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A Guide To Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Aimee Labbate
  • Aimee Labbate

  • RCVS: 700039


What is elbow dysplasia in dogs?

Elbow dysplasia is a painful genetic condition where one or both elbow joints do not develop properly in puppyhood. The elbow is a complicated joint as it a connection between three separate bones. In elbow dysplasia the joint does not fit together as it should, resulting in abnormal forces on certain parts of the joint. This causes pain, swelling, stiffness, secondary arthritic change and can even lead to fractures within the joint.

Which types of dogs does elbow dysplasia affect?

Elbow dysplasia is the most common cause of forelimb lameness in young, large and giant breed dogs such as Labradors, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Newfoundlands, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Basset Hounds. Symptoms usually begin between 5-18 months of age, although some will not develop lameness until they are older due to the secondary arthritic changes in the joint. If a puppy is overweight, then this can increase the chances of the condition developing.

What are the symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs?

The symptoms are very variable but may include:

  • Forelimb lameness on one or both legs – this can be difficult to spot if both front legs are affected
  • Stiffness in forelimbs
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Front paws pointing outwards
  • Difficulty getting up and lying down

When should I contact my vet about elbow dysplasia in dogs?

If you are concerned that your dog is displaying any of the symptoms above, then please contact your vet.

How is elbow dysplasia in dogs diagnosed?

Your vet is likely to be suspicious of elbow dysplasia based on the clinical history and physical examination. The next step would be to perform x-rays of your dog’s elbows joints under sedation or general anaesthetic, although changes are not always visible at this stage. Referral to an orthopaedic specialist may be needed to perform additional tests such as a CT scan or arthroscopy, where a tiny camera is used to look inside the joint.

How is elbow dysplasia in dogs treated?

Treatment will depend on the severity of the clinical signs i.e. how much the dog is affected by the condition. Most dogs can be treated medically, without the need for surgery. However, more severely affected dogs may fail to respond, and surgery may therefore be needed.

  • Weight control. It has been shown that dogs that are overweight are more likely to develop clinical signs associated with their elbow dysplasia. Keeping your dog a healthy weight can therefore have a dramatic impact on the condition.
  • Anti-inflammatory pain relief to make your dog feel more comfortable and to help reduce joint inflammation.
  • Rest. Your dog may need to be rested if they are having significant discomfort from their elbow dysplasia.
  • Controlled exercise. Each dog will have a different duration and type of exercise that it can tolerate before its elbow pain increases. Regular, short lead walks are usually ideal. Avoid over-exercising and higher impact forms of exercise such as jumping, chasing, turning rapidly and racing around.
  • Hydrotherapy and physiotherapy can be hugely beneficial for some dogs.
  • Surgery may be needed for dogs that have severe elbow dysplasia that does not respond to medical management. Referral to an orthopaedic specialist is usually needed, and there are various surgical options available that they will discuss with you. An initial surgical approach usually involves keyhole surgery to remove any loose fragments within the joint.

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What is the outlook for elbow dysplasia in dogs?

Elbow dysplasia is a painful condition that requires life-long management. If your dog responds well to treatment, then the outlook is good. For those that do not respond, surgery is usually needed to improve their quality of life, and keyhole surgery can be very effective for some dogs. Dogs with elbow dysplasia normally go on to develop osteoarthritis later in life, which needs to be managed to keep the dog comfortable.

Can elbow dysplasia in dogs be prevented?

The only way to prevent elbow dysplasia is by not breeding from affected dogs. Screening programs are available to check a dog’s elbows before breeding. If you are planning on buying a puppy of a breed that is commonly affected, then ask the breeder about elbow scores first.

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