Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

dog hanging on the couch

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If you're noticing that your dog is limping or you're seeing lameness in your pup, you could be up against elbow dysplasia. While it can be treated, it's important to know what the condition looks like so that you can get your furry friend back on his paws in no time.

What is Elbow Dysplasia?

One of the most common causes of lameness and limping in dogs, in fact the most common cause of lameness and limping in a dog's forelimb, is a condition called Elbow Dysplasia. It is brought on by growth abnormalities in the dog's elbow joint. As the dog grows and matures, the condition worsens and leads to malformation and even degeneration of the joint. Unfortunately, the more the joint degenerates over time, the more painful the joint can be for the dog. Elbow dysplasia is more commonly seen in large and giant breed dogs, such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherd dogs, rottweilers, Newfoundlands, bearded collies, chow chows, and Bernese mountain dogs. 

Signs of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

A dog suffering from elbow dysplasia can have a marked decrease range of motion in the joint and can even display signs of pain or discomfort upon extension or flexion of the joint. They may hold the limp away from the body and may have intermittent or persistent lameness that is made worse by exercise but can also be observed as 'stiffness' when first getting up after resting. If they are geriatric, it is common to see sudden episodes of lameness in the limb. As the condition progresses, there may also be fluid buildup in the joint and a grating of bone-on-bone can be apparent as the cartilage continues to wear away.


Dogs with elbow dysplasia commonly limp and other symptoms can include limping after exercise, difficulty getting up, swollen joints, reluctancy to play or go on a walk, decreased range of motion of one or both elbows, and holding elbows out or tightly into the body.

Causes of Elbow Dysplasia

There are actually four separate diseases relating to the elbow that can lead to elbow dysplasia. Unfortunately, if a dog has elbow dysplasia it is possible for them to suffer from more than one of these disease processes. 

  • Ununited Anconeal Process, where a growth plate does not close properly, leading to a detached piece of bone that can cause joint irritation and degeneration
  • Fragmented Coronoid Process, where a piece of bone breaks off inside the elbow joint, irritating the lining of the joint and cause the cartilage to wear away
  • Osteochondrosis Dissecans, where a piece of cartilage loosens from the surface of the joint, resulting in pain and inflammation
  • Elbow Incongruency, where the structure of the joint itself is imperfect, causing the cartilage to wear away more rapidly

How to Diagnose Elbow Dysplasia

If you suspect your dog is suffering from elbow dysplasia, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Your vet will obtain a history along with an orthopedic and full body exam, will observe your dog’s gait, and take x-rays.

X-rays will help better visualize the joint, checking for open growth plates, conformational abnormalities, and any bony fragments that may be causing irritation. If the X-rays are questionable, your vet may want to send them off to a veterinary radiologist for interpretation. A veterinary radiologist is someone who is board certified in reading X-rays (in addition to other images such as ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans) and will be better able to see more subtle changes in the joint space brought on by elbow dysplasia. Occasionally more advanced testing may be required for a definitive diagnosis. This may include getting an MRI and/or using a needle and syringe to aspirate a sample of fluid from the joint space. The joint fluid obtained can then be tested for various diseases of conditions that could be compounding your dog's condition. 

Treatment

There are some surgical options for dogs with elbow dysplasia. The most common is to use a fiberoptic scope (termed arthroscopy) to enter the joint space and clean out any loose flaps or pieces of cartilage and/or bone. The more advanced the condition, though, the more difficult and unreliable this option may be due to the degree of arthritis within the joint. On rarer cases, a board-certified surgeon may opt for an open-joint approach instead of the arthroscopic.

Management of symptoms can also be accomplished through non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. Carprofen, Meloxicam, etc.) and opioids such as Tramadol, although there is some new research calling into question the efficacy of Tramadol for arthritic pain. Joint supplements such as glucosamine/chondroitin (Dasuquin, Cosequin, Vetri-Flex, Glycoflex) and essential fatty acid supplements may also help to lubricate the joint and decrease inflammation. Integrative therapies, such as cold-therapy laser and acupuncture can also help decrease pain and inflammation.

If your dog is diagnosed with elbow dysplasia, your vet may also refer you to a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner for more rehabilitative activities, such as swimming, an underwater treadmill, and range of motion exercises.

Finally, healthy exercise is of the utmost importance in dogs with elbow dysplasia. It may seem counter-intuitive to exercise a joint that is arthritic but balancing out the right amount and the right kind of exercise can prevent muscle atrophy as well as weight gain. Atrophied muscles and extra pounds can exacerbate not just arthritis in the elbow, but really any joint that might have arthritis in it. Check with your rehab vet (or regular vet, if seeing a rehab vet isn't possible) to see what type of exercise would be best for your dog.

Most dogs with elbow dysplasia respond well to the above therapies and go on to live healthy, happy lives. Your dog's individual prognosis will depend on their age, overall health, and the severity of the joint defect.