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Like humans, dogs have complex anatomy that ensures mobility and health. The patella, or kneecap, plays a crucial role in a dog's leg function. When the dog's kneecap doesn't stay in place as it should, the effects can range from minor discomfort to significant mobility issues. This condition is called a luxating patella and can worsen without treatment as time goes on. 

In this article, we'll explore the symptoms, causes, and treatments of luxating patellas, offering insights into this common canine condition. 

Patellar luxation is one of the most common orthopedic conditions in dogs, diagnosed in 7% of puppies.

What is Patellar Luxation?

Diagnosed in 7% of puppies,patellar luxation is a kneecap dislocation or misalignment from its normal anatomical position in the groove of the femur (thigh bone).2

The direction of this dislocation can vary. In some instances, the kneecap veers toward the inner part of the knee, which is termed a medial patellar luxation. On the other hand, it might slip to the outside, which is known as lateral patellar luxation. Medial patellar luxation is the most common among the two, predominantly affecting smaller breeds.2

Patellar luxation can be present at birth or acquired due to trauma or other factors. In many cases, particularly in small breeds, it's believed to have a genetic component. 

Graphic listing the clinical signs of patellar luxation in dogs

Clinical Signs of Luxating Patellas in Dogs 

Luxating patellas in dogs is a common issue, especially in certain dog breeds. Recognizing the clinical signs early can aid in timely diagnosis and treatment, ensuring a better quality of life for your canine companion. Here are some of the most common clinical signs of patellar luxation in dogs: 

  • Limping: A dog with a luxating patella may display an irregular walking pattern or favor one leg over another. Such limping can affect one or both legs and be intermittent, occurring after physical activity. 
  • Skipping steps: The dog might appear to "hop" or skip every few steps, particularly when running, due to the intermittent popping out of the kneecap. Observant pet parents might notice these brief episodes interspersed with regular walking or running. 
  • Shaking: Dogs might shake their legs in an attempt to realign the kneecap or relieve discomfort. This is often a reflexive action, and the dog may appear puzzled or distressed when the shaking doesn't alleviate their discomfort. 
  • Lameness: This can manifest as an inability or unwillingness to place weight on the affected leg, especially after exercise or prolonged activity. Over time, without intervention, the lameness can become more persistent or severe. 
  • Bow-legged appearance in puppies: Young dogs might display a distinct bow-legged stance, a potential early indicator of luxating patellas. This appearance might become more pronounced when the dog is active or trying to climb up or down. 
  • "Knocked-in knees" in large dogs: Also known as valgus deformity, larger breeds with patellar luxation might show an inward turning of the knees. This misalignment can affect their gait and might become more evident when the dog tries to turn or accelerate.1

If your dog exhibits any of these signs, it's crucial to consult with a veterinarian. They can provide a definitive diagnosis and recommend the most appropriate course of action, whether monitoring, medical management, or surgical intervention.

What Causes Patellar Luxation?

Patellar luxation in dogs can result from various factors. Understanding these causes can help in its prevention, early diagnosis, and appropriate treatment. The main causes of patellar luxation in dogs include: 

  • Congenital factors: Some breeds are genetically predisposed to patellar luxation, making it hereditary. Breeds like the Chihuahua, Yorkshire Terrier, Boston Terrier, Pomeranian, and several toy breeds often fall into this category.Additionally, bone formation abnormalities, especially the femur or tibia (shin bone), can cause the patella to luxate. This might be due to a shallow groove in the femur where the patella rests or a misalignment of the leg bones.2
  • Trauma: An injury or direct trauma to the leg can lead to patellar luxation in dogs.1
  • Degenerative changes: As dogs age, degenerative changes might occur in the joint, like arthritis, increasing the risk of patellar luxation, especially in senior dogs.1
  • Muscle atrophy or weakness: Weakness or wasting away of the muscles surrounding the knee can contribute to the instability of the patella. 
  • Inflammation: Chronic inflammation in the knee joint from conditions like arthritis can lead to changes in the joint structure, predisposing the knee to luxation. 
  • Rapid growth: In some cases, puppies may experience rapid growth, leading to imbalances in bone development, thus contributing to patellar luxation in dogs. 
  • Obesity: Excess weight strains a dog's joints, including the knees. This added pressure can increase the risk of the patella luxating, especially in dogs predisposed to the condition. 
  • Tendon or ligament issues: Abnormalities or injuries to the tendons or ligaments around the knee can lead to instability, making luxation more likely.1

Keep in mind that while certain breeds might be predisposed to patellar luxation, it can occur in any dog, regardless of breed or size. Regular veterinary check-ups can help detect early signs and potentially mitigate the progression of this condition. 

Over 90% of patellar luxation surgeries are successful

Treating Patellar Luxation

Addressing patellar luxation in dogs promptly and effectively can greatly enhance your dog's quality of life. Surgery intervention is one of the most common and effective treatments for this condition. Various surgical techniques can be used depending on the severity and specifics of the luxation. 

Over 90% of owners report satisfaction with their dogs' progress post-surgery, making it incredibly effective compared to non-surgical options.Luxating patella surgery cost can vary based on several factors, including the vet's location, severity of the condition, and type of surgery. Different surgical techniques and approaches come with varying costs, and the choice of the procedure often depends on the dog's specific needs. 

Of course, surgery isn't always required. If your dog isn't experiencing any symptoms, your vet might suggest other treatment approaches to prevent the progression of luxating patellas in dogs, such as: 

  • Maintaining an ideal weight: Obesity or excess weight can exacerbate patellar luxation due to increased stress on the knee joint. Maintaining a healthy dog weight can alleviate some pressure on the affected joint, reducing the likelihood of luxation or aiding in the recovery post-treatment. 
  • Joint supplements: Supplements that support joint health, like glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids, can potentially slow down degenerative changes in the joint. Your vet may also recommend joint medications to manage inflammation. 
  • Pain medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often prescribed to manage pain and inflammation associated with patellar luxation in dogs. You should always administer these medications under the guidance of a veterinarian and be on the lookout for any side effects. 
  • Exercise restriction: Restricting rigorous activities and avoiding high-impact exercises can be beneficial, especially after surgery or during severe episodes of luxation. This ensures the knee joint isn't subjected to additional stress, allowing it to heal or preventing further displacement. 
  • Physical rehabilitation: Physical therapy can aid recovery, especially after surgical intervention. Techniques may include range of motion exercises, strengthening exercises, and hydrotherapy, helping to restore function and reduce the recurrence of luxation.2

FAQs

Can a dog live with luxating patellas? 

Yes, a dog can live with luxating patellas, but the quality of life, severity of the condition, and potential complications can vary based on several factors. Luxating patellas are typically graded 1-4, with 1 being the mildest form and 4 the most severe.Dogs with Grade 1 or 2 may experience occasional discomfort or limping but can often lead relatively normal lives. In contrast, dogs with Grade 3 or 4 luxation might face more chronic pain and reduced mobility. 

Even if surgery isn't pursued or is deemed necessary, managing the symptoms can greatly improve your dog's quality of life. This can include pain relief, anti-inflammatory medications, joint supplements, and controlled exercise. 

Keep in mind that dogs with luxating patellas might need certain lifestyle changes. Avoiding high-impact activities like jumping or running on uneven surfaces can help reduce the frequency of episodes. Instead, opt for exercises like walking or swimming. 

Unfortunately, dogs with more severe luxation or those who don't respond well to conservative management might require surgery. Successful surgical interventions can improve or resolve the condition, but it's not without its risks. 

What happens if a luxating patella is left untreated?

If a luxating patella in dogs is left untreated, several possible outcomes and complications can occur, depending on the severity of the condition. Over time, the episodes of lameness may increase in frequency and severity. The dog may initially display intermittent limping, which could progress to more consistent lameness in the affected leg or legs. 

With repeated luxation, the dog may experience increasing pain. The pain can manifest as a reluctance to move, yelping when the leg is touched, or increased lethargy. 

Unfortunately, arthritis and joint issues are linked. Chronic patellar luxation can also lead to more severe issues like degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis. Joint issues can further restrict the dog's mobility and cause chronic pain. The wear and tear on the joint from the repeated dislocation and relocation of the kneecap can erode the cartilage, leading to bone-on-bone contact. 

Due to the pain and discomfort, the dog might reduce its activity levels. Inactivity can lead to secondary issues like weight gain, further exacerbating the condition by placing additional strain on the joints. The reduced use of the affected leg can also lead to muscle atrophy, further weakening the leg and reducing its function. 

Ultimately, all of this leads to a decreased quality of life. Chronic pain, reduced mobility, and the associated complications can significantly affect your dog's well-being as they no longer enjoy activities they once did. 

Can a knee brace help with luxating patellas?

A knee brace can potentially offer support and relief to dogs with luxating patellas, depending on the severity and specifics of the condition. Generally, a knee brace can support the joint, reducing the stress on the patella and surrounding tissues and ligaments. By stabilizing the joint and preventing excessive movement, a brace can also reduce the discomfort and pain associated with the condition while preventing further injury. 

If the dog has undergone surgery for a luxating patella, a brace can offer additional support during recovery, ensuring that the joint is stable and promoting proper healing.

Keep in mind that while a knee brace can provide symptomatic relief and support, it's not a replacement for treatment. 

Woman smiling holding her Boston terrier

Final Notes 

Patellar luxation in dogs can be a painful condition if not treated effectively. The importance of early detection and intervention can't be stressed enough. Unfortunately, visiting a vet in person is not always possible, especially at the earliest sign of a problem. 

Dutch telemedicine for pets bridges the gap between pet owners and veterinarians, providing a timely, efficient, and convenient platform to discuss concerns like patellar luxation. With Dutch, expert advice is just a click away, ensuring your pet's health remains a top priority. Try Dutch today.
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References

  1. “Patellar Luxations.” American College of Veterinary Surgeons, 20 June 2023, www.acvs.org/small-animal/patellar-luxations/

  2. “Patellar Luxation.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 24 Feb. 2023, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/canine-health-information/patellar-luxation.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Dutch is an online veterinary pet telehealth service, created by pet parents and board-certified veterinary specialists. We use a science-backed approach to provide pets relief for their everyday physical and behavioral health issues. Dutch connects you with licensed veterinarians over video chat and messaging to help you get care for your dog or cat quickly wherever you are — without the stress or expense of a vet visit. We also partner with pharmacies who can deliver prescription medication (in applicable states only) and over-the-counter treatments directly to your door. Dutch isn’t a veterinary practice or pharmacy, but a company that helps facilitate these services for pet parents to make veterinary care more accessible to all.

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