Sometimes, a dog requires surgery on its leg. This can be due to an injury or because the dog is born with a malformation. Surgeries of any kind that occur on the leg of a dog will require special care after the procedure and it is important for a dog owner to know what to expect, avoid, and watch for.
Types of Leg Surgeries in Dogs
A dog may need one of several different types of leg surgeries at some point in its life.
Cruciate Ligament Repair
There are four main ligaments in the knee that can tear - the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the medial collateral ligament (MCL), and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL). These important parts of the knee can unfortunately tear when traumatized and dogs will limp or not use the leg with the torn ligament at all. Since ligaments connect bones to other bones, if one or more of these tissues tear, the knee does not work as it should so surgery is often performed to stabilize the knee.
A small bone that sits in the top groove of the knee is called the patella. This little bone is often called the kneecap and protects the knee joint. It is held in place within the groove of the femur and connects the quadriceps muscle to the shinbone bone to allow a dog to walk. Some dogs are born with patellas that don't stay in the groove of the knee and this causes instability in the joint. This condition is often referred to as having loose patellas or patellar luxation. Surgery can deepen the groove in the knee where the patella should stay and therefore improve the joint stability.
If a dog gets a cut in its skin on its leg, surgery to close that wound may be needed.
Broken Bone Repair
Broken bones occur when too much pressure is forced onto a bone in the leg or if a dog has metabolic bone disease. Bones have amazing healing abilities but in order to have them heal properly and quickly then need to be held in place so the broken pieces don't move around. Dogs also need to be on diets recommended by their veterinarian. Diets or supplements that are not advised by a vet can contribute to poorly balanced diets that can lead to bone problems. Surgery may be needed to ensure broken bones will heal properly.
The hip is the the part of the leg that connects the leg to the body. The top of the femur is round and often referred to as a ball or head and this round bone part should sit in the socket of the hip so the leg can move around. If the ball or socket of the hip joint is deformed, then the hip doesn't work as it should and surgery may be needed to correct it. Some dogs are born with malformed hip joints or it develops as a dog ages. This condition is commonly referred to as hip dysplasia.
Bone Deformity Correction
Some dogs develop angular limb deformities that cause twisting and curving of the leg bones or even pieces of bone to detach inside the body, among other issues. These may require surgical correction in some dogs or just medical management.
Severe trauma, disease, and other things may require a leg to be surgically amputated.
Post-Operative Care for Dog Leg Surgeries
Different types of leg surgeries may have specific post-operative care requirements. Your veterinarian will recommend what type of post-op care is best for your dog and the type of surgery that was performed.
An important part of caring for a healing dog leg is to allow the leg to rest. Activity restriction can be difficult for pet owners, especially if their dog is normally very active. But keeping a dog that has had leg surgery from jumping and running can help prevent further trauma from occurring to the surgical site. Activity restriction may also include blocking off any stairs, preventing the dog from going on and off of furniture, isolating the dog in a room, and discouraging play that requires excessive activity. Activity should not be prevented entirely, though, as too much muscle atrophy will occur if a dog does not use the leg it has surgery on at all.
Some leg surgeries require a dog owner to assist their dog in walking. Slings made of towels or cloth with handles allow a dog owner to provide this controlled assistance while encouraging a dog to gently use the leg it had surgery on.
Keeping the Leg Clean
It may seem obvious but monitoring the incision site of a leg that just had surgery is very important to help prevent infection. Monitoring for any yellow or green discharge or popped sutures is important and alerting your vet if you see these. Some veterinarians may not want you cleaning the surgical wound; if this is done improperly, it can delay healing or introduce infection in the post-operation period. This is largely depending on your pet's surgeon, so ask if you should do any cleaning around the area and how that should be done. If a cast or splint is on the leg, this will need to stay dry and clean and should be changed regularly as your veterinarian recommends.
Medications and Supplements
Oral pain medications, sedatives, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, joint supplements, vitamins, minerals, and other items may be prescribed by your veterinarian to help the leg heal.
Heat and Ice Packs
Your veterinarian may recommend applying cold to swollen and inflamed incisions can help reduce pain to an incision. If doing this, always apply a barrier, such as a clean towel or paper towel, between the ice bag and the incision. Once the swelling and inflammation decreases, heat therapy can be used, which can encourage healing by increasing blood flow to the incision. Always consult with your veterinarian before doing this because it could be harmful or unhelpful at the wrong part of the healing process.
If a dog is not properly using its leg after surgery, rehabilitation exercises may be needed to help it regain normal function. Underwater treadmills, passive range of motion exercises, and other therapies may be useful. Some exercises may require the expertise of a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Professional (CCRP).
Cold Laser Therapy
A special laser called a class IV laser can be beneficial in decreasing inflammation, pain, and healing time of a surgical site. Many veterinarians and CCRP's utilize this type of non-cutting laser.
Various injections may be recommended to decrease healing time for dogs that have had leg surgeries. Stem cells, platelet rich plasma (PRP), and glycosaminoglycan injections may all be options for your pet.
X-rays are typically taken for leg surgeries that involve bones to monitor the healing process. These will need to be obtained by a veterinarian.
Leg Surgery Recovery Time in Dogs
Different leg surgeries may have different lengths of recovery time. Skin incisions should be healed after about two weeks but bones will take at least a month to heal in younger dogs and at least two months to heal in older dogs.
Leg Surgery Complications in Dogs
When monitoring a leg after surgery, a dog owner should look for excessive swelling, redness, pain, and oozing from the incision site. Side effects of medication can also occur and may include vomiting, diarrhea, and a decrease in appetite. If too much activity occurs on the leg that had surgery, further trauma can occur to the bones, implants that may have been used, or to the sutures.