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Luxating Patella in Dogs

You’ve probably heard of a “trick knee” in humans, but did you know that our canine companions can also suffer from chronically dislocating joints? Here is what you need to know about luxating patella, identifying its warning signs, and getting the right treatment for your dog.

What is a luxating patella?

In short, patella means “kneecap,” and to luxate is “to dislocate.”

Dogs have discrete, almond-shaped kneecaps buried in the tendon that attaches to the thigh muscle. Their kneecaps normally slide along a groove in the femur (thigh bone) when they flex and extend their legs. In dogs with patellar luxation, the kneecap is prone to slipping out of its groove when flexed, resulting in a dislocated knee.

Luxating patella diagram

Though luxating patella may seem like the result of an acute injury, it’s more likely to be caused by genetics. This comes down to conformation passed on through breeding. If you bought your dog from a breeder, let them know about this diagnosis. It is one of the most common orthopedic conditions in dogs, affecting 7% of puppies.

What are the signs of luxating patella?

The most obvious sign is an odd gait. Your dog will avoid putting weight on the affected leg, and hop or skip while the kneecap remains dislocated.

Early-stage patellar luxation is usually short-term, and the knee will quickly go back into place on its own. Some dogs even learn how to pop their own kneecaps back into place by extending the leg to the side.

Is it painful for dogs?

Early-onset luxating patella isn’t usually painful. If left untreated, however, the dislocation can increase in frequency and severity, leading to arthritis and joint problems elsewhere in your dog’s body.

Patellar luxation is more common in some breeds.

Luxating patella is usually due to your dog’s genetics and is most often associated with miniature and toy breeds. Some small dog breeds disproportionately affected are:

  • Boston Terrier
  • Chihuahua
  • Miniature and Toy Poodle
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Bichon
  • Papillon
  • Yorkie
  • Pomeranian
  • Maltese

Large breeds who are prone to hip dysplasia can also suffer from lateral luxating patella when pressure on their tendons causes the kneecaps to dislocate to the outer side of the femur. Some of the most affected large dog breeds are:

  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Great Dane
  • Malamute
  • Huskie
  • St. Bernard
  • Akita
  • Labrador
  • Boxer

What are the stages of luxating patella?

There are four stages, or grades, of luxating patella.

Stage 1. This is the least severe grade. The kneecap is mostly in its correct position, and when it does dislocate, it goes back into place on its own.

Stage 2. The kneecap dislocates more frequently and may need to be manipulated back into place.

Stage 3. The kneecap spends more time out of joint than in its correct position. It can be manually relocated but is prone to popping back out. This grade is likely to be painful for your dog.

Stage 4. This is the grade most likely to cause your pet chronic pain. The kneecap is always out of joint, and can’t be maneuvered back into place without medical intervention.

How is luxating patella treated?

The course of treatment your vet recommends will depend on the severity of your pup’s condition. In the early stages, it can often be managed with non-surgical interventions, but it is more likely that surgery will be necessary to correct joint problems that have progressed to stages three and four.

The prognosis for dogs who undergo surgery is quite good, and early intervention can help keep your dog active, happy, and comfortable as the years go by.

Yorkie puppy walking to prevent luxating patella

How can I manage a luxating patella at home?

Whether or not a dislocated knee appears to be causing your dog discomfort, it is prudent to get your dog examined when you first notice any signs. If caught in its early stages, your vet can make recommendations for slowing or stopping its progress. 

One of the best early interventions for luxating patella is helping your dog maintain a healthy weight. Regular walks can strengthen the musculature that supports your pup’s joints while they work off any excess pounds. Your vet may also recommend dietary changes or supplements that support joint health and healthy, low calorie treats.

Luxating patella is common in dogs, but there are steps pet parents can take to correct orthopedic problems and prevent chronic pain. Contact your vet at the first sign of a limp or an odd gait, and protect the health of your dog’s joints.