What Is Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Elbow dysplasia is a medical condition which is caused by an abnormal growth of cells, tissue, or bone in and around the elbow joint. This condition is characterized by a series (usually four) of developmental abnormalities leading to the malformation of the elbow joint. This is the most common cause of elbow pain and lameness in dogs, especially large and giant-breed dogs.

This condition is most often seen in breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Chow Chows, German Shepherd Dogs, and Newfoundlands. Clinical signs typically arise between four and ten months of age. However, most cases are not diagnosed until four to eighteen months of age.

The only known gender difference with this disease is a form that affects males more than females. In this condition the bone fragment is usually located at the inner surface of the upper ulna. This is one of the bones of the foreleg, just below the elbow joint.

Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia

Not all dogs will show signs of elbow dysplasia when young. Occasionally checking the elbow joint for malformations and tenderness is often the only way to get an early indication of the condition. Those that do show signs may show one or more of the following:

  • Sudden (acute) episode of elbow lameness due to advanced degenerative joint disease in a mature patient are common
  • Intermittent or persistent forelimb lameness that is aggravated by exercise; progresses from stiffness, and noticed only after the dog has been resting
  • Pain when extending or flexing the elbow
  • Tendency for dogs to hold the affected limb away from the body
  • Fluid build-up in the joint
  • Grating of bone and joint with movement may be detected with advanced degenerative joint disease
  • Diminished range of motion

Causes of Elbow Dysplasia

There is no one particular cause but most cases are genetic in nature. There is also good evidence the developmental environment may have an impact of the occurrence of this condition. Puppies that tend to do a lot of jumping from furniture have a higher risk.

Another possibility for this disease is nutritional in nature. Dogs that grow up on dog food that is of poor grade tend to also have a higher risk of contracting this condition.

Diagnosis of Elbow Dysplasia

The first step that your veterinarian will take is to rule out other causes for the symptoms that are being displayed. Injury to the joint and joint infections will need to be explored before arriving at a diagnosis of elbow dysplasia. Tumors will also have to be ruled out as they tend to cause similar symptoms to elbow dysplasia.

The veterinarian will take X-rays of both elbows to do a comparison of the joints. This will also determine whether only one elbow is affected or if it is both.

Other tests that the veterinarian may need to do will include a CT scan or an MRI to look for bone fragments in the joint. He may also take a sample of the elbow joint fluid to send off for laboratory testing. Another possible exam is an arthroscopic examination which is often required to make a definite diagnosis of the condition.

Treating Elbow Dysplasia

In ninety percent of the cases surgery is the only option. Immediately following the surgery the animal will require that the affected limbs be cold-packed with ice to help decrease the swelling and to control pain.

As the animal recovers it will require regular cold-packing of the limb(s) every eight hours for the next three to five days. Your veterinarian will also prescribe a regimen of range-of-motion exercises to aid in the healing process until the animal can put weight on the forelimb(s). It will also be recommended that you limit the animal's activity during the recovery period. During this period it is necessary to perform range-of-motion therapy exercises so that the muscles don't waste away or become abnormally rigid.

As an added measure of protection to prevent the condition from reestablishing itself your dog will have to go on a weight control diet. This is necessary to decrease the load and stress of the affected joint(s).

In certain cases the veterinarian will also prescribe medications to minimize pain and inflammation. In addition, the dog may also need medications for slowing the progression of arthritic changes as well as protecting the joint cartilage.

Preventing Elbow Dysplasia

Carefully controlling the intake of nutrients that promote rapid growth is a key step in preventing elbow dysplasia, especially in dog breeds that are prone to the condition. It is also recommended that animals that do suffer from this condition not be bred so that the gene pool may be cleared of this condition. If you got the dog from a breeder you will need to notify him/her of the condition so that the breed can take the necessary steps.

If you are the one who bred the dogs that resulted with pup(s) that suffer from this condition you should not repeat the dam-sire breeding that resulted in the offspring(s).

Living and Management of the Disease

Animals that suffer from elbow dysplasia will require annual examinations to keep track of the progression and deterioration of the cartilage in the elbow joint. Also know that this is a progressive degenerative disease. Animals that have this condition only get worse with age. The prognosis is generally fair to good for all forms of elbow dysplasia.

Medical Diagram Elbow Dysplasia | Pet Quest
Medical Diagram of Elbow Dysplasia
Medical Diagram Elbow Dysplasia | Pet Quest
Medical Diagram of Elbow Dysplasia
German Shepherd X-ray of Elbow Dysplasia | Pet Quest
X-ray of Elbow Dysplasia in a German Shepherd
German Shepherd X-ray of Elbow Dysplasia | Pet Quest
X-ray of Elbow Dysplasia in a German Shepherd
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