What to Know About Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

brown puppy at the vet

Have you noticed your dog favoring a certain leg or limping a bit? This could be a small injury or it could be a sign of elbow dysplasia, which is a condition common in mid to large-sized dogs, such as Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Basset Hounds, as well as many other breeds. Here’s what you should know about elbow dysplasia in dogs:

What is Elbow Dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia is described by Merck Veterinary Manual as “an abnormal development of the elbow joint in young, large, rapidly growing dogs. It involves abnormal bone growth, cartilage development, or joint stresses.”

A dog’s elbow joint consists of three bones: the radius, ulna, and humerus. If these three bones do not fit together seamlessly due to growth abnormalities, the result is elbow incongruency, which describes this bad alignment in the elbow joint, and causes unbalanced weight distribution on the joint. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, this leads to pain and the development of arthritis in that particular joint.

What Causes Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Elbow dysplasia in dogs does have a genetic component and is considered mostly a genetic development disease. This is why reputable breeders should be screening and testing dogs and also getting hip and elbow evaluations in puppies.

However, other potential causes of elbow dysplasia include trauma/injury, poor nutrition, rapid weight gain, too much high-impact exercise, hormonal imbalances, etc., particularly when puppies are still growing.

When the bones of the elbow joint do not fit together like they are supposed to in a growing puppy, it creates high-contact pressure on the joint and worsens as the puppy grows. This causes degeneration of the joint.

Although elbow dysplasia can occur in any dog breed, it is usually a bigger issue when present in larger dog breeds because they grow quickly and the size discrepancy between puppy and adult is much larger than in small dog breeds.

There are four separate skeletal conditions that can cause elbow dysplasia. Elbow dysplasia can be caused by one or more of these conditions as more than one can be present at the same time:

1. Ununited Aconneal Process

The first skeletal condition is Ununited Anconeal Process, which means a growth plate has not closed and fused together correctly. More specifically, this condition refers to when the anconeal projection, a bone on the ulna, doesn’t fuse correctly or fully to the rest of the ulna. This can lead to a separated piece of bone that can cause further joint irritation and degeneration.

2. Fragmented Coronoid Process

The second is the Fragmented Coronoid Process. In this skeletal condition, a piece of bone, specifically from the end of the ulna, cracks and breaks off inside the elbow joint. Not only can this irritate the joint, but it can also wear away the cartilage.

3. Osteochondritis Dissecans

The third skeletal condition that can cause elbow dysplasia is Osteochondritis Dissecans. This is when a piece of cartilage, specifically from the bottom of the humerus in the case of elbow dysplasia, becomes loosened from the joint. This inflames the joint and causes pain.

4. Medial Compartment Disease

The fourth skeletal condition that can cause elbow dysplasia in dogs is Medial Compartment Disease. This condition describes when the entire medial half of the joint is faulty; it involves areas of both the humerus and the ulna.

Medial Compartment Disease, or Medial Coronoid Disease, refers to a severe presentation of this abnormality. It is a situation where high-contact pressure from one joint, caused by an abnormality in the joint, increases pressure and friction on another joint surface. This contributes to a more rapid decline in cartilage and can occur in dogs as young as 1 year.

What Are the Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Symptoms can appear early in puppyhood, or you may not see signs until your dog is much older. The most common symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs are limping or favoring one leg over the others. Other signs can be a reluctance to play or go on walks.

Dogs with elbow dysplasia may also have swollen joints and have trouble getting up from a sitting position. You may even hear their elbow joint popping or crackling as they move. Rotation in one or both of the front legs that causes the elbow to shift outward is another common symptom of elbow dysplasia.

How Do You Treat Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Treatment for elbow dysplasia can depend on the severity of your dog’s condition. If your dog has a mild case, treatment may be simple and less invasive while more severe cases tend to require more invasive procedures.

Managing Mild to Moderate Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia

Managing mild to moderate symptoms can be done with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Joint supplements such as glucosamine/chondroitin and essential fatty acid supplements can help lubricate the joint and manage inflammation. Other therapies like cold-therapy laser can also help reduce pain and inflammation.

Treating Severe Cases of Elbow Dysplasia

If your dog has a more severe case of elbow dysplasia, more invasive procedures may need to be done. Depending on your dog’s condition, there might be some surgical options. The most common procedure is surgery, during which a scope is used to clean out the joint; specifically, it removes loose cartilage and/or bone.

Low-Impact Exercise and a Healthy Weight Help

Your veterinarian may recommend a low-intensity form of exercise for your dog, like swimming or canine hydrotherapy. This way, your dog can get the exercise they need while keeping pressure off of their joints. It’s also important to keep your dog at a healthy weight to prevent extra pressure on their joints.

These are just a few things to know about elbow dysplasia in dogs. Knowing the basics will help you navigate this issue if it arises. Your veterinarian can help you make the right decision for your dog to keep them healthy and happy!