Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD or OD) can be a painful condition, so it's important for dog owners to know the signs—especially when their pets are considered an at-risk breed. OCD is an orthopedic disease that typically affects the shoulder joints, but it can also affect the hips, knees, and hocks (ankles). Some dog breeds are genetically predisposed to OCD, as this condition is more common in large- and giant-breed dogs that are rapidly growing during the first year of their lives. When left untreated, osteochondritis dissecans can become a degenerative disease that gets progressively worse over time. Thankfully, early veterinary treatment (whether conservative or surgical) can help dogs recover and live comfortable lives, depending on the severity and location of the disease in the body.
What Is Osteochondritis Dissecans?
Osteochondritis dissecans is an inflammatory orthopedic disease in dogs that occurs when the bone of a joint does not grow properly, commonly affecting large dogs that grow quickly as puppies. During puppyhood development, the dog's bones are formed when calcium is deposited into cartilage. This process is called ossification, and OCD can begin when some of the joint cartilage fails to develop into bone.
The cartilage may become abnormally thickened and some of the cells may die, leaving a malformed joint. Movement of the affected joints can lead to cracks or splits in the cartilage that may turn into a flap of cartilage at the joint. Once a cartilage flap is present in the joint, the condition is called osteochondritis dissecans. This flap impacts joint function and causes pain during movement. It may even separate from the bone and become stuck in a part of the joint. Free flaps are called "joint mice."
OCD tends to affect large- and giant-breed dogs between the ages of six and nine months, and it is more common in males than females.
Symptoms of Osteochondritis Dissecans in Dogs
The symptoms of OCD in dogs typically develop during late puppyhood, but this can vary depending on the growth rate of the affected dog. Owners may observe the following signs in their dogs:
The main sign of OCD in dogs is lameness or limping. This lameness typically gets worse after exercise or extended periods of rest, and dogs will often cry out or whimper in pain when moving the affected joint. Symptoms of this condition tend to start minimally, then gradually worsen over time. The dog may appear to move easier (with less pain) after having its exercise restricted, but the condition will degenerate until treated. More than one joint may be affected at the same time, but most commonly, the dog will only experience OCD in the shoulder.
Causes of Osteochondritis Dissecans
Osteochondrosis is a general failure of cartilage to develop properly, which can lead to osteochondritis dissecans. Both of these conditions in dogs are considered inherited disorders, although other causes may also contribute to their development. Large- and giant-breed dogs are most commonly affected. Not all dogs with the genetic predisposition will have OCD, and although any dog can develop it, certain breeds are known to be predisposed:
- Basset Hound
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Chow Chow
- German Shepherd Dog
- Golden Retriever
- Great Dane
- Irish Wolfhound
- Labrador Retriever
- Old English Sheepdog
- Standard Poodle
- Saint Bernard
Other factors may contribute to the development of OCD. Both diet and exercise play important roles:
- Calcium and/or calorie excess: If a young dog's diet contains too many calories and nutrients like calcium or phosphorous, OCD is more likely to develop. Excess nutrition or supplements can lead to nutrient imbalances and make puppies grow too quickly, potentially leading to this disease.
- Overexercising: Too much exercise can worsen osteochondrosis and make it develop into OCD. The overuse of affected joints can greatly worsen symptoms. The joint can become unstable and osteoarthritis may develop.
Diagnosing Osteochondritis Dissecans in Dogs
If your dog exhibits any symptoms of lameness or limping, it's important to schedule a veterinary exam right away. Osteochondritis dissecans can turn into secondary degenerative joint disease when left untreated. For this reason, your dog should be treated as soon as possible to prevent lameness that could last throughout its life.
Your veterinarian will rule out other orthopedic diseases by determining which joints the dog is experiencing lameness in. If the symptoms are limited to the knee, hip, or elbow, conditions like hip dysplasia, patellar luxation, or elbow dysplasia may be possible causes. However, X-rays and possible arthroscopic examinations will be performed by your veterinarian in any of these cases to find the reason behind your dog's pain, which may require sedatives to take proper radiographs of various angles.
Treatment for osteochondritis dissecans in dogs can be divided into two categories: conservative and surgical. Mild cases can be approached through conservative treatment, which requires lifestyle changes along with medication. Severe cases, on the other hand, may need surgical procedures to remove affected areas.
Conservative treatment consists of pain management, exercise restriction, and possible dietary adjustments. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS, are most commonly used for pain relief. Additional pain medications may be added depending on the situation.
Exercise should be limited to short, leashed walks for urination and defecation. The majority of the dog's time will need to be spent at rest, either in a crate or a small room.
Your vet may recommend dietary changes depending on your dog's current diet. Nutritional supplements can be useful in some cases, but you should rely on your vet's expertise before trying this, as certain supplements could worsen the condition.
Surgery is the treatment of choice when conservative methods are unsuccessful. Surgery might even be the first recommendation in cases where the dog is having severe signs, or if the cartilage has folded in the joint, cartilage breaks free, or if the affected area is too large for conservative methods to be effective.
During surgery for OCD in dogs, the veterinarian will remove the cartilage flap and any other affected cartilage around the bone. This can be done with traditional open surgery or with arthroscopy, a less invasive type of surgery done with a special scope and camera that enters through tiny incisions in the skin.
Prognosis for Dogs With Osteochondritis Dissecans
The prognosis for dogs with osteochondritis dissecans can vary depending on each dog's specific case. Your veterinarian will provide a detailed prognosis along with expected timelines for healing after surgery, restricting exercise, and recovering. However, some dogs may not recover fully if treatment is not started early (before the condition develops into secondary degenerative joint disease). The prognosis is better when OCD affects the shoulder than when it affects the elbow.
How to Prevent Osteochondritis Dissecans
While osteochondritis dissecans can't always be prevented, there are a few ways that owners can lower their dog's risk of developing it. In addition to choosing puppies that have been genetically tested for this disease, owners of at-risk dogs can practice lifestyle changes to help their pets stay healthy.
Because OCD is often hereditary, dogs with the disease should never be bred. Dogs related to the affected dog (siblings, parents, and offspring) should also not be bred. Responsible dog breeders have orthopedic screening tests done on at-risk breeds before breeding them. This lowers the risk of passing on the genes for osteochondrosis and OCD.
Exercise is important for puppies, but make sure not to overdo it when caring for a growing puppy. This is especially important for large- and giant-breed dogs. Try to keep your puppy from strenuous activities like running or hiking long distances until your veterinarian has approved these exercises at the proper stage of development.
Preventing excessive weight gain is essential to help limit stress on your dog's joints. Avoid overfeeding puppies, especially large and giant breeds. If you have one of these breeds, ask your veterinarian to recommend some dog food formulas. Many companies make diets specifically formulated for large breed puppies.
Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) in Dogs. VCA Hospitals.