Luxating patella - the ‘Terrier Hop’

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Whether it’s becoming more common, or I just notice it more because of my job, I feel as though I’m seeing more dogs than ever with that familiar hop, hop, skip action when walking. Although it’s usually associated with terriers, it’s reasonably common in other small breeds too, but can affect any dog. Where possible I chat to owners about it, and nearly always get told “it’s just a terrier thing” or “ he’s always done that.” It seems to be so common and widely accepted that the hop and skip gait, and even walking predominantly on three legs, isn’t seen as cause for concern and is dismissed as a breed trait.

And it’s not just dog’s out for a gentle walk that I see doing this, I’ve witnessed Terriers doing agility on three legs for the majority of the run, and been told afterwards that it’s normal for them.
While there may be other causes, this gait abnormality almost always indicates that a dog has a luxating patella.
What is a luxating patella?
Normally the patella (kneecap) sits in a groove at the front of the femur called the Trochlear Groove. If this groove is too shallow the patellar can luxate (slip out of it’s groove). There are four grades, with grade one being the least severe, where the patella slips in and out quite easily, to grade four the most severe, where the patellar is almost permanently out and if replaced manually will quickly slip out again.
Is it painful?
It’s hard to say how much pain the dog will feel, as it will vary depending on the severity of the condition and the dogs’ general pain threshold. But it’s generally considered that it is the actual slipping of the patella, where it rubs against the femur while slipping from the groove, that causes actual pain. While out of the groove it causes discomfort rather than acute pain, especially as the gait is altered. As this is an orthopaedic condition and therefore chronic, the dog gets used to and adapts to living with a certain level of pain. The longer it continues, the more likely injuries from overcompensation are to occur, due to the altered gait.
Getting a diagnosis 
If your dog does the ‘terrier hop’ your first port of call should be to visit your vet. If possible take a video of your dog walking like this, as we all know how good dogs can be at hiding things as soon as you get to the vets! Once your vet has made a diagnosis they can talk you through the next steps, whether that is management in low grade cases, or almost certainly surgery for grades three and four.
How can massage help?
For low grade luxation massage can be so effective at returning the Quadriceps to full function that they are able to hold the patella in place, either stopping or greatly reducing slipping. For higher grades surgery is likely to be necessary, but massage can reduce recovery time, act as natural pain relief, and deal with any issues arising from overcompensation.
What can you do to help?
Following diagnosis from your vet, and possible treatment, you may be faced with managing the condition. Managing your dogs living environment is important for injury prevention generally, but even more so when your dog has an ongoing orthopaedic condition.
  • Non slip flooring
  • Limit use of stairs
  • Avoid jumping on and off furniture
  • Avoid jumping in and out of vehicles
Think carefully about the type of exercise and activities you do with your dog. Unless told to by your vet there shouldn’t be any reason to limit exercise, but definitely no ball launchers or anything else that involves sudden uncontrolled twists, turns and impact. If your dog does agility think carefully about how they’re affected - an occasional hop when running, but appropriate jump action will more than likely be fine. But if your dog is taking off or landing on three legs regularly, just think about the impact that may be having on your dog and the other injuries it could be causing, it may be that it’s time to switch to a lower impact activity.
If your dog has a luxating patella, or you’ve spotted something odd about their gait, please get in touch to find out more about massage and whether it could help your dog.