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Elbow Dysplasia In Dogs

Elbow Dysplasia Explained


The elbow joint is mainly composed of the three long bones of the front leg (radius, ulna, humerus), along with the cartilages and ligaments holding these bones together.


These structures ensure that the joint moves smoothly and without friction as the dog walks around. These three bones must fit together perfectly to avoid problems when the elbow joint moves.


In canine elbow dysplasia, abnormal development of any or all of the bones that make up the elbow joint results in the bones not fitting together properly. This causes irregular weight distribution, ultimately leading to pain, lameness, and arthritis.


Elbow dysplasia develops from any of the following conditions involving the elbow joint:

  • One of the small protrusions at the end of the ulna cracks and gets chipped off

  • The cartilage of the bone fails to ossify during bone development, leaving a thick layer of cartilage in the elbow joint

  • Failure of the growth plate to properly fuse the long bones during bone development

All of these conditions result in one or more of the bones in the elbow joint complex not fitting together properly, causing mobility symptoms.


What dogs are at risk for elbow dysplasia?


While all dogs can develop elbow dysplasia, this condition typically affects large breeds that grow in size very rapidly in a short time.


Since it’s a developmental disorder, the onset of symptoms can start as early as 5 months of age and become progressively worse over time.


Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition that can affect most breeds of dogs, with some being more at risk than others. Some breeds that are highly predisposed to developing elbow dysplasia include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Rottweilers, Newfoundland, and English Springer Spaniels. About 80% of reported cases of elbow dysplasia in dogs are found to affect both elbows of the dog.


Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs


Affected dogs typically start to show symptoms at an early age, around 5 months and onwards. However, some dogs are diagnosed with the condition around 4-6 years of age. The initial sign of elbow dysplasia is lameness in one or both front limbs. This typically gradually worsens over weeks to a few months.


Lameness from elbow dysplasia usually becomes worse after exercise and does not typically go away, even after resting. Detection of lameness can be difficult if both front legs are affected since the gait of the dog will appear symmetrical. However, it’s important to note that not all dogs with elbow dysplasia will show clinical signs. Some may be asymptomatic and can go undiagnosed for several years.


Diagnosing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs


Diagnosing canine elbow dysplasia based on symptoms alone is not reliable since some dogs can be asymptomatic for several years. Even dogs that do show symptoms often only exhibit subtle, intermittent signs of lameness, making detection difficult.


Canine elbow dysplasia is diagnosed through a combination of physical examination and diagnostic imaging such as radiographs (x-rays), CT scans, MRI scans, or arthroscopy to visualize the elbow joint in real-time. Your veterinarian will manipulate your dog’s elbows and forelegs to detect any lameness or pain. Typically, a dog with elbow dysplasia will show pain when the joint is bent or extended fully. Your vet will also let your dog walk and trot around to detect any hints of lameness during movement.


Treatment Options for Dogs with Elbow Dysplasia


Treatment for elbow dysplasia in dogs depends on how severe the condition and the symptoms are. This can range from simple lifestyle changes to orthopedic surgeries. Dogs with mild symptoms of elbow dysplasia do not typically need invasive treatment options like surgery, and often respond well to medical management and lifestyle change.


Management of mild to moderate elbow dysplasia typically includes anti-inflammatory medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids, sometimes given together with other analgesics. Joint supplements such as glucosamine chondroitin are often prescribed as maintenance to help manage the condition and delay the progression of joint damage.

Your vet may also recommend physical therapy or exercise restriction depending on the severity of the clinical signs. It’s also important that your dog’s weight is maintained properly, as excessive weight gain puts additional pressure on the elbow joint and can make the condition worse.


In severe cases of elbow dysplasia, surgery is considered to be the best treatment option. The approach to surgical treatment can either be the traditional open surgery where the elbow joint is exposed or the less invasive arthroscopic approach where small incisions are made around the joint, and arthroscopes are inserted and used to perform the surgery.


The specific surgical procedure needed will depend on the primary cause of the elbow dysplasia. This may involve surgical alteration of the entire joint to shift weight away from the inflamed and damaged parts, reattachment of bone segments that have failed to fuse together, or full elbow joint replacement for cases where the joint is severely damaged.

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