How to Help Your Dog Suffering From Luxating Patella

Published February 1, 2022
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If you've ever seen your dog hop or skip while walking, you might think this is just one of their unique quirks. Unfortunately, this behavior could indicate a joint problem. Luxating patellas in dogs, a condition where the kneecap shifts out of place, can be uncomfortable and may even require surgery. Discover more about this orthopedic issue and what you can do to help your pup.

What is a Luxating Patella?

A luxating patella is an orthopedic abnormality whereby a dog's kneecap pops out of its correct placement. The name accurately describes this condition, as "luxation" means dislocated, and "patella" is the kneecap. This unnatural popping in and out of placement leads to pain and progressive arthritis. Dogs with this condition are at higher risk for tearing ligaments or sustaining other orthopedic injuries.

In most dogs, patellar luxation is caused in part by a genetic defect. It can also be the result of an injury to the knee. Although it can affect one leg, it's also commonly diagnosed in both knees, which is referred to as bilateral luxating patellas.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs of a luxating patella can be very subtle. They can present in puppies as young as 4 months old. Many pet owners may not notice these symptoms, or the luxating patella may be an incidental finding without any obvious signs. However, the following are some of the most common symptoms associated with the condition:

  • Hopping or skipping while walking or running
  • Intermittent limping on a hind leg
  • Holding up the back leg occasionally
  • Stiff gait
  • Popping noise from knees
  • Yelping out while walking, then returning to normal
  • Bowlegged appearance

Diagnosing a Luxating Patella

A Vet Examining a Dog's Legs

In most cases, your veterinarian can diagnose a luxating patella by feeling your dog's knees. They'll perform an orthopedic exam to manipulate the patellas and evaluate if they pop in and out. If they do note luxation, they'll grade it on a scale of one to four, one being mild and four being severe. Occasionally, X-rays or other advanced imaging may be recommended.

Predisposed Breeds

While a dog of any size can have luxating patellas, small breed dogs are 12 times more likely to experience this condition than are larger dogs. Small dogs are more prone to medial luxation, where the kneecap moves inward. Some of the most common small breed dogs diagnosed with this condition include:

Large breed dogs, on the other hand, more commonly develop a lateral luxation, where the kneecap shifts to the outside of the knee. It's possible for conditions like hip dysplasia that change the musculoskeletal positioning, to lead to secondary luxating patellas. The following large and giant breed dogs are at greatest risk:

Treatment Options

Once your dog's luxating patella has been diagnosed, there are several ways to treat it. However, the grade of their luxation will determine how extensive treatment should be. Dogs with Grade I and sometimes II patellar luxations may do well with conservative solutions, although these methods will not cure the condition -- they simply improve function and comfort. Grades II, III, and IV typically need surgery. Your veterinarian can give you a personalized recommendation based on your dog's grade and condition.

Weight Loss

Not all dogs with luxating patellas must lose weight as part of treatment, but it's recommended for those who are overweight or obese. Extra weight on the joint can worsen the condition. Talk to your vet about how many calories your dog should be getting each day in order to lose weight safely, then measure out their food.

Don't forget to track treats and table scraps -- these all add up! Elect for lower-calorie treat options or use nutritious vegetables as snacks. Carrots, zucchinis, green beans, and apples are all great options when fed appropriately. You may want to consider a special diet designed for weight control.

Exercise Modification

Depending on the condition of your dog's knee, your veterinarian might recommend restricted activity. This could mean keeping your dog on strict cage rest, or simply keeping them from playing, jumping, or running. It's important to follow your veterinarian's guidelines closely to ensure your dog is comfortable.

Muscle strengthening movements or physical therapy can be helpful in improving function in some cases. These could involve swimming therapy, controlled range of motion movements, or balancing exercises. Seek guidance from your vet or a canine rehabilitation specialist before trying any movements at home, because manipulating your dog's leg incorrectly can cause irreversible damage.

Medication and Supplements

Anti-inflammatory medications can work to bring down any inflammation within the joint and reduce pain. These may be recommended for short courses or could be required long-term. There are potential side effects with some of these drugs, so always administer them under the guidance of your vet.

Vitamins are a great compliment to medications, or can be used in dogs that can't take certain pharmaceuticals. These supplements elevate joint health and can help slow the progression of arthritis in the knee. Ask your vet for recommendations or look for dog-safe products that contain ingredients like fatty acids, chondroitin, or glucosamine.

Surgical Correction

In small dogs that have higher-grade luxating patellas or are experiencing significant pain, surgery to correct the luxation may be recommended. The surgery involves deepening the groove where the kneecap sits and tightening the joint capsule so the patella will stay in place. While some general-practice veterinarians perform this procedure, your vet will likely refer you to a veterinary surgeon.

The recovery period is usually 10 to 12 weeks long, with the first six weeks involving close monitoring and cage rest. You'll have to carry your pup outside for the first several days, and they will have to wear a cone to prevent licking at the incision. The outcome of this procedure is very good, with a success rate greater than 90 percent.

Helping Your Dog with a Dislocating Knee

Luxating patella is not an uncommon condition in dogs, and particularly small dogs. If you notice your dog doing a little hop and skip while they run without any obvious signs of pain, it's worthwhile to have them examined by your veterinarian. They can determine if your dog does have a luxating patella and, if so, the level of severity. From there, you can discuss the best course of treatment to keep your pup comfortable and happy.

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