Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Elbow dysplasia can be a painful, debilitating, slowly deteriorating condition for your dog.

By | Posted: September 25, 2014, 1 p.m. PST

What is Canine Elbow Dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia is a painful, debilitating, slowly deteriorating condition. 

Saint Bernard 

Three conditions of the elbow are generically referred to as "elbow dysplasia.” As with hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia stems from poor alignment between the bones. The elbow is a complex joint that involves three bones: the humerus in the arm; the radius, the main bone in the forearm; and the ulna, a small but important bone in the forearm. If all three bones are not perfectly aligned, problems with the bones and the cartilage can follow.

The cartilage at the bottom of the humerus, for example, can have a defect called osteochondritis dissecans. The flap of cartilage may be completely separated or only partially attached to the bone in dogs with this condition.

The ulna, on the other hand, can present two conditions. One is ununited anconeal process, in which a large section of the bone does not attach to the main part of the ulna inside the elbow joint. 

The third type of elbow dysplasia, known as fragmented coronoid process, occurs when a small piece of bone called the coronoid process separates from the inside part of the ulna.

In all three situations, as the piece of cartilage or bone moves inside the joint, the dog experiences pain and swelling. 

What are the Signs of Elbow Dysplasia?

Usually between 4 and 6 months of age, elbow dysplasia causes lameness, weight shifting to other legs, reluctance to move or play, stiffness, and muscle wasting. Without treatment, the signs get worse, and the dog ends up with severe arthritis.

How is Elbow Dysplasia Diagnosed?

Sedation is often critical to obtain quality X-rays. Even then, diagnosis is not always easy, and advanced imaging such as a CT scan or an MRI may be required. It is important to always check the other elbow, even if no signs can be detected, as elbow dysplasia can occur in both joints. 

Is Elbow Dysplasia More Common in Certain Breeds?

Most affected dogs are large and giant breeds, such as German Shepherd Dogs, Labradors Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, St. Bernards, and Newfoundlands.

How is Elbow Dysplasia Treated?

 "With either condition, the initial treatment in a young dog is typically surgery,” explains Justin Harper, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at Texas Specialty Veterinary Services in Boerne, Texas. Through a short skin incision or with an arthroscope — a tiny camera placed in the joint — the piece of cartilage or bone is removed, most commonly by a veterinary surgeon. "In older dogs, when severe arthritis and pain cannot be controlled, a total elbow replacement can be performed,” Harper says.

After surgery, or if your veterinarian does not recommend surgery, several treatment methods can help increase comfort and slow down arthritis. Options include rest, weight control, pain medications, physical therapy, and joint supplements. Once the puppy is fully grown, your vet can recommend an "arthritis diet” enriched in omega-3 fatty acids.

You’ll need to minimize your dog’s explosive activity, and encourage controlled exercise such as slow leash walks. Supervised swimming can also be beneficial, as long as your dog doesn’t struggle getting into or out of the water.

Can Elbow Dysplasia be Prevented?

Because elbow dysplasia is partially genetic, affected dogs should be spayed or neutered. The same reasoning applies to their parents and siblings. Except through careful genetic selection, elbow dysplasia is difficult to prevent. A balanced diet, appropriate for large-breed puppies, is important so your dog doesn’t grow too rapidly.

PHIL ZELTZMAN, D.V.M., CVJ, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, is a traveling board-certified surgeon near Allentown, Pa.. He is the co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound (Purdue University Press, 2011).

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Judth   Colorado Springs, Colorado

5/9/2016 9:07:52 AM

We adopted a dog who ended up being diagnosed with elbow dysplasia - there was no getting around it - we didn't get her from a breeder and preferred to rescue, so we are dealing with this the best we know how. One thing that our vet suggested was using the Ortocanis elbow protector to help stabilize the joints and keep the area warm/circulation moving. We also had her neutered (which we were going to do even before the diagnosis), but since dysplasia can be passed on to offspring, the only mode of "prevention" is to stop breeding dogs that receive this diagnosis.

I did notice a big difference when we introduced the Ortocanis elbow protector, and as well when we started giving her joint protector supplements. I'm hoping she can stay pain free for as long as possible, in addition to being active!

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Leslie - 233329   Lakeside, AZ

10/3/2014 6:10:03 PM

Good information. Thanks!

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Eileen - 249708   Port Perry, ON

9/26/2014 4:13:33 AM

Thanks for this important information!

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