Dealing With a Torn (Ruptured) Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) in a K9 Search Dog

Keith Lonnquist

yellow Labrador retriever wearing an orange harness sitting in the woods

Last November, I observed a limp on the rear left side of my five-year-old Labrador Retriever, Bailey. Being a young and energetic dog, I assumed that she had played too hard, and the limp would resolve itself in a few days. Unfortunately, I was mistaken and began a journey of diagnoses, surgeries, healing, and rehabilitation. In the initial segment of this article series, I will describe how the issue first appeared and how it was diagnosed. Upcoming articles will cover the surgical procedure, rehabilitation, and the long-term outlook. 

Meet Bailey, a yellow lab with an abundance of energy. She is very much a typical lab: crazy about fetch, an afternoon couch companion, a perfect hiking buddy, and full of boundless love for everyone, but she is also a trained and certified K9 member of El Paso County (Colorado) Search and Rescue. Bailey and I are a certified team through the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) in Area I, Article Search, and Human Remains Detection on land and water. Her skills are many, but her most important job is that of a beloved pet to my wife and me. We have previously owned several labs as pets and for bird hunting, but Bailey is our first formal working dog.

Bailey- all smiles and ready to work

During a routine large area air scent training, I noticed that Bailey was limping. I waited for a few days, hoping that the limp would heal on its own, but it didn’t. I took Bailey to our local veterinarian, who examined her and looking at new xrays, pointed out that she had hip dysplasia. Although it was much more apparent on the right side, I assumed that the dysplasia had become so painful that Bailey had stopped using her left rear leg. With this news in hand, we scheduled an appointment at Colorado Canine Orthopedics (CCO) in Colorado Springs. During the two weeks between appointments, I eliminated running and minimized our daily hiking trips. Bailey was still happy to go full speed on three legs (as I have been told in the past, dogs have three legs and a spare), but we stopped, as best we could, all the high energy activities. This meant no retrieving, and there was nothing that Bailey loved as much as playing with her ball. I am sure Bailey’s opinion of me lessened greatly as my role as the fun guy that took her out in the woods to run and search became that of NO FUN, 24/7.

On December 18th, we went to our appointment at CCO, thinking that Bailey might need a total hip replacement. After examining her and reviewing the x-rays, the doctor informed us that while Bailey did show some hip dysplasia, it was not the problem today. The real issue was a complete tear of her Cranial Cruciate Ligament (equivalent to the ACL in humans).   

How did this happen? When did she tear it? The doctor spent a lot of time explaining the situation. Typically, in dogs, a CCL tear is degenerative and can take many months to develop. It’s not usually caused by an acute injury (e.g. football tackle) like in humans. Unfortunately, the exact cause of this degeneration is unknown. On top of that, the degeneration can lead to osteoarthritis, joint fibrosis, and bone spurs in the knee joint, exacerbating the problem. Bailey’s x-rays were showing some of these problems.

How did I not notice this degeneration? We’ve enjoyed several other Labradors over the years, but nothing like this has ever occurred with our previous dogs. Bailey is my first working dog, and she does put in a lot of miles, but our past labs have all been happy to accompany me on long runs and “put in the miles” until late in their lives. Bailey was walking & running “normally” until she wasn’t. Somehow, I had missed the “side sitting” symptom. I had also missed the fact she had lost 25% of the thigh muscle mass (hence, this degeneration and pain had been going on for months). I missed that she must have had subtle lameness & off-weighting of the leg. I never saw any signs of pain (not that a lab will often tell you). No one noticed any of the symptoms.

Still surprised this was a knee problem, not a hip problem, we did leave the ortho consultation much happier. We now knew, for sure, what was wrong, that there was a surgery (TPLO) that could fix it, the odds of success were very good, and we at last had a path forward. Bailey’s TPLO surgery was scheduled and the prognosis was very good, with the vast majority of dogs resuming their everyday activities. However, there are caveats; fifty percent of the dogs with one ACL surgery will require it on the other side within a couple of years. And the hip dysplasia may need to be addressed in the future. For rehabilitation, we needed to now think about months, not weeks. Being “non-mission capable” for an extended time was a hard pill to swallow, but we at least knew the path ahead.

In keeping with a one-problem-at-a-time approach, Bailey’s TPLO surgery was scheduled for January 3rd. We brought her in that morning and anxiously awaited pick-up time… Part II of this series will discuss the surgery and following eight weeks of healing.

Keith Lonnquist retired from a 40 year DoD career as an engineer and project manager. With ~20 years of running trail races in Colorado, he saw the “cool” Search and Rescue members providing assistance and medical support on many of the races he participated in (e.g., Pikes Peak Marathon). As he approached retirement, he followed up with El Paso County Search and Rescue (Colorado), volunteered to be a “lost” subject for their K9 training, applied to the SAR team, and was accepted into team training in 2018. Enjoying participating in the K9 work, Keith got a high energy, female yellow Labrador puppy, Bailey. Keith & Bailey started training with the EPCSAR K9 team in January of 2019 and they have since become NASAR certified in Area Search, HRD, and Article, with dozens of missions throughout Colorado to their credit. Keith is a EPCSAR Board member, continues to support the team’s wide variety of SAR missions, and enjoys training and working with EPCSAR’s amazing K9 team. Keith lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in Monument, Colorado.
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  1. Avatar Lori Stevens on April 21, 2024 at 7:21 pm

    Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Avatar Carol Towne on April 23, 2024 at 9:49 am

    My first SAR dog had an ACL many years ago, and lived to go back to being a search dog. Looking forward to reading about the journey to recovery for Bailey.

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