How Do I Know If My Dog Needs Surgery?

Tears and strains to the cruciate ligament in a dog (the human ACL), is the most common injury among canines, but how can you tell if your dog needs surgery for this, or if it is an injury that will heal on its own?

As is true with so many things in life, this all too common injury abides upon a spectrum from small sprains to complete ruptures. Ultimately, a trained professional will be in the best position to help you decide if surgery is necessary as they have access to x-rays and other means of a diagnosis. 

Here are a few considerations to help you, the owner, decide for yourself whether surgery is necessary or if the injury is something you and your dog can manage on your own.

  • Size and Weight of Your Dog
  • The Ability To Bear Weight On The Injured Knee
  • Pain levels Of Your Dog
  • Breed Of Dog: Is Your Dog’s Breed At A Higher Risk For ACL tears?

The Size And Weight Of Your Dog Will Help Determine Whether Surgery Is Necessary

Smaller dogs (less than twenty five pounds) in general are able to recover from mild to even severe tears to their ACL ligament.  This is largely due to the lack of overall weight that the knee needs to uphold. While there are exceptions to this rule, most small dogs, with the right care and conservative management protocol, will experience a full recovery without surgery. 

Heavy dogs are less likely to recover on their own if they experience a severe tear or a complete rupture. Dogs that are overweight for their body size will also be less likely to recover using conservative management techniques. 

In general small dogs, particularly on the younger spectrum, will bounce back from a sprained knee in no time, while their larger counterparts will most likely do better with surgery. 

As always, consult with your veterinarian to be sure that your dog can heal without surgery.

How Severe Is The Sprain Or Tear? Can Your Dog Bear Any Weight At All?

As the owner you will be able to tell almost immediately how severe the knee injury in your dog is by whether they are able to walk around bearing some weight on the injured knee. When the ACL ruptures completely, often there is an audible ‘pop’ sound that can be heard to nearby listeners. If this is the case, you will likely want to take an emergency trip to the vet to have your dog checked out. 

If you notice a slight limp after a particular walk or play time in the park it may be that your dog has sprained its knee and with some rest will recover without surgery. 

Gageing the severity of the injury is something that an X-Ray can determine immediately; however, you will be able to tell a lot about the injury by your dog’s walking demeanor. 


Take some time to monitor your dog’s movements and if you are unsure of the type of injury, bring your dog to a clinic for a more thorough analysis. 

Your Dog’s Pain Levels: Is The Discomfort Too Much To Bear?

If your dog is experiencing significant pain, this may indicate the need for surgery. You, as the owner will be able to determine pain levels by whimpering, or other vocal sounds, often your dog will hide if they are experiencing extreme pain.

Larger dogs will often experience more intense pain as they attempt to bear weight on their injured knee, while their smaller counter parts may not demonstrate the same threshold. 

Of course, we cannot speak to our dogs to get a rating on their pain levels, but by paying close attention to their mannerisms, usually the owner can tell how much is too much. 

If your dog is in serious pain, then it is wise to get the appropriate medical attention including pain killers, and perhaps surgery.

Your Dog’s Breed: Some Dog Breeds Are More Prone To Full Ruptures Of The Knee Than Others

In general pure breeds tend to have a genetic predisposition toward joint issues. While this is not always true, certain dog breeds will need to undergo surgery such as TPLO to reshape the knee. (1)

Structural surgeries that change the essential nature of the hind knees in a dog may be the best option for larger breeds who have a history of ongoing knee issues. These surgeries generally cost more, however they may also serve as a preventative measure to avoid further injury in the future. 


If you have a large purebred dog, you are likely a good candidate for knee surgery. If your dog is older, and the surgery itself seems too traumatic, consider conservative management as an option. 

The quality of your dog’s life depends upon taking appropriate action at the right stage in their life. Consult with your veterinarian to decide if surgery is necessary for your breed of dog.

How To Determine If Your Dog Needs Surgery:

Look For The Clues, But Ultimately Get A thorough Analysis From Your Veterinarian

Your dog will tell the story of the injury by the way they walk, sound, and their general demeanor. Some factors such as size, age, weight, and breed will help determine whether your dog needs surgery for their knee, as well as the extent of the injury itself. 

Ultimately, clinics come fully equipped with all of the tools to help you determine the actual injury (sprain or full rupture), so that you can make the most appropriate decision for  you and your dog. 

There is also the fact that dog knee surgery is both invasive and expensive, so if for any reason, operating on your dog is not an option, it is always possible to follow a fully conservative management plan.

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