14 different sizes for knee braces. Imagine 14 different knee brace designs for every breed of dog there is. That's way more than a hobbyist and dog lover can produce.
Braces have changed over time through trial and error. Modern braces are more limited in design.
They don't have complex harnesses meant to hold the brace in place the way older fabric braces did (which also immobilized the hip and caused more mobility issues for dogs.)
They're also made out of harder plastic that is designed to do its job while not restricting other kinds of movement.
They're smaller, easier to put on, less prone to causing skin problems, and less likely to hamper mobility and lead to overcompensation.
Modern braces are made by taking measurements specifically for your dog and your dog alone. Small hobbyist shops and blogs couldn't do something like that, but modern medical companies certainly can.
Plus, the design of these braces was created by trained orthotists, people who work with bones and joints as their primary career, and who know exactly how those knees work and how they can go wrong.
Yes, they do! Well, I should say most of the time. So, here's the thing.
When your dog's knee is injured, you need to take them to the vet so the vet can diagnose what the specific injury is.
Different injuries need to be treated in different ways. Sometimes, that means a brace, some pain relievers, limited mobility, or surgery; other times, it's somewhere in between. Your vet may find that your dog is just exhausted or picked up a thorn during a hike.
Many vets will go with a brace as often as possible because it's less invasive and much less expensive for pet parents.
Other vets prefer to go with surgery because it's a faster and more guaranteed solution to the problem. Often, though, the actual solution is a hybrid.
Surgery can help correct the issue, and a brace helps keep your dog from tearing the sutures or otherwise re-injuring themselves.
Don't get me wrong; surgery is still difficult!
Older dogs in particular can sometimes have trouble with anesthesia, and you may be hesitant to get them put under. A brace can still help in many cases, but it's not a guaranteed cure-all.
Depending on the severity of the injury, it's entirely possible that a brace alone won't be enough for complete healing.
There's also the risk of another knee injury to the other leg. Since one torn ACL imbalances your fur baby, they'll start to use their other leg for more of their mobility, putting more stress on it and eventually leading to it tearing as well.
If a dog tears one knee, it's very common for them to tear the other within a few years.
How to Prevent Dog Knee Injuries
Knee injuries can be very painful and can dramatically change your pup’s life forever.
When it comes to the well-being of our fur babies, I always like to quote Benjamin Franklin on prevention: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
I believe the best way to take care of any injury is by taking measures to minimize the risk of occurrence.
There are a few basic preventative steps you can take to decrease your dog’s odds of suffering from knee injuries:
Help your dog maintain an ideal weight.
Enrich your dog’s diet with joint supporting supplements, like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega 3 fatty acids.
Especially with senior dogs, avoid high-impact activities while encouraging low-impact activities such as swimming
If your dog has a propensity to knee injuries, preventing them will be a tough challenge.
However, sticking to the basic recommendations above will hopefully keep your pup out of the vet’s office and enjoying life more.
When your dog suffers from a knee injury, the treatment will depend on the severity. Your vet might recommend from physical therapy to surgery. If your pup is not a good candidate for surgery, a knee brace might help.
“For animals that are unable to undergo surgery, there are braces that can be custom made to externally stabilize the knee.” - Dr. Timothy Schwab - Metropolitan Veterinary Associates.
What Are the Most Common Knee Injuries in Dogs?
Cranial cruciate ligament rupture and patellar luxation are the two most common knee injuries that affect dogs. They both occur in the rear legs.
While both injuries will cause lameness in your dog, they are treated differently.
After learning about knee braces and their effectiveness, it is helpful to learn about the most common injuries that result in a vet recommendation for a knee brace.
Without getting too technical, here is a little background on the most common dog knee injuries.
Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture
Like a human’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the cranial cruciate ligament in dogs holds the bones of the leg into place. The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) is one of the most important stabilizers inside the knee joint.
Dog Leg Anatomy
What Causes Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture in Dogs?
The CCL can tear for many different reasons causing a lot of pain and discomfort. The rupture can occur as a sudden event or as a progressive degeneration over time.
A dog that suffers a rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament will find it hard to walk because when they put weight on it, the bones have nothing to keep them in place, and the knee will give out.
Cranial cruciate ligament ruptures can affect any dog regardless of age and size. However, obese and large-breed dogs show a higher propensity.
“Obese dogs appear to be more predisposed to developing a cruciate rupture. In these dogs, the injury may occur with minor trauma to the knee, such as stumbling over a rock while walking.” – VCA | Animal Hospitals
Additionally, some breeds are also known for showing higher incidence of occurrence. These breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Pit Bulls amongst others.
Check out this educational video on common questions about cranial cruciate ligament injury by Dr. Britton Bradberry from Advanced Veterinary Care:
Common Questions About Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injury Video
Luxating means out of place. Patella luxation occurs when a dog’s kneecap slides out of the crevice it sits in and out of place.
It’s basically the dog’s equivalent to a dislocated kneecap in humans.
Unlike cranial cruciate ligament rupture, dogs with this condition usually don’t show signs of pain.
The severity of this injury may range from a mild luxation, happening only during flexion, to permanent luxation involving muscles and tendons.
Luxating Patella in Dogs
Although most common in little dogs, large dogs can also suffer it.
Patellar luxation, is one of the most common orthopedic conditions in dogs, affecting about 7% of puppies and primarily small breeds.
Boston and Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and miniature Poodles seem to show the highest propensity to this type of injury.
If you’ve noticed intermittent limping, sudden intermittent loss of support in the rear legs or perhaps an abnormal sitting position your dog may be suffering from a patellar luxation.
“They (dogs) may off-load the limb when standing, hold it off of the ground, or limp after exercise. Some animals have difficulty rising.” - Dr. Timothy Schwab - Metropolitan Veterinary Associates.
What to Do if Your Dog Injures Their Knee
If your fur baby played a little too hard, stumbled, got a leg caught, or otherwise had energy exceed their body's ability to keep them going, a damaged knee is a likely result. After all, it's a relatively fragile, very mobile joint that suffers a lot of impact and stress.
If your fur baby injures their knee, the first thing you need to do is take them to the vet.
Sometimes, all you're dealing with is a minor sprain, and they'll be right as rain again in as little as a few weeks with proper care.
Pain meds are also a good first step, but only for short-term use.
It's generally not a good idea to give a dog pain meds for more than a few weeks at a time; they can have side effects that include damage to the kidneys and liver, as well as other issues along the way.
For more long term management of pain, CBD tinctures have turned out to be very effective with very little to none side effects.
If you choose this route, we highly advise that you do thorough research before you make a purchase decision.
Our basic recommendation is to pick USDA certified organic hemp-based CBD tinctures extracted using the CO2 method and that come with a certificate of analysis.
From there, the usual go-to for most injuries is going to be mobility restrictions and a brace.
The brace serves to immobilize the knee, preventing the bones from stressing other ligaments and muscles or wearing away at each other and causing arthritis. With rest, care, and proper use of a brace, most minor and moderate injuries can heal on their own.
Braces are also good for dogs that, for one reason or another, can't have surgery. There are many different reasons this might be, including age, kidney or heart issues, or other high-risk factors.
If your fur baby can't have surgery but suffers a severe enough injury, they may end up with limited mobility permanently. It's sad, but it's better than risking their life in a surgery they shouldn't have, right?
In younger, healthier dogs, and when the injury is severe, surgery is more likely to be necessary.
Luckily, modern medical science has made it a lot easier and less invasive to perform such a surgery, though the extent of the surgery will depend on the injury, the dog, the vet, and the available equipment.
One thing that you almost never have to worry about is euthanasia. It's extremely rare for an injury to be severe enough to hinder your furry friend's quality of life to such a great extent to make such an act a viable choice.
No, your fur baby will likely be able to wear a brace for a few weeks or a few months and be right as rain not long after.
Has your vet ever recommended your furry friend wear a knee brace? If so, what was your experience like? Did it work as well as you hoped it would, or did it make for any memorable stories? I'd love to hear all your thoughts and stories about your fur baby's knee brace experiences, so be sure to drop those down below!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).