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Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests and subsequent treatment recommendations. Diagnostic tests needed to recognize elbow dysplasia, and exclude other diseases, include:

  • Physical examination. Lameness is usually evident when your pet is walked or trotted; however, it may be more difficult to detect when both front legs are affected. There may be some difficulty getting up from a lying down position and your dog may appear stiff and have a short stride which may cause the gait to appear stilted and choppy.

  • Orthopedic examination. Pain can often be elicited on manipulation of the elbow joint and the exact location of the lesion(s) will determine what type of elbow motion produces a problem.

    There are three major abnormalities that contribute to elbow dysplasia: an united anconeal process (UAP), a fragmented coronoid process (FCP) and an osteochondritis dissecans lesion of the humerus within the elbow joint (OCD).

  • UAP tends to produce pain on elbow extension.
  • FCP tends to produce pain on elbow flexion with inward rotation of the paw.
  • OCD tends to produce pain on elbow flexion.

    Combinations of these lesions are not uncommon.

  • Your veterinarian will keep the shoulder in a neutral position during the examination so as not to attribute a shoulder problem to the elbow.

  • Radiography of both elbows is important for diagnosis. Often, sedation or general anesthesia will be required to position your dog for these X-rays.

  • Of the three different forms of elbow dysplasia, FCP is usually the most difficult to diagnose. In some of these cases CT scan or another form of radiography called linear tomography can be helpful.

  • Sometimes, in more chronic cases, radiographs will just reveal the arthritic changes around the joint secondary to the underlying abnormalities.

    Treatment In-depth

    Treatments for elbow dysplasia may include conservative medical management or surgery.

  • If your dog has mild or intermittent clinical signs, or more advanced arthritis around the elbow joint, medical treatment is extremely important. Lameness may recur with hard exercise but often responds to a few weeks of rest and anti-inflammatory medication. Exercise should be modified to be moderate and regular in order to maintain good muscle tone, but not to load the joints excessively. Swimming, dependent on availability and your dog's interest, is an excellent adjunctive form of exercise.

  • Surgery is most appropriate for young dogs with minimal secondary arthritic changes in the elbow or cases in which medical management is not producing a favorable result.

  • For FCP and OCD, the damaged or fragmented cartilage within the joint is removed. This can be done either by directly opening the elbow joint or by arthroscopy, the use of fiber optic instruments to look inside the joint and remove abnormal pieces of cartilage through "key-hole" incisions. Arthroscopy has the advantage of being less traumatic to the elbow joint, and therefore a faster recovery from the procedure is common.

  • For UAP, the problem is thought to stem from too much direct pressure on this portion of the joint by the humerus. This effect can be prevented by cutting the ulna just below the joint, allowing the muscles in the area to "adjust" the joint surfaces and relieve the pressure on the UAP. This ununited piece of cartilage can subsequently unite in most cases

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