What Is It?

An Achilles tendon rupture is also known as the gastrocnemius tendon’s rupture or the common calcanean tendon. The tendon is actually composed of 5 different tendons, the two most important being the superficial digital flexor and gastrocnemius tendons. The gastrocnemius tendon is the largest of these and is the most powerful extensor of the hock (ankle) joint. Both the superficial digital flexor and gastrocnemius tendons attach to the heel bone, called the calcaneus bone. A rupture of the Achilles tendon may be a partial tear, which means just the gastrocnemius is torn, or a complete tear, in which all five tendons have been torn.

Who Gets It?

Dogs affected by this are primarily from the large sporting and working breeds and are usually 5 years of age and older. The Doberman pinscher and Labrador retrievers seem to be overrepresented in this condition, but it can occur in any dog or cat, no matter what age or breed.

What Are The Signs?

With a partial rupture, the gastrocnemius tendon is torn, but the superficial digital flexor tendon is still intact. Animals with a partial rupture will have a dropped hock (ankle), be lame in the affected leg, and stand with curled toes.

Dogs that have a complete rupture (where all five tendons of the Achilles tendon are torn) will have a completely dropped hock, causing them to walking flat-footed rather than on his “tippy toes” like normal, and will show signs of lameness.

Pain and edema (swelling) will follow the injury. Eventually, the gastrocnemius muscle will contract, and the area between the bone and the tendon fills with fibrous tissue.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Rupture of the Achilles tendon in dogs can usually be diagnosed based on clinical signs and a physical exam performed by your veterinarian. Radiographs may also be used, and ultrasounds can help distinguish between partial and complete tears.

Why Did This Happen To My Dog?

An Achilles tendon rupture can be caused by a sudden traumatic event such as a fall or anything that causes a sudden and extreme flexion of the hock (aka the ankle joint). Rupture may occur over time due to extreme overstretching and overuse, causing the tendon to deteriorate and eventually tear. Lacerations are the most likely cause of a complete tear, such as when a sharp edge comes into contact with the tendon.

How Is It Treated?

Because the muscle contracts when the tendon is ruptured, it results in permanent deformity. Therefore, medical management using a cast or splint will not work, and the injury must be repaired surgically.

The surgical procedure involves removing the tendon’s damaged portions so that the ruptured ends can be reattached together. To reattach the gastrocnemius tendon to the heel bone, bone tunnels are drilled, and special non-absorbable sutures are passed through the tunnels and into the gastrocnemius tendon. If the superficial digital flexor tendon is also ruptured, the ruptured portions are stitched back to one another using heavy suture material in a special suture pattern (locking loop) that pulls the torn tendon ends back together.

After the tendon(s) have been repaired, the patient must keep the ankle (hock) in extension for a period of two months, so that the surgery does not fail.

The hock will be stabilized during this time using one of four methods: placement of a screw through the tibia and heel bone with the hock in extension, with a cast usually also applied to the limb; placement of an external skeletal fixator which consists of a series of pins that penetrate the bone and are fixed together with external bars; placement of a circular fixator ring with wires; placement of a cast. After two months, the method of stabilization of the hock is removed.

What Is the Prognosis For My Dog?

The long-term prognosis for dogs that have surgery to repair an Achilles tendon rupture is generally very good. The sooner the rupture is repaired, the better the results will be. If the tear goes without repair for too long, scar tissue formation will make the surgery more difficult and possibly less successful. Additionally, if the dog walks plantigrade (flat-footed like a human with toes and ankle on the ground) for an extended period of time, further damage can occur and make surgery more difficult.

It is also important to note that there is significant aftercare involved with this surgery due to the placement of a cast, possible external fixators or screws, and strict exercise restrictions and rest. Total recovery takes about 8-10 weeks. The outcome of the surgery also depends on the aftercare of the patient.

Recovery from an Achilles’ tendon rupture is possible for your dog – the key is to act fast. If you take it upon yourself to get educated about your dog’s injury and what you can do to help with their recovery, your dog will do amazing and can go back to being their happy, healthy self.

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