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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: All

You’ve likely heard of hip dysplasia in dogs, but have you ever heard of elbow dysplasia? 

While these two conditions are nearly identical (except for the fact that they affect different joints), hip dysplasia tends to get a lot more publicity. However, elbow dysplasia can have just as many negative impacts on a dog’s life as hip dysplasia, and is deserving of more attention than it currently receives. 

What is Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Elbow dysplasia X-ray

Elbow dysplasia is a broad term that refers to an inherited abnormality of the elbow. 

The elbow joint is the union between three bones: the humerus (upper arm) and the radius and ulna (lower arm). Any inherited abnormality in how these three bones fit together and align can cause elbow dysplasia. Over time, elbow dysplasia predisposes a dog to arthritis of the elbow. 

What does elbow dysplasia look like in dogs?

A dog with elbow dysplasia may look normal when resting or standing. In other cases, the elbows may be tucked in or bowed out a bit when the dog is at rest. When a dog with elbow dysplasia begins to walk or run, though, they often limp on one or both front legs. 

Causes of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Newfoundland puppy looks up

There are four unique conditions that can cause elbow dysplasia. 

  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP): In this condition, a bony projection on the end of the ulna called the anconeal process doesn’t fuse correctly with the rest of the ulna. The anconeal process may completely separate from the ulna, interfering with the movement of the joint. 
  • Fragmented medial coronoid process (FMCP): This is another abnormality of the ulna, in which  another bony projection of the ulna called the medial coronoid process is malformed or separated from the ulna. 
  • Osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD): This condition occurs within the joint, when the cartilage does not mature normally. A flap of retained, abnormal cartilage can interfere with the function of the elbow joint. 
  • Joint incongruity: If the radius and ulna do not grow at the same rate, these bones may become misaligned and interfere with the smooth surface of the joint. 

While these conditions all cause similar signs, each form of elbow dysplasia has its own unique risk factors and treatments. 

The most important risk factor in elbow dysplasia is genetics. High-risk breeds include Rottweilers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, English Springer Spaniels, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Newfoundlands. However, any dog can be diagnosed with elbow dysplasia. While elbow dysplasia is most common in large-breed dogs, even small-breed dogs can be affected.

Nutrition can also play an important role in elbow dysplasia. An imbalanced diet in young puppies can lead to rapid growth, predisposing dogs to elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, and other orthopedic conditions.  

Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs Symptoms

Puppy gives owner paw

Symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs typically develop at 6-12 months of age, though signs may occur earlier or later. The most common sign of elbow dysplasia is limping on the affected leg(s). Dogs may limp on one or both legs, or they may walk with the front legs held stiffly or rigidly. 

You may also see visible swelling around the affected elbow. The dog may be painful when moving and reluctant to bend the elbow, leading to difficulty when lying down or rising.

Signs of elbow dysplasia in dogs include: 

  • Limping on one or both front legs
  • Stiff gait affecting one or both front legs
  • Swelling of the elbow
  • Pain when moving the elbow
  • Decreased range of motion of the elbow
  • Difficulty lying down or standing

In some cases, signs of elbow dysplasia may only be detected during a physical exam by a veterinarian. 

Diagnosing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Veterinarian looks at puppy's X-rays

The first step in diagnosing elbow dysplasia is to schedule an appointment for a thorough physical examination. Your veterinarian will pay special attention to your dog’s elbows, flexing and extending them to put them through their entire range of motion. Swelling in the elbow and pain on range of motion can increase your veterinarian’s suspicion of elbow dysplasia. 

Next, your veterinarian will likely recommend radiographs (X-rays). Diagnosing elbow dysplasia often requires a number of different radiographic views, and your dog may need to be sedated for these images. Characteristic radiographic changes can indicate the presence of elbow dysplasia. 

In some cases, radiographs alone are insufficient to diagnose elbow dysplasia. Your veterinarian may refer your dog to a specialist for further evaluation. Additional diagnostic tests may include advanced imaging (CT, MRI) and/or inserting a camera into the joint (arthroscopy). 

Dog Elbow Dysplasia Treatment

Puppy eats from food bowl

The treatment of elbow dysplasia depends on the underlying cause of your dog’s condition. Each form of elbow dysplasia has a different recommended treatment. Definitive treatment for any of these conditions, however, often requires surgery. 

Supportive care measures can also be beneficial, in addition to surgery or in place of surgery. Dogs with elbow dysplasia should be maintained at a healthy body weight, because obesity will place more stress on the joint. Low-impact exercise and physical therapy can build the muscles around the elbow without leading to increased inflammation. 

Dogs with elbow dysplasia may benefit from a sturdy, reliable pet ramp such as the Paw Ramp by Alpha Paw, which can help reduce the amount of stress placed on joints.

Nutraceuticals, such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids, can also help support joint health and reduce inflammation. Alternative therapies, such as platelet rich plasma injections, are also being studied for their use in canine elbow dysplasia. 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also play a valuable role in the treatment of elbow dysplasia. Not only do these medications alleviate pain, they also reduce inflammation within the joint. These medications can have side effects, so it’s important to talk to your veterinarian to determine the best treatment for your dog. 

Do not give any over-the-counter human pain medications to your dog, because human medications can have significant negative impacts on dogs. Do not use any dog elbow dysplasia brace without talking to your veterinarian, as some of these products can do more harm than good. 

Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs Surgery

Surgery is the only way to definitively treat elbow dysplasia. Your surgeon’s goal will be to correct the hereditary defect causing your dog’s elbow dysplasia, restoring proper alignment to the elbow. In general, this means removing bone fragments that are present within the joint and/or surgically realigning the bones.

The prognosis associated with surgery varies, based upon your dog’s underlying abnormality and the severity of your dog’s abnormality. A veterinary surgeon will be able to give you more information on your dog’s specific prognosis after pre-surgical testing. Most dogs respond well to surgery, although some long-term arthritis is often inevitable. 

The cost of elbow dysplasia surgery can vary significantly, depending on the procedure that is required. In general, however, you can expect to spend approximately $2,000-$4,000 per elbow. 

Managing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

You can make your dog more comfortable with some simple changes to your dog’s environment and behaviors. 

First, use rugs to create non-slip surfaces throughout your home. Tile or wood floors can be slippery, making a dog with elbow dysplasia more likely to fall and injure themselves. Additionally, ramps can help your dog get on and off furniture without the need to jump, minimizing impact to the elbows. 

Finally, work on training your dog while they are young to minimize jumping up on people and other “crazy” behaviors. Signs of elbow dysplasia often develop in young dogs, and their high activity levels can exacerbate this condition. Keeping your dog relatively calm can reduce their risk of elbow injury. 

Exercising a Dog with Elbow Dysplasia

Pet parent walking puppy in woods

If your dog has elbow dysplasia, you’ll want to stick with low-impact forms of exercise. Avoid frisbee and fetch in favor of neighborhood walks and swimming in a pool. 

Avoid prolonged periods of exercise. You’re better off taking a few short walks each day than one marathon 5-mile walk. Many dogs won’t tell you when walking starts to hurt, so you will need to pay careful attention to your dog’s cues. If your dog starts every walk by pulling you down the street and then begins to fall behind, this is a sign that you have walked too far. Similarly, if your dog seems stiff or sore after your walk, you should make sure that your next walk together is a bit shorter. 

Dogs with elbow dysplasia don’t need to be complete couch potatoes, but it’s important to avoid prolonged, high-impact, or otherwise stressful exercise.

Preventing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

The best way to prevent elbow dysplasia is to stop breeding affected dogs. Dogs belonging to commonly-affected breeds should be screened for elbow dysplasia prior to breeding, even if they aren’t showing clinical signs of disease. Even low-risk breeds should be evaluated for elbow dysplasia if they show signs of lameness, and removed from a breeding program if there’s any suspicion that they may have elbow dysplasia.

Some cases of elbow dysplasia have an underlying nutritional cause. Excessive calories or an imbalanced diet during puppyhood can affect bone growth, increasing the risk of elbow dysplasia and other orthopedic issues. Feed your puppy a well-balanced diet that is appropriate for their breed. Large-breed dogs need a food that is intended for large-breed puppies, because these foods have an optimal energy and nutrient balance to reduce the risk of orthopedic conditions. 

Related Conditions 

  • Osteochondrosis
  • Ununited anconeal process
  • Fragmented medial coronoid process
  • Elbow incongruity
  • Osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease
  • Hip dysplasia
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