I have a four-year-old male Labrador who has just become lame on one of his back legs. It improved after a few days of rest, but now, two weeks later, he still prefers to put most of his weight on the other leg. Is this a problem, or will he get better with more rest?

James Farrell advises…

If your dog is lame, I would always recommend taking him to the vet. It may be something relatively minor, such as a thorn in the foot, but given your description of the problem, and the breed and age of your dog, it is highly likely that he has suffered a rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament in his knee. In a dog of his size, this is likely to need remedial surgery to provide a satisfactory solution.

Your vet will first ask you questions about how it occurred and what your dog has been doing over the last two weeks. Your vet will then give your dog a thorough check over, focusing on manipulating his knee in order to see if there is any laxity in his cruciate ligaments. The cranial drawer test checks the knee to see if it is stable when the dog puts his weight on his back leg. If it is unstable, it is likely that the cruciate ligament has ruptured. Your vet will then probably recommend X-rays and surgery.

X-rays are important to rule out other problems, like tumours (less likely at this age) and also possible chip fractures to the knee bones. The X-rays also help confirm the diagnosis that the ligament has broken and that the joint is swollen and painful.

Inside the knee between the two bones are two cushioning pads made of cartilage called menisci. Sometimes one of these is damaged and the frayed edges of this and the ligament need removing to reduce inflammation and pain in the joint.

Once the joint has been inspected surgically, replacement of the ligament can be done in a number of ways and vets differ in opinion on which is the best way to do this. For a dog of his size, expert opinion would usually be to do what’s called a tibial plateau levelling procedure. This involves changing the shape of the bone and joint so that the damaged cruciate ligament is no longer required and the dog can put weight on his knee comfortably. This would usually be what I would advise and do at my surgery for an Akita, but not all vets are able to offer this and so referral to another vet may be required. Some owners are worried because it involves sawing the bone, but the dogs make a great recovery and put weight on their legs straight after surgery. Therefore, they are able to use the leg normally very quickly compared to older methods of dealing with this problem.

Modern painkillers and postoperative care regimes mean that dogs are kept very comfortable throughout their recovery and owners are very happy with the results, which get these dogs back to running around as normal as soon as possible – often within six to eight weeks of surgery.

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