Dog ACL Injury: Diagnosis

I remember walking into the vet office & diagnosing Winks myself, suggesting a possible broken toe or toe nail. With a puny toe-touching limp, how could it would be anything else? It looked nothing more than a minor injury occurring from a rough play date at Fernhill Park. The girl loves to rumble. When she was diagnosed with her ACL tear I didn’t believe it. Truly, I walked out of the vet office shocked, bewildered, & already on the phone making an appointment for a second opinion. Winks barely had a limp & most of the time didn’t limp at all.

This was my first foray into the strange realm of the canine ACL injury. Yuck. It’s intense. This isn’t one of those things where they say, it’s definitely this, & we, therefore, need to do that. It’s more like, we’re pretty sure it’s this & you can do any of the following options, which might work. HEAVY. If you’ve found this post because you’re going through what we were, then I totally empathize. I really do. It’s a huge weight on your mind. And your dog can’t tell you what’s going on or how they’re feeling. On top of that it’s a long term injury, whatever way you decide to proceed.

So I started researching. And I encourage you to do so, too. However you proceed, the best way to start is to be the informed advocate for your dog. I quickly found there’s lots of info out there – some true & some totally bogus. So beware & be smart – fish for the truth. Read real stories & information, not bogus comments that flood your head with BS. Feel a little comfort knowing that once you do make a decision on how to proceed, your dog will get better. It might not be immediate but every day after you make your decision is one day closer to your dog being a happy-goofy-to-the-power-of-ten-wacko again.

Before we start getting into what I’ve learned, I want to clarify that everything I’m sharing is from my personal experience with my dog. The information I gained was from online research, meetings with vets, discussions with other dog caretakers who have been through this, & more. I’m not a vet. I’m not a vet tech. I don’t work in the medical field in any capacity. But I am a person who is a great listener & an experienced researcher who possesses the ability to discern between fact & fiction. I want to share what I’ve learned because I was stressed & exhausted by the endless search for the perfect answer. Right now, you should know that there isn’t one perfect answer. If there was, there would be a clear diagnosis & one best surgery. Makes sense, right? Proceed with the path that works best for you & your dog.

Here are some interesting & fun things we learned about diagnosis for the condition.

1) The ligament we are talking about is actually called the “CCL” or the canine cruciate ligament, not ACL. It’s function is similar to that of the human ACL & during your research you will commonly find people referring to the ligament as the ACL, which is technically incorrect. I used it in the title of the article because the misnomer happens so frequently I didn’t want people looking for the ACL injury to miss out!

2) Diagnosis of this ligament tear isn’t straight forward, frankly, because the doctors cannot see the ligament. There is a “test” and a few symptoms that are indicative of a tear. X-rays are not a way to diagnose a ligament tear. X-rays only weed out other possible injuries, like breaks or bone spurs (arthritis). Here are more details about the test and common symptoms:

  • The drawer test – the CCL is a ligament in the knee that provides stability to the joint. The function is to prevent the knee from being loosey-goosey & provides some restriction to the motion that occurs between the bones that exist around the joint. The vet will perform a very simple test, pushing and pulling the knee joint in different directions to see if it slides an exceptional amount.  A knee with limited movement, indicates the joint is stable, meaning the ligaments are intact. A knee with a lot of movement, indicates a ligament is torn, partially or fully. There are two ligaments in the knee. The CCL is the ligament that is more commonly torn.
  • Symptoms – when a ligament is partially or fully torn, a dog’s knees will be sore & achey.  Frequently, they try to relieve their aches & pains with a variety of poses, some rather sadly adorable, including a 3-legged stand, toe-touching or dragging, leg extension, or sitting on their bum with a leg extended like a kickstand. I’ve included a couple photos for a visual.

possible knee injury leading to side sitting

side sit knee injury


Your vet will probably say things like, “It’s very likely your dog has a partially or fully torn ligament”. If your dog has received this dreaded diagnosis, I highly recommend a second or even third opinion.

I’ll be following up with other chapters in our experience soon!