Small Dog Leg Joint Problems: Luxating Patella

A luxating patella, or dislocated or 'floating' knee cap, is one of the more common . This condition can cause extreme pain. It is much more common in toy and small breed dogs, such as Chihuahuas, Pekingese, Yorkshire Terriers, Miniature Poodles, Pomeranians and Daschunds (although other breeds can also be affected). Veterinarians can check dogs to see if they have the condition even before any clinical signs are noted.

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Often what happens is this: the dog appears to be perfectly happy, healthy, and active. He's running around as usual and seems normal. Then he yelps or the owner sees him holding a hind leg off the ground. Moments later, he might put the leg back down and starting playing or running again. The owner might think that the dog had a minor muscle pull or something similar, and thinks nothing else of it... until it happens again one day.

A luxating patella occurs when the ridged groove that holds the knee cap in place is either too flat or it wears down, either way allowing the knee cap to slip out of its place.

Levels of Severity

There are four levels of severity:

  • Grade 1: the knee cap can be easily pushed out of place but will pop back in on its own.

  • Grade 2: the knee cap can be pushed out of place and does not automatically return on its own, requiring help to pop it back in.

  • Grade 3: the knee cap is always out of place but can be manually moved back into place, where it will stay before it later pops out again on its own.

  • Grade 4: the knee cap won't stay in place at all, even with manual manipulation.

Treatment Options

Due to the intense pain this condition causes, owners should take immediate action to help the dog. Dogs with a grade 3 or 4 luxating patella will need surgery - various types are available and each has its own risks, so discuss the options with your vet. A veterinary orthopedic surgeon, if available, would be the best choice since they do this type of surgery more often and are thus more familiar with what to expect. Dogs who undergo surgery will have to undergo an extended period of restricted exercise so that the surgical repair has time to heal properly. This is tough on both the dog and on the owner, but is absolutely necessary.

Dogs with a grade 2 can undergo surgery. Dogs with grade 1 typically do not undergo surgery. Other things owners can do to help alleviate joint problems include:

  • Give joint supplements. Oral supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM are used to help rebuild and maintain joints. There are also injectible supplements too. Your vet can suggest the right ones for your dog.

  • Ensure the dog gets adequate exercise. The stronger the muscles surrounding the joints, the more stable the joint.

  • Keep the dog at a healthy weight. More weight puts more stress on joints.

  • Consider complementary therapies. Therapies like acupuncture, physical therapy, and rehabilitation therapy (like underwater treadmills) can help tremendously. Ask your vet for a consultation or referral to a veterinary practitioner in these fields.

Even though a luxating patella primarily fits the category of small dog leg joint problems, and more commonly in some breeds than others, it can happen to other dogs as well. It is a painful condition that requires immediate action. Fortunately, there is treatment and the dog can continue to lead a happy and active life. Read more about other .