Planking for Dogs? Core strength could help them avoid cruciate ligament ruptures

A cranial cruciate ligament rupture (CCLR)—the canine equivalent to the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in human athletes—is one of the most common injuries veterinarians see in dogs. A new study of agility dogs—who are nothing if not athletes—indicates that increased core strength could help all dogs avoid those injuries.

After documenting the activity and injury odds of more than 1,262 agility dogs, researchers found that just about any physical training—balance exercises, wobble boards, or anything else that improves a dog’s core strength—seemed to lower the odds of a ligament tear. Others—such as short walks or runs over hilly or flat terrain on a weekly basis—seemed to increase the risk.

Regular activities—like swimming, playing fetch or frisbee, walking or running—didn't increase the risk of injury . . . but they didn't lower it, either.

Other factors had an effect on CCLR risk, including size and breed, as well as the age of female agility dogs at the time of spaying—those spayed before the age of one were almost twice as likely to rupture the ligament compared to those spayed after their first birthday, a finding the researchers say reflects the importance of hormones in developing strong ligaments in young animals.

Does that mean pet owners should put their dogs on a physical fitness regimen to protect against CCLR? Not necessarily.

NEWStat reached out to corresponding author Debra Sellon, DVM, PhD, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to find out more.

Sellon is also the founder of the university's Agility Dog Health Network and used their data in the study. By using odds ratios—a kind of statistical risk assessment—Sellon and her coresearcher Denis Marcellin-Little, MS, DVM, DACVS, a veterinary orthopedic specialist with University of California, Davis, looked for trends in that data.

“I’m not a small animal orthopedics specialist,” Sellon said, who was trained in equine medicine. But her two-decades of experience in agility dog competitions gave her unique insights into the problem: “When my personal dogs sustained an injury, I was frustrated by the lack of available evidence-based information to make treatment decisions for athletic dogs,” she said. There was, however, a lot of that kind of information available about equine athletes.

And that inspired her to study injuries in the closest canine equivalent to equine athletes: agility dogs.

Sellon said it makes intuitive sense that core strength and overall fitness is likely to be good for injury prevention in any dog, whether they’re engaged in agility events or just running around the backyard. “Our research shows a correlation between practice of core strengthening exercises and decreased risk of cruciate ligament rupture in agility dogs,” she said, but added “It does not show a causal relationship.”

Sellon said we need more studies to see if core strengthening programs will proactively decrease injury rates.

One question their research doesn’t answer is why dogs who compete more often in agility events are less likely to suffer CCLRs. Sellon told NEWStat the findings merely demonstrated this correlation but didn’t confirm why the two are related: “My theory is that dogs who compete more often are likely to be more physically fit than those who only compete occasionally.”

Again, she said more research is needed.

The study also supported considerable previous research which showed that some breeds, like Rottweilers, are at increased risk of CCLR due in part to genetic predisposition to degenerative disease of the cruciate ligament. Despite this, Sellon said it was surprising that Australian shepherd agility dogs were at increased risk: “I’m not aware of any previous studies that suggest increased risk for this breed in the general non-agility dog population.”

Sellon told NEWStat that veterinarians who work with agility dogs and their owners should emphasize the importance of physical conditioning. “It would be great if they could provide specific recommendations for canine conditioning programs or referral to one of the many great canine conditioning professionals who serve the agility community.”

While the increased risk for Australian shepherds intrigues Sellon, the finding that excited her most is the correlation between core fitness and balance exercises and decreased risk of CCLR injury: “I really want to pursue this topic.” Ideally, she’d like to design a study in which owners implement specific conditioning programs for their agility dogs and see whether those dogs have fewer problems with their cruciate ligaments.

“That will be a challenging study to do,” she added, “but I think the agility community would be up to that challenge!”

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