LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Dashing after a ball or tumbling off a couch make dogs up to 10 times as likely to get surgery on a key knee ligament that is similar to the one athletes often injure.
Playing sports like soccer, basketball or volleyball can lead people to traumatically tear their anterior cruciate ligament, more commonly known as the ACL, during games or practices. Dogs can get hurt that way, too, but it's more likely their subtle tears will grow over time from an everyday strain to a painful obstacle because of the animals' high level of activity.
"I think the average dog is infinitely more athletic than the average person," said Dr. Ross Lirtzman, a veterinary surgeon at Arizona Canine Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Group.
While dogs are living longer and becoming bigger parts of people's lives, more pet owners are getting the surgeries for their pets, Lirtzman said. But with increasing interest in the operations comes potential pitfalls. Veterinary care isn't as well-regulated as the medical industry, so heartbreak can follow if pet owners fail to get a qualified surgeon for the operation.
The surgeries worked for Molly, a 3-year-old, 65-pound pit bull, who lives with her owner in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. The dog got her first surgery after being injured in December 2012, and just as it was healing, the ligament in her other knee gave out and she underwent a second operation, owner Leonard Sands said.
"Everything she was able to do prior to surgery, she was able to do after," Sands said. "She still can't beat the greyhounds at the dog park, but she swims, hikes, climbs and runs like crazy."
Since the surgeries, she has become a certified therapy dog, is a regular at children's and veteran's hospitals and keeps up with Sands, 68, and his wife, who live on a golf course and go hiking, walking and bike riding.
Dogs don't have an ACL, but a similar cranial cruciate ligament, or CrCL. Lirtzman doesn't believe the numbers of dogs getting knee ligament operations have changed much since figures were published about five years ago in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The journal estimated just over a million CrCL surgeries were being done each year.
About 200,000 people are diagnosed with ACL tears annually. About half get surgery, and the rest are treated with rest, rehabilitation and a special brace to keep the knee from shifting, said Dr. Alan Reznik, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and has a private practice in New Haven, Connecticut.
Dog surgery can cost up to $5,000, depending on location, while ACL surgery can cost as much as $27,000, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Many professional athletes have come back from successful ACL surgery, but it takes a year out of their careers, said Reznik, an academy member who's performed thousands of operations and written two books, "I've Fallen and I Can Get Up" and "The Knee and Shoulder Handbook."
Surgery gave a boost to Max, Brenda Mader's 7-year-old service dog, after his left knee gave out.
"When he's down, I'm down; and when I'm down, he's down," said Mader, 51, of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, who has multiple sclerosis. Max has been with her five years, helping her keep her balance, shop at the grocery store and do laundry.
These days, when they play, Mader keeps the ball on the ground so Max won't jump, but if she falls or can't turn in bed, she doesn't hesitate to call him for help.