Elbow dysplasia broadly means abnormal development of the bones that make up the elbow joint. In other words, there is poor fit of the 3 bones of the elbow – the humerus, radius and ulna. This can lead to bone changes, abnormal wearing of the joint and pain.
There are several different conditions that are all considered elbow dysplasia – ununited anconeal process (UAP), fragmented coronoid process (FCP), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), step-deformities (ie. the bones of the elbow are growing at different speeds).
The most common form of elbow dysplasia is a fragmented coronoid process.
What causes elbow dysplasia?
Elbow dysplasia is likely caused by multiple factors and not one single factor. Common causes include:
Genetics – elbow dysplasia mostly effects large and giant breed dogs, especially Bernese Mountain Dog, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, and German Shepherd Dogs. Elbow dysplasia can be passed from parents to their pups
Obesity – increased weight through the joint can cause damage to the cartilage
Dietary imbalances – overfeeding of calcium and vitamin D
Trauma – injury to the growth plates or bones that cause abnormal growth and or fit of the bones that make up the elbow joint
What are the signs and symptoms of elbow dysplasia?
Most dogs with elbow dysplasia will present with symptoms before 1.5 years old. Signs and symptoms include:
Front leg lameness. If your dog has bilateral elbow dysplasia, sometimes lameness can be difficult to detect. They may “warm out of” lameness with activity or be lame after periods of rest.
Swelling of the elbow joint
Heat at the elbow joint
Decreased flexibility of the elbow
Unwillingness to exercise due to pain
Pain signs. Learn more about the signs of pain here.
How is elbow dysplasia diagnosed?
Diagnosis of elbow dysplasia typically begins with a trip to the vet. A physical exam will be done of your dog looking for signs of pain around the elbow, examining range of motion and watching how your dog moves. X-rays will often be recommended to examine the position of the bones of the elbow and look for any joint changes, such as bone fragments, swelling or cartilage damage. It is not uncommon for x-ray reports to be sent to a radiologist for review. If the x-ray results are inconclusive or lameness does not resolve with initial treatment a CT can may be recommended to view the elbow joint in more detail.
Is it possible for my dog to have elbow dysplasia without pain or limping?
Yes! Very mild and well controlled forms of elbow dysplasia may not present with pain or limping. This does not mean that without proper management of the condition, that pain or limping could not occur. The term dysplasia only indicates poor fit at a joint. It’s the uneven loading and wearing that leads to inflammation that causes pain.
How is elbow dysplasia treated?
Treatment options depend on the severity and type of elbow dysplasia your dog has. In many case, mild lameness will first be managed conservatively with rest and medication. If your dog has a step deformity (ie. the bones of the elbow are growing at different rates), a wait and see and/or nutritional changes may be suggested.
If conservative management does not resolve symptoms further intervention is warranted and this may include a CT scan and/or a referral to a surgeon for a consult. Of note, an united anconeal process (UAP) needs to be surgically repaired and will not resolve with time alone.
Will my dog with elbow dysplasia get arthritis?
Yes. It has been shown that dogs with elbow dysplasia will go on to develop arthritis. However, when arthritic changes will begin to occur is not a given. With proper management of elbow dysplasia, whether through surgery or conservative methods, the onset and severity of arthritis can be minimized. The goal is to reduce and/or eliminate inflammatory processes at the elbow.
What can my dog with elbow dysplasia still do? Can he still run?
What your dog with elbow dysplasia can still do depends on the severity of the condition and his signs or symptoms. The activities that your dog does, whether it be going for a walk, swimming or taking part in agility should not be causing pain or lameness. If the activities he is doing are causing symptoms then the activity either needs to be stopped or modified. So can your dog still run? Possibly!
Janutta, V, and O Distl. “Review on canine elbow dysplasia: pathogenesis, diagnosis, prevalence and genetic aspects.” DTW. Deutsche tierarztliche Wochenschrift vol. 115,5 (2008): 172-81.
ACVS. Canine Elbow Dysplasia. Retrieved July 21, 2022 from https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/canine-elbow-dysplasia
Pawsitive Reviews from An Elbow Dysplasia Client
“I can’t say enough about Shauna and her dedication, involvement and professionalism. Porter had surgery for elbow dysplasia when he was just shy of a year old. We’ve just finished canine rehabilitation appointments and I am beyond thrilled with the constant improvements through her efforts. She has guided Porter and I with her extensive knowledge, and cheered us on the entire way. She provided us with great workout routines that we complete 3x a day between our appointments to help build back all the muscle he lost. With being part Bernese, he’s a bit stubborn and she has offered great tips and tricks to get him back to 100% weight bearing as he’s limped for so long now he got used to it – we need to trick his brain back out of it!” – Nancy, owner of Porter