You recently added a puppy to your household, and you’re enjoying watching the antics of this adorable new family member. He’s healthy and growing fast, and at 5 months old he’s starting to show signs of eventually becoming a very big dog.
But wait. Does he seem to be limping a little – favoring one of his front legs? If a dog as young as 4-to-8-months-old shows signs of lameness and an abnormal gait – elbow dysplasia may be the culprit.
Medium-to-large dogs are especially vulnerable. Elbow dysplasia has been diagnosed at a higher rate in these breeds: Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, German Shepherd Dog, Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, Newfoundland, Bassett Hound, and English Springer Spaniel.
Some puppies have special nutrition requirements and need food specially formulated for large breed puppies. These foods help prevent excessive growth, which can lead to skeletal disorders such as hip dysplasia, along with elbow dysplasia and other joint conditions. Slowing down these breeds’ growth allows their joints to develop without putting too much strain on them, helping to prevent problems down the line.
What Is Canine Elbow Dysplasia?
The Merck Veterinary Manual describes elbow dysplasia as “an abnormal development of the elbow joint in young, large, rapidly growing dogs. It involves abnormal bone growth, cartilage development, or joint stresses.”
A dog’s elbow joint is made up of three bones: the radius, ulna, and humerus. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, if these three bones fail to fit together perfectly due to growth abnormalities, the result is an irregular weight distribution on areas of the joint that causes pain, lameness, and the development of arthritis.
Elbow dysplasia develops from any or a combination of these abnormal conditions:
- Pathology involving the medial coronoid of the ulna (FCP). One of the two small bony protrusions on the end of the ulna develops a crack and separates from the rest of the bone.
- Osteochondritis of the medial humeral condyle in the elbow joint (OCD). When young dogs grow, cartilage turns into bone, with the only cartilage left on the ends of the bone to form the joints. When the bone doesn’t form, there’s a thicker layer of cartilage on the elbow joint.
- Ununited anconeal process (UAP). Growth plates are found at the ends of the bones and when a dog reaches puberty, the growth plates close, fusing the parts of the bone together. If the anconeal projection of bone on the ulna doesn’t fuse to the rest of the ulna, it causes UAP.
How to Diagnose Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
“Early diagnosis of elbow dysplasia in dogs is important because you want to treat the condition before it causes osteoarthritis in the dog’s joint,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, AKC chief veterinary officer.
Sometimes elbow dysplasia is difficult to diagnose early on because the dog shows only slight or intermittent signs of lameness. Clinical signs of canine elbow dysplasia usually involve lameness, which the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) says may remain subtle for long periods of time, making it hard to diagnose.
The OFA attributes the occurrence of lameness on factors such as severity of changes, rate of weight gain, and amount of exercise. Here are some signs to watch out for. If you see any of these signs, you’ll want to make an appointment for your dog with the veterinarian.
- The dog limps on occasion, especially after exercise or when first standing up.
- One or both front legs rotate inward with elbows rotating outward.
- The elbow joint appears stiff or unable to move freely.
- You hear a crackling sound when the elbow joint moves.
- Your dog is suddenly hesitant to go for walks or chase a ball.
The vet will ask you for the history and circumstances of the symptoms, will rotate the joint to check range of motion and thickening, and will use X-rays to look for changes in the joint. A CT scan may be necessary to identify the cause and extent of the problem. Both elbows are usually examined because the condition can develop in both legs at the same time.
How to Treat Canine Elbow Dysplasia
There are quite a few treatment options for dysplasia in dogs, ranging from lifestyle modifications to surgery. If your dog’s dysplasia is not severe, or if your dog is not a candidate for surgery for medical or financial reasons, your veterinarian may recommend a nonsurgical approach. Depending on your dog’s case, the vet may suggest the following:
- Weight reduction to take stress off of the elbow
- Exercise restriction, especially on hard surfaces
- Physical therapy
- Joint supplements
- Anti-inflammatory medications (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids)
- Joint fluid modifiers
“Treatment of canine elbow dysplasia depends on the age of the dog, the degree of lameness, and the amount of degeneration that has taken place in the joint,” says Dr. Klein. “Arthroscopic surgery is often recommended, and in young dogs, early intervention gives the best results.”
The cost of surgical diagnosis and treatment for young dogs can range from $1,500 to $4,000 per elbow, according to Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA. This cost will vary depending on part of the country, size of the dog, and veterinary specialization.
The Merck Veterinary Manual says the outlook for recovery after surgery is good if degenerative joint disease hasn’t developed. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed by your veterinarian can reduce pain and inflammation.
Prevention of Canine Elbow Dysplasia
The OFA strongly recommends that dogs from at-risk breeds who are being considered for a breeding program, as well as their siblings, be radiographed to determine their elbow status. This information should be an important and carefully considered part of breeding decisions.
“Elbow dysplasia can be extremely debilitating … This makes it increasingly important to reduce the incidence of the disease through selective breeding, which has been shown to reduce its incidence.”
“The best way for breeders to prevent hereditary causes of elbow dysplasia is to screen their breeding dogs for this condition,” says Dr. Klein. “ OFA health testing can help breeders determine the condition of their dog’s elbows.”
Joint supplements are another way to help prevent elbow dysplasia. These are often recommended to improve function, reduce inflammation, and slow the progression of joint damage.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are two common joint supplement ingredients that are used in both humans and dogs. These supplements work by reducing inflammation, promoting healing, and increasing water retention in the cartilage, which provides more cushioning for the joint. Green-lipped mussel (GLM) is another proven joint supplement ingredient for both humans and dogs and contains beneficial nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, glycosaminoglycans, and antioxidants. GLM is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can help decrease pain and preserve joint function. Joint supplements are often used as an early intervention and throughout the progression of osteoarthritis because they are safe for long-term use in most patients.