If you notice your young dog is limping on a front leg, it could be due to a condition called elbow dysplasia. Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition and is more commonly seen in large to giant breed dogs such as Bernese mountain dogs, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers.
This common orthopedic disorder is caused by abnormalities in the development of the bones in the dog's elbows. While this skeletal condition can be treated, it's important to understand and be able to recognize it so you can get your furry friend back on its paws in no time.
What Is Elbow Dysplasia?
One of the most common causes of lameness in a young dog's forelimb is a condition called elbow dysplasia. "Dysplasia" is a medical term meaning "abnormal development." Elbow dysplasia is a congenital orthopedic disorder brought on by abnormalities in the bones making up the dog's elbow. A dog is born with the genetic tendency towards dysplasia; it's not the result of an injury or accident. Most often, dyplasia occurs in both elbows, but occasionally, a dog has the condition in just one elbow.
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.
Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Symptoms of elbow dysplasia can appear as early as 4 months of age or later in puppyhood. Some dogs don't show any signs of the disorder until they are older or even geriatric. Generally, the more severe the abnormality in the elbow, the earlier the symptoms will appear.
Generally, dogs with elbow dysplasia will limp when walking or trotting—you'll often observe the dog's head bobbing up and down as it walks—but the limp disappears when the dog is running. Pain can make the dog reluctant to play or even go for a walk.
A dog suffering from elbow dysplasia can have a marked decrease in range of motion in the joint and will often display signs of pain or discomfort upon extension or flexion of the elbow. It may hold the affected limb 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.
Causes of Elbow Dysplasia
There are three bones that make up the elbow joint: the radius, ulna, and humerus. Four separate skeletal conditions relating to the elbow can result in the overall condition of elbow dysplasia. One or more can be present at the same time.
- Ununited Anconeal Process: a growth plate does not close properly, leading to a detached piece of bone that can cause joint irritation and degeneration
- Fragmented Coronoid Process: a piece of bone breaks off inside the elbow joint, irritating the lining of the joint and causes the cartilage to wear away
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans: a piece of cartilage loosens from the surface of the joint, resulting in pain and inflammation
- Elbow Incongruency: the structure of the joint itself is imperfect, causing the cartilage to wear away more rapidly
Diagnosing Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
If you suspect your dog is suffering from elbow dysplasia, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Your vet will obtain a history along with a general physical exam and in-depth orthopedic exam, which will include observations of your dog’s gait and radiographs (x-rays).
Radiographs will help better visualize the joint and can show open growth plates, conformational abnormalities, and any bony fragments that may be causing irritation. If the radiographs are questionable, your vet may want to send them off to a veterinary radiologist for interpretation. Veterinary radiologists are board-certified in reading radiographs, as well as other images such as ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans. These specialists will be better able to identify 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 to aspirate a sample of fluid from the joint space. The joint fluid obtained can then be tested for inflammation or infection that could further complicate your dog's condition.
Treatment & Prevention
Treatment options depend on the severity of your dog's condition. If the elbow dysplasia is mild, conservative medical options may be offered. Management of mild-to-moderate symptoms can often be accomplished through non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Joint supplements such as glucosamine/chondroitin (e.g., 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 can also help decrease pain and inflammation.
If your dog's condition is more severe, there are some surgical options. The most common is using a fiberoptic scope (called arthroscopy) to enter the joint space and clean out any loose flaps or pieces of cartilage and/or bone. On rarer cases, a board-certified surgeon may opt for an open-joint approach instead of the arthroscopic method.
After surgery, or if your dog has a moderate case of dysplasia, your vet may refer you to a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner for physical therapy activities, such as swimming, walking on 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 arthritis. Check with your vet to see what type of exercise would be best for your dog.
Because it's an inherited condition, elbow dysplasia cannot usually be prevented other than by not breeding dogs that have the abnormality.
Prognosis for Dogs with Elbow Dysplasia
Your dog's individual prognosis will depend on its age, overall health, and the severity of the joint. However, most dogs with elbow dysplasia respond well to pain-relieving therapies or necessary surgeries and go on to live healthy, happy lives.
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Other Joint Disorders in Dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Hielm-Björkman, Anna et al. An Un-commissioned Randomized, Placebo-controlled Double-blind Study to Test the Effect of Deep Sea Fish Oil As a Pain Reliever for Dogs Suffering from Ceanine OA. BMC Veterinary Research Vol. 8, no. 157, 6 Sep. 2012. doi:10.1186/1746-6148-8-157
Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease). Merck Veterinary Manual.