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rubbing elbows: dr. kim smyth explains elbow dysplasia

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

Perhaps you’ve heard of hip dysplasia, the notorious condition that affects many breeds of dogs and leads to painful hip arthritis. But did you know that there is a similar condition affecting the elbows of dogs called elbow dysplasia?


The concept is the same between the two dysplasias—malformation and degeneration of the joint. If you haven’t heard about elbow dysplasia, consider you (and your dog) lucky, because it’s the most common cause of front limb lameness in large dogs.


The elbow is the meeting place of three bones in your dog’s forearm: the large bone of the upper limb, called the humerus, and the two smaller bones of the lower limb, called the radius and ulna. When something goes wrong with the bones where they meet, the result is elbow dysplasia.


Typically, elbow dysplasia occurs for one of a few reasons (or a combination of these reasons):


Ununited anconeal process. The anconeal process is a found that the top of the ulna. When it does not fuse properly by about 5 months old, we consider the patient to have an ununited anconeal process.


Osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD). OCD occurs when there is abnormally retained cartilage in a joint, leading to a painful cartilage flap.


Fragmented medial coronoid process. OCD may contribute to this malformation of this part of the elbow, which is located on the ulna.


Elbow incongruity. Disturbances in the growth of either the radius or ulna result in bones of different lengths.


Clinical signs of elbow dysplasia typically occur starting between four and ten months of age. Large dogs are particularly prone to developing this painful condition, with the following breeds being overrepresented:

  • German Shepherd
  • Bearded Collie
  • Chow Chow
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Newfoundland
  • Rottweiler
  • Bernese Mountain Dog

Front limb lameness may start out mild and maybe exacerbated after exercise. As the condition worsens and degenerative changes start to occur, you may notice swelling and a decreased range of motion in the elbow.


Your veterinarian will probably be suspicious of elbow dysplasia simply by performing a routine physical and orthopedic exam, and by getting a detailed history of her symptoms from you. However, to definitely diagnose elbow dysplasia, a series of radiographs (or x-rays) will be necessary. Occasionally, radiographs are inconclusive, and if this occurs, your veterinarian may refer your dog for an MRI of the elbow joint.


Alternatively, arthroscopy can be used to check the joint visually. Arthroscopy is less invasive than surgically opening the joint, and has the added benefit that this diagnostic test may also be therapeutic. For example, if upon examination, a cartilage flap is found (indicating OCD), it can be removed at the same time.


Treatment invariably requires surgery to repair the malformed elbow. If surgical intervention is not an option, elbow dysplasia is managed in the same way that other degenerative joint conditions are managed. Namely, pain control through non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or other pain killers, the use of chondroprotectants like glucosamine, and above all else strict weight management.


Because the root cause of elbow dysplasia comes down to genetic factors, it is suggested that affected dogs not be used for breeding.

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