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Cruciate Injuries: Rehab is CRUCIAL!

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Picture this scenario: Your dog starts limping. You go to the veterinarian, who diagnoses a cruciate tear. As you try to process what the vet is saying, there are likely a million things running through your mind. How much pain is my dog experiencing? Is this treatable? Will my dog ever be able to [insert your dog’s favorite activity here] again? How much is this going to cost? And wait, what is a cruciate injury again?

In these next several blog posts, we are going to discuss the ins and outs of cruciate injuries, rehabilitation after a cruciate injury, treatment options, injury prevention, and more!

So let’s start off with the basics. What is a cruciate injury?

A cruciate injury typically refers to damage to one of the two the cruciate ligaments of the dog’s stifle (knee). In dogs, these two ligaments are called the “cranial cruciate ligament” (CrCL) and the “caudal cruciate ligament” (CaCL). They are analogous to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in the human knee, and in both humans and dogs, these ligaments work to provide stability to the knee and prevent excess motion. Just as ACL injuries are more common in humans than PCL injuries, cranial cruciate injuries are more common in dogs than caudal cruciate injuries. You may see the cranial cruciate ligament abbreviated simply as the “CCL”.

A ligament is a tough band of connective tissue that connects one bone to another and typically functions to provide some degree of stability within a joint. When a ligament is injured, it can be abnormally stretched, frayed, torn partially, or torn completely (ruptured). Ligament injuries are graded based on the severity of damage, and this helps veterinarians and rehab professionals choose appropriate interventions and guide treatment plans.

What is the treatment for a cruciate injury?

The specific treatment for a cruciate injury depends on several individual factors, including the severity of damage to the ligament, the dog’s age, the dog’s size or breed, their current functional status, their normal activity level, the client’s goals for the dog, and any relevant veterinary history. In some cases, surgery is necessary and warranted, but in other cases, these injuries can be managed conservatively, with or without a stifle brace. In ALL cases, formal rehabilitation by a trained rehabilitation professional is crucial for achieving optimal recovery, decreasing pain, and reducing risk of further injury or dysfunction. 

Why does my dog need rehabilitation?

Just like in humans who have ACL injuries, physical rehabilitation is a critical component of the treatment plan. Rehabilitation professionals use modalities such as ice or laser therapy to help manage pain and inflammation, provide manual hands-on techniques to address areas of abnormal muscle tension or stiffness, and prescribe skilled therapeutic exercises to help promote strengthening of weak muscles. In addition, rehab professionals are “movement experts” specifically trained to observe, evaluate, and identify areas of asymmetry and/or abnormal gait patterns that can negatively affect a dog’s current or future mobility.

Why do we care so much about pain, inflammation, abnormal muscle tension, weakness, asymmetries, or altered gait kinematics?

For one, these are all impairments that can lead to reduced mobility, an inability to participate in activities that the dog enjoys, and a decreased quality of life. Reduced mobility can lead to further pain, inflammation, muscle tension, weakness, etc., which can lead to EVEN LESS mobility, participation in activities, and so on, and so on, and so on. It can be a negative spiral if not addressed early and correctly.

Additionally, all of these impairments can create secondary issues or injuries. For example, a dog with a CCL injury in their right hind limb who is experiencing pain and inflammation may shift some weight off of that limb to help manage the pain. By doing this, the dog places increased weight and increased stress on the front limbs and on the left hind limb. This is one of the major reasons why dogs with a CCL injury in one hind limb are at a heightened risk of injuring the CCL in the opposite hind limb. Many dogs also experience spinal pain and dysfunction after a CCL injury, a result of bending their spine to further avoid using the affected limb.

Fortunately, there is good news!

Wherever your dog is in the timeline of their injury — recently injured and preparing for surgery, recently injured and conservatively managing without surgery, newly post-op, injured awhile ago but still dealing with lingering issues, or even uninjured but looking for injury prevention — rehab can help! Our goal, as always, is to help your dog move better, feel better, and live longer, and we are excited to continue sharing more with you in the coming weeks.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please give our office a call at (360) 297 – 3323 or email us at

To health and mobility,

Cassie Swafford, PT, DPT