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Elbow dysplasia is a general term for abnormal development of the elbow joint in relation to the bones,
cartilage, or joint tissue. The three bones that make up the elbow are the humerus, radius, and ulna. If they don’t fit together properly, it can cause uneven weight distribution, or growth abnormalities, which often present as awkwardly bent legs, accompanied by stiffness, limping, and pain. If left untreated, elbow dysplasia can lead to arthritis or even bone fractures.1
While hip dysplasia is talked about more frequently in the veterinary world, elbow dysplasia can have equally debilitating effects on a dog. However, with proper treatment it can be managed and many dogs are still able to enjoy relatively active and healthy lives. Certain breeds are at greater risk of developing the disease, but it can affect dogs of any breed. Read on to find out more about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of this disease and what to do if you suspect your dog might be affected.
Symptoms of elbow dysplasia usually start appearing in the first few months of a dog’s life; typically around 5-6 months. However, some dogs don’t get diagnosed until 4-6 years old. In the early stages, elbow dysplasia can cause a dog to favor one leg over the other, even though both elbows are likely affected. This is often accompanied by a head bob, because their head goes higher when they step on the bad leg, going down when the good leg steps on the ground. It’s all part of their attempt to compensate while walking if they have pain in one leg. Favoring one leg generally indicates that your dog is experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort. Since elbow dysplasia may be the cause, it’s a good idea to take them to the vet. Early diagnosis can help ensure that the condition doesn’t get too advanced.2
You might also start to notice that your dog is not able to walk properly after normal exercise, nor do they recover even after considerable rest. They might walk stiffly or turn their affected leg or paw inward in order to shift some weight off the affected area. Another common symptom is tenderness, swelling, and warmth on the affected part of the joint, which indicates inflammation. Walking may become increasingly painful, resulting in a reluctance to move. If your dog used to jump for joy when it was time to go for a walk, but now seems uninterested or in pain, they might be suffering from elbow dysplasia.2
The exact cause of elbow dysplasia is unclear, although veterinary researchers theorize that genetics, defects in cartilage growth, trauma, and diet might play a role. Obesity — particularly during puppy years, can increase the risk of elbow dysplasia, but genetics may also be a factor.3
Usually, elbow dysplasia develops as a result of the following conditions (or a combination thereof): 4
- Fragmented coronoid process (FCP) — a crack in one of the two, small bony protrusions at the end of the ulna, which then separates it from the rest of the bone
- Osteochondritis of the medial humeral condyle in the elbow joint (OCD) — Most cartilage turns to bone as a young dog grows, but in this case, too much remains, creating a thicker layer of cartilage on the elbow joint.
- Ununited anconeal process (UAP) — improperly fused growth plates at the ends of the bones, specifically the anconeal projection of bone on the ulna.
The general assumption is that elbow dysplasia is a multifaceted disease that causes growth problems. This disorder is more commonly seen in dogs than cats and seems to occur more frequently in large and giant dog breeds.1 Bernese Mountain Dogs, Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers tend to have the highest risk of developing elbow dysplasia.3 In general, up to 80% of dogs develop the disease in both elbows, although one leg may be more painful than the other.5
Elbow dysplasia can’t be diagnosed before at least 4 months of age. Vets are able to make a more definitive diagnosis at about 6-12 months, but some dogs don’t show symptoms until years later, when they present with arthritic pain. Movement problems are usually the most obvious signs.
If a vet suspects that elbow dysplasia is the cause, they will examine the dog’s bone and joint structure through x-rays or other radiographs. This type of imaging makes it easy to identify abnormalities indicative of elbow dysplasia, such as small bone fragments in the joint or an ununited anconeal process (UAP).1 Sometimes, a CT scan or surgery arthroscopic surgery is necessary to make a conclusive diagnosis. In this case, your vet may refer you to an orthopedic veterinary specialist.3
Like many illnesses, early diagnosis and treatment is ideal. Elbow dysplasia often presents in very young dogs, so most are able to receive early intervention care. The treatment is usually surgery, but sometimes simple pain management is sufficient. Your vet will analyze the severity of your dog’s condition and advise you on the best way to treat it.
In milder cases, surgery involves simply removing any damaged tissue within the affected area, which usually reduces pain significantly, if not completely. For dogs with more severe cases, the surgeon may need to realign the affected part of the elbow or even replace the joint.3 The more severe the condition is, the more extensive the surgery is likely to be. The goal is to prevent or delay the development of arthritis. However, if a dog already has arthritis, surgery will not help. Your dog will need to remain relatively calm and quiet for a few weeks following the procedure.1
How long will my dog live with elbow dysplasia?
Elbow dysplasia doesn’t shorten your dog’s life expectancy. The prognosis after treatment is often very good and most dogs can still live long, relatively normal lives.
How painful is canine elbow dysplasia?
It causes pain, stiffness, and sometimes swelling. Pain may worsen with time or if left untreated, which is why early intervention is best. However, every dog is different, so your dog may experience more or less pain than average.
How quickly does elbow dysplasia progress?
Dogs with elbow dysplasia typically start showing signs from an early age (around 4-6 months), but sometimes it can take several years for a diagnosis. Affected dogs develop front limb lameness that tends to get worse over a period of weeks or months.1
Can dogs recover from elbow dysplasia?
While there’s no cure for elbow dysplasia, it can be easily managed and treated. A dog with this condition is still likely to regain mobility and feel less pain with proper treatment.
Elbow dysplasia affects a dog’s elbow joints, causing pain and inflammation, particularly in larger breeds. It can be easily managed with pain medication or surgery and the prognosis is usually very good. Early diagnosis is important, because it decreases the chance of the dog developing painful arthritis. Symptoms will often start appearing during puppyhood, but it can also take a few years.
Take your dog to the vet if you notice symptoms of elbow dysplasia. If they suddenly favor one leg or become disinterested in exercise, they might be trying to tell you that they’re in pain. Surgery is often necessary and is likely to improve the condition so that your dog can start enjoying life again.
At Dutch.com, you can get advice from a licensed veterinarian from the comfort of your home. If your dog seems to be in pain you can easily book a video consultation or use our live chat service to speak with a vet right away. We’ll help you get to the bottom of your pup’s problems in no time.
“Elbow Dysplasia Fact Sheet.” Davies Veterinary Specialists, 2018, https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/canine-elbow-dysplasia
Fitzpatrick, Noel. “Elbow Dysplasia.” Fitzpatrick Referrals (AURA Veterinary), 15 July 2021, www.fitzpatrickreferrals.co.uk/orthopaedic/canine-elbow-dysplasia/
“Elbow Dysplasia.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 5 May 2023, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/health-info/elbow-dysplasia#:~:text=Rottweilers%2C%20Labrador%20Retrievers%2C%20German%20Shepherd,can%20suffer%20from%20elbow%20dysplasia.
Meyers, Harriet. “Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs.” American Kennel Club, 20 Apr. 2022, www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/elbow-dysplasia-dogs/.
“Canine Elbow Dysplasia.” American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), www.acvs.org/small-animal/canine-elbow-dysplasia. Accessed 11 May 2023.