A dog ACL brace is a simple device often used to treat a dog ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury. Dog braces are popular because they are accessible, non-invasive, and relatively affordable compared to ACL surgical procedures. But is bracing the most effective way to help a dog get back to its feet?
Bracing is a non-invasive torn ACL treatment for dogs. A knee brace provides support and stabilisation on the knee joint affected by the tear. A brace immobilises the joint to reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing. Bracing can also be used with other treatments like physical therapy and supplements.
Some dogs may heal using conservative treatments, like rest and physical therapy, but most will need surgical intervention to regain their mobility. It’s rare to put down a dog for an ACL injury, as surgery has a high success rate, but some dogs may need some extra support during the recovery process.
When surgery is necessary, veterinarians may still recommend using knee braces for pre-operative care or post-surgical support and rehabilitation. Below is an extensive discussion on the effectiveness of dog bracing in canine ACL injuries.
Read on to help you decide whether bracing or surgery is the right solution for your dog’s ACL issue.
How Do Leg Braces Work for Dogs?
A dog knee brace immobilises a dog’s stifle joint to stabilise it. With this knee brace, the knee joint cannot flex or extend as much. Limiting these movements allows more opportunity for scar tissues to build up and repair the tear. Immobilising the joint reduces pain and inflammation and balances the back and hips.
A dog knee brace (also called a dog stifle brace) is a device that treats CCL (canine cruciate ligament) tears in dogs and can prevent undue stress on the other healthy legs, which could eventually damage the other joints and limbs.
CCL tears in dogs are the equivalent of ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears in humans. A CCL tear affects the stifle joint, which functions like the human knee. Torn ligaments around the stifle joint make it unstable, which leads to further deterioration. Symptoms of a cruciate ligament injury in dogs include muscle deterioration, lameness, and pain.
A dog brace is usually removable, so dog owners may put it on during the day and remove it at night. Some brands offer models in various sizes and made from different materials. Experts believe customised knee braces designed to fit the dog, are the most effective in providing therapeutic support for dog ACL injuries. Customised ACL braces usually come with hinges that imitate the movements of the knee joint.
Are Braces Effective for Torn ACLs in Dogs?
How effective a dog knee brace is to treat a dog’s ACL injury depends on the severity of the injury and other variables relevant to the dog, such as size, age, and medical conditions. Vet’s will often recommend a combination of corrective surgery and wearing a brace for best results.
When an ACL tears, it makes the stifle (knee) painful, unstable, and prone to other injuries. There are many degrees of ACL tearing that happen in dogs. For example, a dog can have a partial tear (¾, ½, ¼), and a complete tear. The ACL injury may involve a meniscus tear or a secondary meniscus tear.
A University of Louisville study showed that a rigid brace was effective in limiting harmful motions that can cause pain and further joint damage. Another study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association states that 85% of owners are satisfied with bracing as a treatment method for their dog’s injury. Although the study shows that more owners were happy with surgery than bracing, it also reveals that surgery is not always the perfect solution.
In some cases, dog ACL braces are effective when combined with other non-invasive treatment methods like acupuncture, joint supplements, pain medication, and physical therapy.
Bracing is also helpful as a support method in pre-operative care and post-operative rehabilitation. For example, knee braces are often used on injured dogs undergoing extracapsular or lateral suture ACL surgeries. These ACL surgeries require sutures, which can break when there is tremendous pressure. The dog leg brace can provide the necessary support to prevent extra pressure on the sutures.
Do Vets Recommend Braces for Torn ACLs?
Veterinarians will most likely recommend dog ACL braces in two cases: as part of non-surgical treatment or ‘medical management’, or to support the dog’s mobility before and after surgery.
In the first scenario, a vet may use an ACL brace as part of a non-surgical (also called conservative) treatment plan. This may involve other non-surgical treatments for a cruciate ligament injury, ranging from weight management to acupuncture and other alternative therapies.
The second case involves using a dog knee brace as a support tool for managing the ACL injury before and after surgery.
Veterinarians often base their treatment recommendations for torn ACLs on several factors like:
- ACL tear type and severity
- Dog’s activity level
- Dog’s size
- Dog’s age
- Dog’s skeletal conformation
- Knee instability
- Dog’s medical history
Experts also often consider their personal clinical experiences and medical expertise in treating dog ACL cases.
Are Leg Braces Better Than Surgery for Torn ACLs in Dogs?
Many veterinarians believe that the most effective and fastest way to treat a severe ACL rupture is surgery. It is a permanent way to control the instability of the knee joint. It also removes the pain caused by the loss of the typical knee structure. That said, braces can aid the post-surgery recovery process.
This is especially true when the ACL injury involves a meniscal tear that is extremely painful. In such situations, using dog knee braces is often insufficient to manage such high pain levels. Unlike human surgery, dog ACL surgery cannot repair the cruciate ligament with a graft. Thus, the surgery aims to remove damaged meniscus parts to stabilise the stifle/knee.
The American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) reveals improvement after a surgical repair of the cranial cruciate ligament is evident in 85-90% of reported cases.
Using only dog knee braces for torn ACLs may not work on large and heavy dogs because their knee joints take on more pressure from their weight. Therefore, these knee joints will not be able to heal themselves and return to normal function at a reasonable time. A study on overweight dogs shows that surgical treatment for their ACL tear had better outcomes than non-surgical treatment.
As for the dog ACL brace vs surgery debate, surgery may not always be the best solution for dog owners. Not all dogs are fit for surgery due to variables like old age and underlying diseases. In addition, ACL surgeries do come at a cost, at more than $3000 per knee. Not all owners can afford such treatment costs, and if surgery is not an option, non-invasive treatment options such as a leg brace may be worth trying for less serious tears.
Consult your veterinarian on the best possible treatment plan for your dog’s ACL injury.
What Are the Pros of Dog ACL Braces?
The pros of dog ACL braces include:
- A dog ACL brace offers non-invasive joint support and stability for dogs with ACL injuries.
- It improves a dog’s activity level by providing joint support and stability to the injured leg.
- It decreases pressure and stress on the opposite hind limb (contralateral), preventing future injuries.
- It is less expensive than ACL surgery.
- It is a viable treatment option for injured dogs unsuitable for surgery due to physical conditions, age, or contraindications.
- It can offer support during post-surgical care and rehabilitation.
What Are the Cons of Dog ACL Braces?
Some of the main drawbacks of dog ACL braces are:
- A dog ACL brace may not be effective enough to treat serious ACL/CCL injuries.
- It takes time and effort to put it on and off.
- The dog needs to wear it long-term or for life.
- It rubs the skin constantly, which can cause discomfort and possibly lead to long-term skin problems.
- It can slip from the leg and be ineffective.
- Some brace models are expensive ($1000 or more), and do not offer the assurance of healing the injury.
- It needs replacement when worn out or damaged.
- It may not relieve pain for ACL injuries involving meniscal tears.
What Are Dog Knee Braces Made Of?
Dog knee braces are made of a combination of soft and stretchy neoprene with a velcro strap. Some braces are made of more rigid materials such as polypropylene plastic to offer more rigidity and support which may be necessary depending on the condition of your dog.
Neoprene braces aim to compress the knee, reduce swelling, and protect the limb. Some models allow you to insert rigid support that functions like a splint to limit joint movements and promote more stability on the ligaments. Soft neoprene braces are best for mild injuries like sprains and strains.
The best dog knee braces to treat CCL injuries are made of high-quality rigid or semi-rigid materials similar to the ones used for human braces. These braces usually feature exteriors made of hard medical-grade polypropylene plastic. This polypropylene plastic material is strong and rigid enough to support and stabilise the dog’s stifle joint. Some of these plastic materials are also waterproof.
The interior part of this type of dog brace is typically lined with foam to provide padding and comfort to the dog’s skin. Several CCL braces also come with screws and rivets made of stainless steel. The screws or rivets adjust the brace’s tightness, resulting in full range, limited, or fully restricted motions.
What Other Uses Do Leg Braces Have for Dogs?
Aside from treating ACL injuries, leg braces can also be used for other minor injuries such as strains, sprains, and minor arthritis. A dog leg brace can alleviate pain and discomfort caused by such injuries. Plus, leg braces can enable continued weight bearing on the injured leg and promote a normal walking position.
Dog leg braces are beneficial as they can increase the dog’s range of motion without aggravating the injury further. A dog brace is often used as a rehabilitation or support device after major surgery. While they can’t be used exclusively to repair injuries, they are an excellent rehabilitation tool.
Is It Ok to Walk a Dog With a Torn ACL?
Technically, a dog can still walk with a torn ACL. A naturally active dog may still try to walk by shifting its weight onto the other legs. However, this will eventually strain the legs and cause more injuries, which is why you should avoid long walks, and book corrective surgery as soon as possible.
After an ACL surgery, a dog should rest and avoid walking or running. You may walk the dog but support the injured leg with an appropriate brace upon your vet’s advice.
Do Leg Braces Fit All Breeds of Dogs?
Dog leg braces in the market today fit a range of dog sizes, including extra-large breeds. You can choose leg brace brands that offer complete customisations if your dog has genetic predispositions that make the hip or other parts abnormal in shape and size.
This article is published in good faith, for general informational and educational purposes only. Paws and More Vet Centre does not make any warranties about the ongoing completeness and reliability of this information. This article should not be used as a substitute for veterinary advice, including for diagnosis or treatment of a pet’s medical condition. Always consult a veterinary professional before making decisions on your pet’s health.