Reviewed by Erica Irish, DVM
If you have a large-breed puppy that suddenly develops a limp in the front legs, have him or her seen by a veterinarian. Assuming your dog hasn’t had any recent injuries, he or she may be suffering from elbow dysplasia.
Elbow dysplasia is a painful condition that affects a dog’s front legs. Sometimes, it only affects one elbow. Oftentimes, it affects both. Large dog breeds are more at risk for a few reasons, the main one being that they grow so much faster than smaller breeds.
This kind of rapid growth can cause abnormal development of the dog’s elbow joint.
Are you considering a large breed dog or already have one? If so, you’re in the right spot to learn more about elbow dysplasia and ways to try and prevent it.
If you believe your dog fits into this category, keep reading. We’ll cover everything you need to know about elbow dysplasia in dogs, including types, symptoms, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment options.
What it Means When Your Dog Has Elbow Dysplasia
Canine elbow dysplasia is a condition that affects elbow joints and is a common cause of forelimb lameness in young dogs.
Your vet may think your puppy has elbow dysplasia if it starts to limp on one of its front legs, especially if your little pooch hasn’t had any recent injuries. That said, there are some injuries that make elbow dysplasia more apparent.
In the early stages, you might only notice intermittent limping. In other words, it comes and goes.
You may be tempted to cancel the veterinary appointment, but don’t. Early diagnosis is important to prevent it from causing osteoarthritis in the joint.
Elbow dysplasia (ED) is a group of conditions that make it hard for the joints to work normally in different ways.
Dogs with unnatural bone, tissue, or cell growth can develop this painful condition. In some cases, there is a genetic component like that with hip dysplasia.
We’ll talk about some of the possible reasons for abnormal elbow development in dogs later in this post.
Is there a cure for elbow dysplasia in dogs?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for elbow dysplasia in dogs. Luckily, there are several treatment options that are considered based on the severity of the disease and the stage at which it is diagnosed.
Treatment options, explained in more detail later in this post, include surgical and non-surgical options.
Types of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
The elbow is a complex joint. It’s made up of the three bones of the front legs. These bones are called the radius, ulna, and humerus.
If the three bones don’t come together to form a perfect fit during the growth stage, the result is an irregular distribution of weight on the joints.
This causes a lot of pain and discomfort for the dog and will progress to osteoarthritis without treatment.
Dogs with elbow dysplasia usually have one of three developmental problems that all fall under the umbrella term of “elbow dysplasia”.
These developmental problems are explained below.
Fragmented coronoid process (FCP)
This is a developmental defect that affects the two small bony protrusions on the end of the ulna within the elbow joint.
In this condition, a fissure or crack develops and separates from the rest of the bone. The separation leads to joint instability and a lot of pain.
Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
This is a small projection of bone on the ulna, the longer of the two bones in the front leg. This condition occurs when the growth plates do not fuse to the rest of the ulna properly.
Normally, the growth plates (found at the ends of bones in growing dogs), fuse together when the dog reaches puberty. So, your dog would be around 5 months old. If this process of fusing together doesn’t happen, the elbow becomes unstable.
Since the elbow joint isn’t able to work properly, it has to withstand abnormal wear-and-tear. The area will become inflamed, eventually leading to degenerative joint disease or arthritis. Dogs diagnosed with this type of elbow dysplasia require surgery to repair.
Surgery has better results if it is performed before arthritis sets in.
Visit VCA Animal Hospitals to see what this looks like: Ununited Anconeal Process.
Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)
This orthopedic disease occurs when a piece of bone and cartilage becomes loose and breaks away. It commonly affects the shoulder but, of course, usually involves the elbow joint.
Large-breed dogs between 6 and 9 months tend to be affected, although the exact cause is unknown.
Signs of OCD in dogs include a limp or lameness in the affected leg. If pressure is applied to the joint, the dog will show obvious signs of pain.
For more information on this complicated condition, see: VCA Animal Hospitals Osteochondritis Dissecans in Dogs.
Causes of Abnormal Elbow Development in Dogs
Multiple factors are thought to contribute to the development of elbow dysplasia in dogs. The exact causes of elbow dysplasia are unclear; however, the following factors may play a role:
May be an inherited condition (congenital) in puppies under 1 year of age.
Large-breed dogs tend to grow at a faster rate than smaller breeds. This quick growth rate could contribute to abnormal cartilage development.
Growing too quickly is unhealthy for large breed puppies. Essentially, their bone structure cannot keep up with rapid growth spurts.
The growth plates of the long bones in large or giant breed dogs fuse later than those of smaller breeds. Excessive growth has been linked to developmental orthopedic disease (DOD).
The last thing you want to give a large or giant-breed dog is food that promotes rapid growth. They grow too fast as it is!
Large-breed puppies grow more quickly than puppies of smaller breeds, which impacts their diet.
The calorie and calcium content for large-breed, fast-growing dogs is actually lower than that for smaller breeds. This helps lower the risk of obesity due to overfeeding.
An appropriate diet for large-breed dogs may help prevent developmental orthopedic diseases (DODs) such as osteochondrosis.
Dog Breeds at Risk of Elbow Dysplasia
The exact cause of elbow dysplasia isn’t clear, but it’s thought to have a genetic cause. In addition, it appears to develop more in males than females.
Large and giant-breed dogs commonly affected include (but may not be limited to) the following:
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- German shepherd dogs
- Bernese mountain dogs
- Chow chows
- Bearded collies
- Newfoundland breeds
Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Veterinarians may suspect elbow dysplasia in large and giant breed dogs who show signs of front leg lameness. Dogs are typically diagnosed between the ages of four months of age up to one year.
Dysplasia may be found in older dogs whose arthritis gets worse, especially if the symptoms were mild or were missed at the puppy phase.
Clinical symptoms usually appear between the ages of four and ten months, and a diagnosis is typically made bet
- Joint pain
- grating sound may be a sign of advanced joint disease
- Fluid build-up around the joints
- limited range of motion
- signs of lameness
- head bobbing
- doesn’t want to go for walks
Diagnosing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
If your puppy has been showing signs of limping or lameness in the front legs, be sure to get him or her to see a veterinarian ASAP. Early diagnosis of elbow dysplasia is key to preventing it from getting worse.
A diagnosis is made through a combination of physical examination and diagnostic imaging. The veterinarian may request some or all of the following before making a definitive diagnosis:
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 around to detect any hints of lameness.
Imaging tests like x-rays are powerful tools designed to help diagnose a number of conditions. An x-ray is used to create an image of the area. Areas with high levels of calcium block the radiation. This causes them to show up white on the screen.
An x-ray can show whether there are any bone fragments present within the joints. It can also show whether arthritis has developed. Keep in mind that cartilage fragments are not always cleared viewed on x-rays. In that case, additional imaging is required.
CT scans (computed tomography) sends radiation through the body (like x-rays), but provides a higher level of detail.
A CT scan allows visualization of the elbow in multiples planes. This enables the veterinarian to determine whether the dog has developed lesions.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a powerful magnet to pass through the body. The reaction of the body’s protons creates a highly detailed picture of the dog’s soft tissues, nerves, and blood vessels.
An MRI can help spot musculoskeletal conditions or injuries.
Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive procedure that requires general anesthesia. The procedure allows for an excellent view of the joint surfaces. A veterinary surgeon inserts a narrow tube attached to a fiber-optic camera through a small incision.
This process prevents the need for more invasive surgery. In some cases, the surgeon can make repairs to the joints at the same time , and possibly remove any fragments that are freely floating in the joint space.
Surgical and Non-Surgical Treatment Options
The treatment option chosen will depend on the severity of the condition and the age and health of the dog.
Surgical options include arthroscopic treatments, osteotomies (bone cuts) or a combination of both. It should be noted that dogs that undergo arthroscopic surgery have a fair to excellent prognosis. The degree of success depends on things like:
- how much bones and cartilage fragments can be removed
- whether joint surfaces need to be cleaned up and how well that is performed
- the severity of the condition
The goal is to minimize abnormal joint contact. Although some degree of osteoarthritis is inevitable, most dogs are able to lead a fairly normal life.
Medical management of elbow dysplasia in dogs could include pain management with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Other non-surgical options can include:
Physical therapy for dogs with elbow dysplasia can include anything from passive range of motion exercises to heat and cold therapy.
This alternative practice involves inserting very small needles into the skin. This helps stimulate points on the body and is a non-medical option for treating chronic pain.
Cold Laser Therapy
Cold laser therapy achieves the same result as acupuncture without having to insert needles. For this procedure, a laser is applied on surface of the skin (or held just above the skin). There is no need to restrain the dog and it doesn’t create discomfort for the dog.
Swim therapy is a great way to help keep joints mobilized without the added pressure of gravity and body weight. Underwater treadmills are also used to rehabilitate dogs with elbow dysplasia.
Glucosamine has long been used for humans and animals to help alleviate pain from arthritis. There are many products on the market to choose from. The best one for your dog may not be the best one for a different dog.
It’s always best to check with your veterinarian for advice. However, here are a few to consider:
In some dogs, a combination of surgical and non-surgical options is helpful.
Can Dogs Live with Elbow Dysplasia?
Dogs can live a long and happy life with elbow dysplasia. Treatment options will depend on the severity of the condition. Ultimately, you may have to adapt your lifestyle to meet your dog’s needs.
Ongoing physical therapy, pain management, avoiding unnecessary weight gain, and other measures may be required to keep your dog living his or her best life.
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Large-breed puppies are particularly adorable. Their paws always seem a little too big for their bodies in the early months. They run, jump, and inevitably take a playful tumble that you can’t help but laugh at.
Unfortunately, their fast-growing limbs can cause elbow dysplasia. Elbow dysplasia, if not treated properly, can lead to the development of arthritis.
There’s a difference between the goofy play of a healthy puppy versus signs of a serious limp. If your gut is telling you that something isn’t quite right, see a veterinarian about it. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Early diagnosis of elbow dysplasia is vital. If left untreated, progressive arthritis will set in. Arthritis is a painful condition that will, ultimately, affect the quality of life for your beloved dog.
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