Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs: Recognize the Signs

Recognized as one of the most common causes of elbow pain and lameness (particular in large breeds), elbow dysplasia is a condition caused by growth abnormalities in your dog’s cells, tissues, and/or bones. As these developmental abnormalities worsen over time, it leads to the degeneration and malformation of your dog’s elbow joints. Consequently, this condition is accompanied by elbow pain and sometime lameness.

Some of the larger breeds frequently affected by this condition include Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Bearded Collies, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, and Newfoundlands.

Although the age for onset of clinical signs is usually between 4-10 months, a formal diagnosis is generally made around 4-18 months of age. Typically seen in rapidly-growing puppies, this condition is neither simple to understand or explain. The primary causes are genetic, developmental, and nutritional.

The term ‘elbow dysplasia’ is actually a generalized catchall phrase to describe one or more inherited developmental abnormalities in a dog’s elbow joint. In layman’s terms, elbow dysplasia refers to the development of arthritis in your dog’s elbow joint.

According to studies, elbow dysplasia is actually one of four specific developmental problems that can occur in a dog’s elbow joint. These include:

  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
  • Fragmented coronoid process (FCP)
  • Osteochrondrosis dissecans (OCD)
  • Elbow incongruency

Understanding the Canine Skeletal Structure

To better understand this condition, you must first take a look at the physical structure of your dog’s skeletal system with a focus on his elbow. There are three bones that make up your dog’s elbow – the radius, the humerus, and the ulna.

In a healthy dog, these bones are supposed to grow together and fit seamlessly to form the elbow joint. However, if your dog is suffering from a form of elbow dysplasia, it is actually the result of a malformation and/or deterioration of the bone structure, cartilage, or joint itself.

Below is a breakdown of the four major types of canine developmental problems. Dogs with elbow dysplasia usually suffer from more than one of these diagnoses.

  • UAP is a condition noted by a bony protuberance within the elbow. This area becomes detached from the ulna, causing joint irritation and degeneration.
  • FCP actually refers to a tiny piece of ulna bone that breaks off inside the elbow joint. This small fragment of loose bone irritates the lining of the joint, wearing away the cartilage of the humerus.
  • By definition, osteochondritis dessicans is a condition where a piece of cartilage comes loose or completely pulls away from the surface of the joint, resulting in pain and inflammation. Once the inflammation or “itis” is gone, the condition is then referred to as osteochrondrosis dessicans.
  • ‘Elbow incongruency’ is a term used to describe imperfect conformation of the joint, which causes the cartilage to wear away rapidly.

Signs & Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Although a limp is one of the most frequent indicators of elbow dysplasia, your dog may also hold his leg out from his body while walking, or even go so far as to put no weight on it at all.

Symptoms of elbow dysplasia may be apparent as early as four months. However, most dogs affected by the condition will go through a period of about 6-12 months where the clinical signs are the worst. It should be noted that not all dogs will show signs or symptoms of elbow dysplasia when they are young.

As your dog matures, you will most likely begin to recognize the signs of arthritis and other conditions associated with this problem. Unfortunately, this is a lifelong condition and as a pet owner, your primary goal is to make your pet as comfortable as possible.

Common symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs include:

  • A marked or diminished range of motion
  • Advanced degenerative joint disease
  • Displays signs of pain or discomfort when extending or flexing the elbow
  • Dog may hold the affected limb away from the body
  • Grating of bone and joint is often apparent in advanced degenerative joint disease
  • Intermittent/persistent lameness that is agitated by exercise; progresses from stiffness, and noticed only after the dog has been resting
  • Sudden (acute) episodes of elbow lameness is commonly seen in geriatric dogs
  • There may be fluid build-up in the joints

Risks & Complications of Canine Elbow Dysplasia

There are a number of possible complications associated with elbow dysplasia. One of the most common afflictions is canine osteoarthritis, which causes chronic swelling and pain. Unfortunately, the soreness caused by your dog’s elbow dysplasia is only aggravated by osteoarthritis as he ages.

As a result, many dogs who suffer from both tend to avoid physical activity, leading to atrophied muscles and weight gain.

This vicious cycle puts even greater stress on the elbow joint, worsening the problem even further. Most dogs will try to compensate their gait, walking in a manner that puts as little impact on his joints as possible. However, this results in a highly unnatural form of walking, utilizing his limbs in an unconventional way (such as walking with elbows extended or holding one foot up), which puts additional stress on his skeletal system and may cause him to develop osteoarthritis throughout his entire body.

Your pooch may inadvertently be putting himself at greater risk of other skeletal injuries, such as broken bones, torn ligaments, and back strain. In the most severe instances, elbow dysplasia may lead to total lameness in an affected leg. It is therefore imperative to remain proactive in the care of your dog if you recognize any signs or symptoms of the condition.

With diligent care and a proper treatment routine, you may be able to lessen your beloved friend’s symptoms and help him maintain a more comfortable existence.

Diagnosis of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

In order to ascertain your dog’s condition, your veterinarian will want to run a series of tests in order to rule out other possible causes. The symptoms seen in joint damage may be due to other factors, such as another type of arthritic condition, an infection that could be causing inflammation, or even trauma of the joint due to injury.

Your pet’s physician may also order x-ray images to rule out a tumor or other types of growths. Because there is a high risk of disease in both legs, your vet will most likely order x-ray images for each leg.

Your vet may also need to send the x-rays out to an expert veterinary radiologist to read the results, since a specialist’s eye is needed to discern the extremely minor changes that are apparent in a dog who displays signs of elbow dysplasia. He may also run a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance image) to search for fragments.

A fine needle biopsy, known as an aspiration, may also be drawn from the joint. This fluid is tested for different diseases and conditions that could be weighing into your dog’s condition. Finally, in addition to a blood work-up and urinalysis, your vet may also order an arthroscopic examination, which involves a tube-like instrument used to inspect and treat the inside of your dog’s joint. Each of these tests and exams are conducted to make a definitive diagnosis of your dog’s health condition.

Prevention of Canine Elbow Dysplasia

Although the majority of elbow dysplasia incidents can be accredited to genetics and breed type, there has also been a link to an excessive intake of nutrients during the early phases a dog’s life, resulting in rapid growth and the consequent development of the condition.

Therefore, maintaining your dog’s weight is crucial during his first year, particularly for high-risk breeds. By restricting weight gain, watching his diet, and ensuring he receives the proper nutrition, you may be able to assist in decreasing the incidence of elbow dysplasia.

Elbow dysplasia is a genetic trait. Therefore, it is recommended that animals who show signs of the condition are not bred. If your canine companion has been diagnosed, having your dog spayed or neutered is advised. You should also report findings to the breeder if you purchased your animal from a private source.

Treatments for Canine Elbow Dysplasia

Surgery and Post-Operative Physical Therapy: Although there is no definitive cure for elbow dysplasia, there are steps you can take to maintain your four legged friend’s quality of life. Treatment of the condition varies upon the abnormalities present. There are incidents where your dog may be treated medically without surgery. For young dogs, a lifestyle change may be prescribed by your vet, including a low-impact exercise program (such as swimming) and a weight management regimen.

Depending on the severity of your dog’s condition, surgery may be performed to remove the fragmented process or cartilage flap in the affected limb. If your dog is a good candidate for corrective surgery, it’s imperative to follow up with appropriate care immediately afterwards.

In addition, range-of-motion exercises are highly recommended as a form of healing therapy until your pooch is able to bear his own weight again on the affected limbs. Your vet will demonstrate the types of exercises and movements to work on with your dog, based on the severity and location of the affected limb(s).

Although activity is restricted for several weeks following your dog’s procedure, it’s important to encourage movement once he’s able to move around freely again. In order to avoid atrophy of the muscles and connective tissues, exercise is encouraged. However, be sure to follow the guidance and instruction of your vet when practicing any sort of physical therapy on your dog during his initial phases of recovery.

Weight Control: Weight management is essential for any dog affected by elbow dysplasia. Controlling your pup’s weight can help decrease the stress he’s putting on his affected joints and skeletal system. You may wish to discuss a specially-formulated diet for your pet with your vet, particularly if he is carrying extra weight or is struggling with obesity. There are a number of nutritionally-balanced dog foods for weight loss available on the market. As always, it’s best to ask your vet for professional recommendations if you’re uncertain.

Rehabilitation Therapy: There are a number of gentle forms of therapy that may benefit canines with elbow dysplasia. Most dogs usually respond well to therapies such as massage, underwater treadmill/swim therapy, joint mobilization, and therapeutic exercises. Discuss the possibilities with your veterinarian, who may refer you to a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP) for treatment options.

Looking Ahead: Living and Management

For pet owners of dogs with elbow problems, it’s essential to schedule yearly examinations with your family vet to assess the progression of your dog’s condition. Your vet will be able to determine the rate of deterioration of joint cartilage and his overall health during his routine check-ups, and may order different tests including blood work and x-rays if he needs additional information with regard to treatment.

Although progression is anticipated with any type of degenerative joint disease, you can expect a fair to good prognosis if you follow your vet’s medical advice and create a plan of managed care to ease your dog’s symptoms.

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