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The Luxating Knee

What is Patellar Luxation?

The patella, or kneecap, is part of the stifle joint (knee). In patellar luxation, the kneecap luxates, or pops out of place, either in a medial or lateral position.

Bilateral involvement is most common, but unilateral is not uncommon. Animals can be affected by the time they are 8 weeks of age. The most notable finding is a knock-knee (genu valgum) stance. The patella is usually reducible, and laxity of the medial collateral ligament may be evident. The medial retinacular tissues of the stifle joint are often thickened, and the foot can be seen to twist laterally as weight is placed on the limb.

Patellar Luxation Categories

Patellar luxations fall into several categories:
  1. Medial luxation; toy, miniature, and large breeds

  2. Lateral luxation; toy and miniature breeds

  3. Lateral luxation; large and giant breeds.

  4. Luxation resulting from trauma; various breeds, of no importance to the certification process.

Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are either known to be heritable or strongly suspected.

Medial Luxation in Toy, Miniature, and Large Breeds

Although the luxation may not be present at birth, the anatomical deformities that cause these luxations are present at that time and are responsible for subsequent recurrent patellar luxation. Patellar luxation should be considered an inherited disease.

Clinical Signs
Three classes of patients are identifiable:

  1. Neonates and older puppies often show clinical signs of abnormal hind-leg carriage and function from the time they start walking; these present grades 3 and 4 generally.

  2. Young to mature animals with grade 2 to 3 luxations usually have exhibited abnormal or intermittently abnormal gaits all their lives but are presented when the problem symptomatically worsens.

  3. Older animals with grade 1 and 2 luxations may exhibit sudden signs of lameness because of further breakdown of soft tissues as result of minor trauma or because of worsening of degenerative joint disease pain.

Signs vary dramatically with the degree of luxation. In grades 1 and 2, lameness is evident only when the patella is in the luxated position. The leg is carried with the stifle joint flexed but may be touched to the ground every third or fourth step at fast gaits. Grade 3 and 4 animals exhibit a crouching, bowlegged stance (genu varum) with the feet turned inward and with most of the weight transferred to the front legs.

Permanent luxation renders the quadriceps ineffective in extending the stifle. Extension of the stifle will allow reduction of the luxation in grades 1 and 2. Pain is present in some cases, especially when chondromalacia of the patella and femoral condyle is present. Most animals; however, seem to show little irritation upon palpation.

Lateral Luxation in Toy and Miniature Breeds


Lateral luxation in small breeds is most often seen late in the animal's life, from 5 to 8 years of age. The heritability is unknown. Skeletal abnormalities are relatively minor in this syndrome, which seems to represent a breakdown in soft tissue in response to, as yet, obscure skeletal derangement. Thus, most lateral luxations are grades 1 and 2, and the bony changes are similar, but opposite, to those described for medial luxation. The dog has more functional disability with lateral luxation than with medial luxation.

Clinical Signs
In mature animals, signs may develop rapidly and may be associated with minor trauma or strenuous activity. A knock-knee or genu valgum stance, sometimes described as seal-like, is characteristic.

Sudden bilateral luxation may render the animal unable to stand and so simulate neurological disease. Physical examination is as described for medial luxation.

Lateral Luxation in Large and Giant Breeds


Also called genu valgum, this condition is usually seen in the large and giant breeds. A genetic pattern has been noted, with Great Danes, St. Bernards, and Irish Wolfhounds being the most commonly affected. Components of hip dysplasia, such as coxa valga (increased angle of inclination of the femoral neck) and increased anteversion of the femoral neck, are related to lateral patellar luxation. These deformities cause internal rotation of the femur with lateral torsion and valgus deformity of the distal femur, which displaces the quadriceps mechanism and patella laterally.

Clinical Signs
Bilateral involvement is most common. Animals appear to be affected by the time they are 5 to 6 months of age. The most notable finding is a knock-knee (genu valgum) stance. The patella is usually reducible, and laxity of the medial collateral ligament may be evident. The medial retinacular tissues of the stifle joint are often thickened, and the foot can often be seen to twist laterally as weight is placed on the limb.

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