Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) in Dogs

Dogs can develop a wide range of illnesses and ailments, and can often leave their owners feeling rather helpless – especially since it is often difficult to figure out what’s wrong with your dog. Sometimes the symptoms may be obvious, but others… not so much.

When it comes to osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), the symptoms are easy to identify. However, you won’t know right away that is it OCD that’s causing the problem.

What is osteochondritis dissecans?

No, it isn’t when your dog obsessively grooms or keep things organized. Osteochondritis dissecans, or OCD is actually a serious condition that affects a dog’s joints. OCD is a result of osteochondrosis, which is when an abnormal development of cartilage appears on the end of a bone in a dog’s joint. Osteochondrosis is often a result of a disruption in the blood supply to the affected bone.

Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is an inflammatory condition that occurs when the diseased cartilage separates from the underlying bone. The excess cartilage is retained in the joint and continues to grow. This causes abnormally thick areas of cartilage to form.

But how does it affect the dog’s body? Think of your joints. A joint is the site where two bones come together and allows movement between them. In a healthy joint, the surfaces will be covered by very smooth cartilage that acts as a cushion and protects the bones. If the cartilage is abnormal or damaged, the movements in the joint will be disrupted and can cause a great deal of pain.

Joints serve the same purpose for dogs. And in dogs with OCD, the cartilage will grow abnormally and separate or crack. Loose flaps can form or entire pieces can even break loose and be floating in the dog’s body.

OCD most often affects a dog’s shoulder joint, but can also occur in the elbow, hip, or knee joint and generally affects younger dogs, whose cartilage is still growing and more prone to the condition.

Which dogs are likely to be affected by osteochondritis dissecans?

Osteochondritis dissecans is thought of as a developmental disease because it generally affects puppies of large or giant breed dogs. This is because these dogs grow at a rapid rate.

The breeds that are thought to be predisposed to the condition include Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, English Setters, Old English Sheepdogs, and Saint Bernards. All large breed dogs are not especially vulnerable, as breeds like Doberman Pinschers, Collies and Siberian Huskies are less likely to develop the disease. OCD has been found in small breed dogs as well and even cats, but it is far less common.

As a developmental disease, OCD most often occurs in dogs between four and ten months of age. It can be found in older dogs as well, but is much less likely. OCD also affects males more than females, because male dogs are generally larger in size and have increased stress on their joints.

The disease can be exacerbated in dogs that have too much calcium in their diet. Limiting a dog’s intake of calcium while they are growing can help reduce the incidence of OCD as well as other developmental orthopedic conditions.

What causes osteochondritis dissecans to form in dogs?

While no one is sure what causes OCD in dogs, it is thought that there are a variety of factors that contribute to the formation of an OCD lesion. These include genetics, trauma to the joint, rapid growth, hormone imbalances, and nutrition.

OCD is considered hereditary if it is known that the dog’s mother or father had the condition as well, and there does appear to be a genetic link between parents and offspring and the formation of the disease. Certain genetic lines, typically belonging to the breeds mentioned above, can be much more likely to develop the disease. When selecting a puppy, make sure to ask if the parents have had OCD.

Dogs joints can also be damaged by trauma, which can lead to the formation of OCD. An injury to a dog’s surface cartilage can contribute to the separation of the cartilage from the bone or cause a decrease in blood supply to the joint. This may lead to the formation of a cartilage flap.

And since OCD usually occurs during periods of rapid growth, it has been suggested that nutrition that adds to rapid growth, such as calcium, may lead to the increase in incidence of the disease. Too much stress on a puppy’s bones because of weight problems or other issues may also be a cause.

What are the symptoms of dog OCD?

There are several symptoms associated with OCD, as it can affect the shoulder, elbow, knee or hock (ankle), although the shoulder joint is most commonly affected.

In general, the main symptom is lameness in the affected limb, meaning the dog will walk with a noticeable limp. Some dogs will have a barely noticeable limp while others will be unable to bear any weight on the leg. This lameness tends to get worse after periods of exercise and will seem to improve after rest.

When OCD is affecting the shoulder, you might notice your dog displaying a shortened forelimb stride because of a reluctance to flex and extend the shoulder joint. In more severe cases, the disease will affect both limbs at the same time, and the dog may be reluctant to move.

A dog with OCD might cry out in pain during an orthopedic examination when pressure is applied to the affected joint, or when the joint is manipulated. You might find the affected joint to be swollen and warm to the touch.

Common symptoms associated with OCD in dogs include:

  • Lameness/walking with a limp (the most common symptom). The onset of the lameness may be sudden or occur gradually, and may involve one or more limbs. The lameness may also become worse after exercise.
  • Favoring a paw or leg while walking or even when lying down.
  • An inability to bear weight on the affected limb.
  • Swelling in the joints, and sometimes warm to the touch. This typically occurs in the shoulder but can also happen in the elbows and knees.
  • Noticeable pain in the limb, especially when a manipulation of the joints is involved, such as trying to extend the leg.
  • If muscles surrounding the joint seem to deteriorate.

Lameness should always be a concern, but especially when the dog is still a puppy. If you notice any of the above symptoms in your dog, make sure you bring your dog to the vet right away.

Are certain breeds more susceptible to particular types of osteochondritis dissecans?

Specific breeds are more prone to develop osteochondritis dissecans. These include:

OCD of the ankle (hock):

Ocd of the knee:

OCD of the spine (particularly lumbosacral joint):

*Male dogs are documented to be more predisposed

OCD of the elbow:

OCD of the shoulder:

*This condition is more commonly seen in male canines

How is osteochondritis dissecans diagnosed?

A diagnosis starts with taking your dog into the veterinarian. You will go over a thorough medical history of your dog’s health, the onset of symptoms, and any information you have about your dog’s bloodline.

The vet will conduct a complete blood profile, including a chemical blood profile, a complete blood count and a urinalysis. These tests will give a preliminary diagnosis, but will not offer absolute confirmation. They will rule out other infectious diseases and bone conditions that can also cause lameness.

To do this, your vet will take X-rays of the affected joints and bones to find abnormalities. The radiograph will show details of lesions and abnormalities related to this disease. X-rays can be difficult to read in a puppy under six months old because of the dog’s growth plates. In most cases, a short-acting anesthetic or sedative will be required to get your dog into the optimal position to attain a diagnosis. A veterinary radiologist may need to examine the X-rays to gain a proper diagnosis.

A CT-scan or an MRI are other valuable diagnostic tools used to visualize the extent of any internal lesions. And if further testing is required, your vet will order an arthroscopy–a minimally invasive surgical procedure that will allow your vet to examine and sometimes treat the damage inside the joint. This procedure is performed using an arthroscope, which is inserted into the joint through a small incision.

It’s important to have OCD diagnosed early. Since it is a developmental disease, it can eventually lead to osteoarthritis. If your dog displays lameness for an extended period of time, bring him into your vet right away and be prepared to discuss his medical history.

What are the treatment options for osteochondritis dissecans?

OCD can be treated two ways: conservatively or with surgery.

Conservative treatment is used in mild cases and the with the youngest dogs. This treatment plan is essentially four to ten weeks of very restrictive bed rest. In these cases, walking is restricted to bathroom trips. It can be difficult to prevent your dog from running around or jumping, but the cartilage will heal in a majority of these cases if you can resist.

In more severe cases, or in those where the conservative approach does not work, surgery will be conducted. This is the most common treatment option. In the surgery, your vet will remove the cartilage floating around in the joint (called “joint mice”), or repair any cartilage flaps that have formed in the joint.

The type and extent of the procedure depends on the severity of OCD, which joint is involved, and whether secondary joint disease has been found. Your veterinarian can advise you on the type of surgery recommended after making a diagnosis. Most dogs will return to 100 percent after the surgery. It’s very rare for OCD to return.

Medication and supplements might also be prescribed to help provide relief, and allow for a degree of degenerative protection for the joint. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), exercise restriction, weight management, and glucosamine can also help keep your dog be more comfortable.

What can I do at home to help my dog recover?

Your dog will need to undergo a period of rest after surgery, which you will need to monitor closely. Using a crate may be your best option, and you cannot allow your dog to exercise. After a period of four to six weeks, you can take your dog on walks again and gradually extend the distance and work your way up to light jogging, as advised by your vet.

More vigorous exercise will still be restricted, but your dog’s range of motion must be improved to help him heal. You may even consider physical therapy to ensure your dog is getting the proper treatment.

Can osteochondritis dissecans be prevented?

While you cannot prevent the disease, there are steps you can take as an owner to help protect your dog’s growing limbs. Diet can certainly play a role, so make sure you are using a puppy food that promotes healthy bone growth. Weight control is also important to avoid unnecessary stress on the joint.

You shouldn’t let your pup repeatedly jump up and down from high objects, whether he has OCD or not, since the joints are growing and vulnerable.

What is the prognosis following surgery?

The prognosis for dogs with OCD varies depending on the joint that is affected and how early on the condition was detected. The prognosis is generally good if it is the shoulder joint, but the prognosis is guarded for the elbow joint. A dog’s recovery and quality of life can be excellent after surgery, while in others, the dog’s quality of life will be restricted. But overall, the prognosis improves if the surgery is performed early, before secondary degenerative joint disease occurs.

And remember to keep in mind that due to genetic element of this disease, you will need to have your dog neutered or spayed to prevent it from breeding, as the condition is very likely to be passed along.

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