Have you noticed your dog skipping? Does it seem to happen at random? Have you noticed the knee get randomly locked up, like your dog can’t use the leg, only to have your dog shake it off and proceed as if nothing has happened?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the questions above, there’s a good chance your dog may have luxating patellas.
What does “luxating patella” mean?
Let’s start at the beginning. The knee is an amazing, complex joint made up of three bones – the femur, the tibia, and the patella – held together by tendons, ligaments, and muscle. Where the bones meet, cartilage covers the surface of the bone. The same cartilage provides a smooth surface for the patella to glide, allowing the knee to bend.
When the patella is “luxated”, the kneecap is essentially displaced. Instead of just sliding up-and-down, it can move from side-to-side. In mild cases, the kneecap is loose and can be displaced, but easily pops back in. In severe cases, the kneecap hates being in position and moves in whatever way it pleases. Regardless, it causes instability of the knee joint, which is terrible for all the soft tissue structures in the knee.
For some reason, toy breeds are much more predisposed to luxating patellas. Overrepresented breeds include Toy Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, Chihuahuas, French Bulldogs, and Pomeranians. Their crosses, like Cavoodles, are similarly more prone to luxating patellas.
What can go wrong?
When the patella starts to pop out and do whatever it likes, it causes instability in the joint. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience; the instability puts a lot of stress on the soft tissue structures, most notably, the cruciate ligament. Under certain conditions, the cruciate ligament tears, causing severe lameness. The only treatment for cruciate ligament disease is surgery.
The instability also predisposes to arthritis. The joint essentially becomes very, very angry and eats away at the cartilage. That’s problematic because: (1) you’re losing the protection cartilage affords and (2) there’s no getting that cartilage back. All we can do at this stage is slow down degeneration…which is almost impossible when the knee is unstable. Ask anyone with arthritis how debilitating the condition can be. Arthritis is painful.
What can we do?
Assessment under general anaesthetic is super important! When they’re completely relaxed, our assessment of the biomechanics of the knee is way more accurate than when they’re awake and stressed and trying to jump out of our hold. While they’re under anaesthetic, we also take the opportunity to radiograph their knees, so we can assess their stifles for arthritic changes.
The goal is to correct the instability BEFORE any arthritic changes occur. As I’ve mentioned, once arthritis kicks in, all you’re doing is slowing down degeneration. If you can catch the knee before any of these changes take place, your dog is much, much more likely to be comfortable long-term.
And how do we correct the instability? Surgery. We recommend the services of a specialist surgeon to correctly assess the exact cause of luxation and surgically repair the knee. To reiterate, fixing the instability before the joint becomes arthritic is so, so important.
We think this is so important that we make specialist orthopaedic surgery, courtesy of Dr. Eugene Buffa, available at our clinic, My Vet Animal Hospital. We love being there for the furbabies who know us, knowing that it can be scary for some to be at a specialist centre. And we love not needing to compromise on the quality of care in the process.
As ever, if you have more questions than you do answers, talking to your vet is the best thing we can advise. While the patella popping in and out is largely pain-free (for now), the instability can cause issues in the future. Have a chat to see what you can do for your furbaby!