Tidus wearing his original custom ACL dog brace from 2014.
Dog ACL Recovery Without Surgery
The ACL Injury Diagnosis is Confirmed. Now What?
Let’s talk about dog ACL recovery without surgery. One day, you find your dog limping. Your vet performs the drawer test and diagnoses your dog with an ACL or CCL injury. You’ll probably immediately hear that TPLO surgery is the only treatment. We believe that you have the right to know that there could be other, less intrusive options. Read on!
Since you’re here, you’re likely exhausted, afraid, and confused. Above all, you’re probably desperately trying to figure out what the best route is for treating your dog’s ACL injury.
We’ve been there. Not once, but twice. Believe me, I understand how helpless you feel! I’m not a vet, and I’m not here to ultimately tell you how to help your dog heal from an ACL injury. Instead, I’m here to give you a dog parent’s perspective and share our experiences, so YOU can decide how you’d like to proceed. Just like you, we believe that dog parents have the right to know all of their options.
Grab a coffee or tea and some snacks, because this is going to be a very long and eye-opening read.
Before I begin, let me introduce you to Tidus. Our only boy, Tidus is a very sensitive pup who vocalizes any pain he may have, no matter how small. If it hurts even a tiny bit, or he feels uncomfortable, he’ll lie down and refuse to move. He’s an average-sized Siberian Husky with long legs, and now weighs approximately 59 pounds.
Tidus sustained his first ACL injury in early 2014 when he was around five years old and weighed around 65 pounds. We took him to a snowy dog park on a sub-zero winter day in the Midwest. He launched straight into running wild, then abruptly cried out and stopped in his tracks. Terrified, I carried him back to the car. From the moment he was injured, he hobbled around on three legs, refusing to use the injured leg. Occasionally he would put his injured leg down briefly, and we could hear a “click” sound coming from his knee.
We had no idea what had happened. He was initially diagnosed with possible Lyme disease (even though he was vaccinated against it). After visiting multiple traditional veterinarians, it was confirmed that he had sustained an ACL/meniscus injury.
THE TYPICAL PROCESS
We were immediately told we needed to do TPLO surgery, which is considered the “gold standard” to treat ACL injuries in dogs. The cost back then would have been around $9,000 USD. Although this seemed to be an outrageous price for a single (apparently very common) surgery, the money wasn’t a deciding factor. We would do anything for our Tidus. If necessary, I would borrow money, sell some of our belongings, and figure it out. However, my intuition told me that I needed to do some deeper research before sending Tidus under the knife.
The vet was very unhappy with my decision to research this subject, and angrily told me there’s no other way, that I needed to do the “right thing” for Tidus. Despite the resulting guilt, I was determined to do my research first.
MY FINDINGS: THE PROBLEMS WITH TPLO SURGERY
- After TPLO surgery, dogs commonly rupture the second knee within a year. In fact, vets now push double surgeries “to get it out of the way” even though the other knee is just fine.
- TPLO surgery is highly invasive. The tibial bone is cut and altered.
- Permanent metal plates and wires are placed during this surgery.
- Veterinarians may not disclose the complications, including how many dogs end up with double surgeries, bone cancer, and other problems resulting in a terrible long-term quality of life. This includes full-limb amputations!
- TPLO surgeries are touted as having a high success rate because the many problems down the road, such as bone cancer, aren’t taken into account.
- TPLO surgery does not prevent arthritis in the affected region.
- There are general risks of surgery, including occasional anesthetic death. We personally would only do surgery if absolutely necessary.
- Some of the post-op issues reported by dog parents are as follows: poor healing of the bones; breakage of plates or screws; fracture of the tibial crest; blow-out fracture of the tibial plateau (requiring surgery again); screws coming loose; shifting of bones; arthritis; tearing of the meniscus; allergic reactions; implant failures; deep infections of bones, joints, and implants; angular limb deformity; seroma formation; and bone cancer.
- The biggest issue I had at the time was that I felt that we were being pushed into doing surgery and told it was the ONLY option, even though I was starting to find online alternatives and non-invasive, lower risk treatment methods.
The biggest reason we opted to WAIT before jumping to surgery was because I learned that our alternative treatment methods do not carry any risk. If these methods didn’t lead to improvement, we could then take the surgery route.
We had no veterinary support for this method, so we tried the best we could. And we succeeded!
TIDUS’ FIRST ACL INJURY RECOVERY METHODS:
- Strict conservative management was critical, and I followed it to a T.
- I put Tidus on a diet to achieve a more slender build. This alleviates pressure on the injured joint.
- I had a custom knee brace built for Tidus. Critically, this brace helps stabilize the joint to prevent re-injury. A custom brace also allows the gentle introduction of mild exercise, which reduces the onset of muscle atrophy, while keeping risk very low.
THE PROCESS AND STEPS TO RECOVERY:
- With the custom brace, Tidus started using his injured leg immediately and walking (with a limp).
- Within two months, we were already hiking up to five miles at a time, always with the custom brace.
- Within three months, the limp was completely gone. Nevertheless, I kept his brace on every time we walked or hiked for more than 10 minutes.
- TIME UNTIL FULL RECOVERY: 11 months. Tidus “asked me” to take off his brace during a typical 7-9 mile hike. He stood there staring at me on the trail, and I knew he wanted me to trust him and take off the brace. I did.
- We continued conservative management throughout the 11 months.
THE GOOD TIMES:
For the following four years, Tidus hiked the alpine mountains and the craziest terrains like nothing had ever happened. He fully kept up with our girls Yuna and Kimahri, without any signs of pain or fatigue.
Tidus showed no signs of his injury throughout these four years, when most dogs experience the second rupture within the first year of surgery.
WHAT I WISH I HAD KNOWN AND DONE:
I still carry the burden of the things that I didn’t know or do after his injury with me every day. Unfortunately, traditional vets don’t tell you about these things. It takes years to figure it out on your own, often after the damage is done. That’s why I feel SO strongly about sharing all of this information with you, so you don’t need to carry the same burden.
- The overall health and well-being of a dog is tied to its diet. Tidus has been on “premium kibble” since the beginning. We later learned the hard way that kibble, no matter how premium, is not the right nutrition for dogs and can cause a lot of health problems.
High-quality omega-3 fatty acids are essential to good joint health.
- There are so many amazing physical and other therapies that can both speed up healing and drastically reduce the chances of re-injury.
- “Holistic veterinarians” exist and can help you create a minimally (or non-) invasive treatment plan.
- Tidus would probably have benefitted from having two braces instead of just one. The first to support his injury, and the second to help alleviate the pressure on the healthy leg while the injured leg recovered.
- I should have continued with permanent conservative management, especially not allowing the dogs to jump into and out of cars.
TIDUS’ SECOND INJURY
During a relaxing evening hike in December 2018, Tidus stopped walking and cried out again. This was all too familiar to me. My heart sank, and I immediately knew that he had hurt his other knee. We were temporarily living two states away from home (and our incredible holistic veterinarian), so we had no choice but to get the diagnosis done locally by a traditional veterinarian. The classic drawer test confirmed that Tidus had a second ACL injury, either a full tear or deep partial tear, coupled with a meniscus injury. This time, Tidus didn’t even touch his toes to the ground for weeks, and his injury seemed more painful than the first.
I quickly contacted our holistic veterinarian to discuss the next steps. We made it clear that our absolute priority is to give our dogs an incredible long-term quality of life, and we would take the best route possible no matter the cost.
During our consultation, our holistic vet confirmed that he was comfortable with us attempting recovery without surgery, while keeping surgery as an option if we needed it later on. Together with our vet, we came up with a plan: monitor Tidus, make sure the treatments were proving to be effective, and have a fantastic surgeon on standby just in case.
NUTRITION AND CURRENT SUPPLEMENTS:
The entire Husky Squad is on a raw food diet. We made this switch approximately 11 months before Tidus’ second ACL injury, after Kimahri was diagnosed with cancer, and we’ve seen some incredible benefits from this change!
Additionally, the entire pack has been on the following supplements for almost a year so far:
- Curcumin bites (to fight/prevent cancer and inflammation)
- High quality omega-3 oils (for healthy skin, coat, heart, and joints, as well as cognitive function)
THE PROCESS AND STEPS TO RECOVERY:
When Tidus sustained his second injury, we had a lot more experience under our belts. With an amazing holistic veterinarian by our side and confidence in our abilities as dog parents, we started a much more aggressive (but non-destructive) approach to Tidus’ recovery.
I’ll distinguish what my intuition and experience tells me were absolute essentials from the steps that were important in speeding up the process, preventing re-injury, and providing a fantastic quality of life. Tidus recovered from his second ACL injury in LESS than HALF the time it took to recover from the first.
- Double custom knee braces. One to support the new injury, and the other to support the previous injury. Double braces helped Tidus use both legs equally, which avoided putting pressure on his previous injury and re-injuring it.
- Conservative management. We also quickly implemented permanent conservative management for the entire pack. Critically, we carry them into and out of the car, or use a ramp. This helps to PREVENT this injury.
- Daily gentle leashed exercise with custom braces. We started with 5 minutes for the first few days, and increased slowly with time (follow your intuition).
- Cold and Hot Pack treatment, three to four times a day for the first three months to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. (instructed by Tidus' Physical Therapist)
- Maintaining Tidus’ slender weight to keep pressure off his joints and ensure better overall health.
- Providing non-slip surfaces in common living areas. Carpets and rugs are fantastic and help tremendously with removing fear of slipping. Fearful dogs on slippery surfaces can easily re-injure themselves.
- A healthful, homemade, properly balanced raw food diet (not kibble!).
- Essential omega-3 oils.
- Anti-inflammatory curcumin supplements.
- An amazing, WARM, LOVING, CONFIDENT, SUPPORTIVE, HAPPY home to give your dog a positive environment to heal. Dogs feel EVERYTHING, and this impacts your dog tremendously.
We feel these ten items were absolutely essential and the bare minimum to Tidus’ recovery, and that he would not have healed without them.
With a Professional or Facility
- A holistic veterinarian for natural medicine and monitoring progress/improvement. Tidus was prescribed Chinese medicine for his joints, CBD for pain and inflammation, and custom herbal blends to speed up recovery. In other words, we gave his body the tools to support his healing.
- Hydrotherapy in a water treadmill for three months. We started immediately with two times a week for the first six weeks, then tapered to once a week for the remaining six weeks. Hydrotherapy builds muscle without putting pressure on the joints. (Instructed by our holistic veterinarian)
- Cold laser therapy for three months. We started immediately with two times a week for the first six weeks, then tapered to once a week for the remaining six weeks. Cold laser is a noninvasive procedure that uses light to stimulate cell regeneration and increase blood circulation. (Instructed by our holistic veterinarian.)
- Land therapy for six weeks, twice a week. Within two weeks of the injury, we began working with physical rehab specialist who's experienced with treating dogs with ACL injuries. We continued land therapy on our own after six weeks, since we no longer had access to the facility after returning home.
- We introduced swimming, with a life vest and professional instructor, six weeks after the injury happened. I would have done this sooner, but didn't have access to a pool earlier. Tidus swam weekly for 6 weeks. Swimming is a fantastic low-impact exercise which helps muscle conditioning, in turn supporting the joints. (Instructed by our holistic veterinarian.)
- Homemade bone broth slow-cooked for 48 hours with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Dose: ½ cup of gelatinous bone broth made with organic beef bones. Our veterinarian stressed the importance of using organic bones. Feed-lot, non-organic cattle (and other animals) store chemicals, antibiotics, and other harmful compounds in their bones, and this would be counterproductive to healing. Bone broth is liquid gold for joint rejuvenation and a healthy gut. A healthy gut processes nutrients better, and is essential for absorbing all the goodness we were throwing Tidus’ way. (This was instructed by our holistic veterinarian.)
- Fascia-strengthening exercises at home. Tidus’ physical therapists showed us how to work with Tidus on strengthening his fascia. The health and strength of the fascia is so important to overall proper health. This is a newer subject to me, but we see incredible improvement in general with Tidus’ gait, posture, and balance, which is critical in supporting the healing of this injury.
ACL INJURY 2 RECOVERY TIMELINE:
- We began all the various therapies and conservative management as soon as possible, and Tidus showed slow but consistent improvement while waiting for his custom braces.
- With the double custom braces, Tidus started using his injured leg, with the limp common with this injury.
- Unfortunately, a different “vet” re-injured Tidus seven weeks into his recovery (watch here), and set him back significantly. We were afraid he wouldn’t recover. We persisted, though, and continued all the therapies.
- A month after this incident, Tidus was already hiking approximately 5 miles while using both of his braces.
- A month later, Tidus’ limp was completely gone while wearing his braces. At this point, our holistic veterinarian cleared Tidus from needing surgery and gave us the green light to travel again.
- TIME UNTIL FULL RECOVERY: 5 months. Tidus “asked me” to take his braces off at this point. We carefully monitored him, doing shorter walks at first, but realized he felt annoyed and hindered when we tried to put his braces back on.
- Tidus did his first 12-mile intense alpine hike on May 31st, 2019, all without his braces. That day, we climbed over 9,000 ft. and he showed no signs of fatigue. He actually looked happier and more full of stamina and drive than I’ve seen him since the first injury happened five years ago. MIND BLOWN.
THOUGHTS FROM MY HEART
Words can’t describe what it feels like to see Tidus happy, healthy, and THRIVING again at a beautiful age ten. There’s no better feeling than seeing him enjoy the outdoors, climbing mountains with all of us as a family. The results we’ve achieved are way beyond what we hoped for. We’re incredibly grateful to the entire healing team around Tidus, along with all the loving wishes and support from the Husky Squad community around the world.
Although it may seem that we “got lucky,” I have to say that I believe our experiences support the value of physical therapies, ancient proven healing practices, new non-invasive healing techniques, determined positive energy, and absolute commitment to following through with all the steps, no matter how difficult or challenging. This healing regimen is NOT for the lazy.
We all wish for our fur-kids never to get sick or injured, but circumstances, genetics, and other factors play a big role. It’s not likely that any dog will go its entire life without any issues. We’re absolutely committed (and hope you are too!) to providing the best possible healing and care based on what’s right for our pups, rather than the fast, seemingly convenient options with long-term risks and harm.
ACL Injuries Are Never Easy
ACL injuries are never easy or cheap, no matter what route you take. Sure, the $8,000-$13,000 cost of surgery is outrageous, and for many people it is impossible to even borrow that much. However, the alternative route will cost money too.
Personally, I’d eat one meal a day if I had to, and cut out all “nice things,” because I made a commitment to our fur kids to give them the absolute best. However, we understand that not everyone is in a position to be able to afford expensive treatments, even after cutting out all the luxuries.
With that said, no dog should be left dealing with this without any help. We feel that the minimum that any dog with an ACL injury deserves is a custom brace to support this very painful injury, and to provide at least a good shot at management and recovery. Custom braces can run anywhere from $600-$2,000 depending on where you live. #DogsAreFamily.
TODAY AND THE FUTURE
Although Tidus is in the clear and recovered, we don’t take this subject lightly. We’ve learned so much about ACL injuries, and even more about the topic of prevention. These things don’t “just happen.” More on this in the future.
WE'RE NOT TAKING THIS ACL RECOVERY FOR GRANTED
Here’s what we’re doing today.
For Tidus Specifically:
- We ALWAYS carry Tidus’ two custom braces with us wherever we go, just in case of fatigue (or an emergency).
- Tidus will not get to run around at his usual hyper speeds for at least another year, because we need him to continue building solid muscle mass and stronger joints. All his hikes are paced properly while focusing on inclines whenever possible. Hills and mountains push the weight back to the hind legs, building greater strength and mass to support the recovering joint.
- We heard about stem cell therapy for ligament injuries from a dog parent on our Instagram community. She reported great progress with her dogs’ ACL injury. I’ll be discussing this with our holistic veterinarian and Tidus’ rehab team, as well as doing my own research on the subject.
For The Entire Squad:
- We keep all our pups on the leaner/slimmer side for long-term joint and overall health. An overweight dog is at a much greater risk for joint injuries.
- The Squad is permanently staying on a healthful, balanced, homemade diet.
- I continue to feed the Squad curcumin bites (to fight/prevent cancer and inflammation) and high-quality omega-3 oils (for healthy skin, coat, heart, and joints, as well as cognitive function).
- We practice overall permanent conservative management for all of our pups now. I especially don’t allow jumping into and out of cars. We carry them or use a ramp if needed. High unnatural jumps in and out of cars slowly degrade the joints over time. We were SHOCKED to learn that jumps INTO the car are even worse than down from the car.
- Hiking is the best long-term exercise for dogs since it involves much less risk for abrupt sudden movements, and tends to be at a steady pace instead of “juking” or going from 0-60MPH.
- We continue with various home hind-leg exercises for all the pups, since muscle mass is lost over time as they get older.
Low-impact exercises such as swimming and hydrotherapy are part of our life now, and we incorporate them whenever we can.
I was initially reluctant to write this and film the entire process for our YouTube channel, because as a society we collectively suffer from “degree syndrome,” or the belief that we need to absolutely trust every doctor or vet. I didn't feel that I had the energy to deal with a barrage of “gold standard” comments, and I’d rather focus 1000000% of my energy into Tidus’ recovery. But I stepped away from these thoughts, because I KNOW that if I had found something detailed and helpful from a fellow dog parent when I needed it the most, it would have been incredibly helpful. That’s all that matters.
There are some people who suffer from “degree syndrome,” implicitly trust every vet, feel that there’s only ONE WAY to heal, and believe that dog parents don’t have the right to know and try the alternative with common sense and an open mind. I will not waste my precious energy debating with this perspective except to point out that science is a collection of data. The moment we stop learning, or dismiss data due to our own biases (whether in degrees or beliefs), that’s when progress dies. A doctor’s jacket and a degree simply come from your fellow human beings, not from some divine source. This information should evolve and not be closed to new learning and evidence.
TO EVERY DOG PARENT READING THIS
I repeat: I’m not a vet, and I’m not here to ultimately tell you how to help your dog heal from this injury. Instead, I’m here to give you a dog parent’s perspective and experiences to help YOU do further research and ultimately decide how you’d like to proceed. We feel that dog parents have the right to know their options, and the choice belongs in your hands.
HIGH QUALITY OMEGA 3 OILS
High quality Omega 3's are essential for healthy joints. Not all supplements are created equal. After discovering Holistic Veterinarian Dr. Peter Dobias and getting to know him more, we feel confident in how much he cares so deeply about sourcing the best possible ingredients for the supplements he carefully crafts.
SUPPORT THE SQUAD
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We appreciate our supporters so much!
CUSTOM ACL DOG BRACES
We're honored to team up with Dr. Campana because we believe his braces are the best on the market and affordable too. We used his braces for both of Tidus's injuries (five years apart) with incredible results. Use "HUSKY19" for a discount during checkout.
THE ENTIRE ACL RECOVERY EXPERIENCE
Minet @WoofCenter in Utah
OUR DEEPEST GRATITUDE
We're forever grateful to Tidus' amazing healing team (in no particular order):
- Tidus's incredibly knowledgeable primary physical therapist Minet at the Woof Center, Santa Clara Utah. This would not have been possible without her compassionate almost magic like care. She's also Tidus' favorite person.
- Anita, the backbone and highly experienced owner at the Woof Center, Santa Clara Utah.
- Dr. Derrick Campana for the bionic-like custom braces. I highly doubt any of this would have been possible without his expertise.
- Dr. Keith Weingardt, Holistic Veterinarian for supporting us, monitoring Tidus, and for the best holistic care a dog parent can dream of.
- Denisse, physical therapist at Cascade Animal Park Hospital, Tidus' amazing therapist who took over when we went back to Portland Oregon.
- Dr. Peter Dobias, Holistic Veterinarian for creating the highest quality supplements on the market.