Overview of Canine Elbow Dysplasia
Elbow dysplasia refers to the abnormal development of certain parts of the elbow joint during the growing phase of a dog’s life. Some areas of the joint may have a disruption of normal cartilage development or failure to fuse during growth resulting in an uneven joint surface, inflammation, joint swelling, lameness and arthritis.
The exact cause of elbow dysplasia is unknown, but it is probably due to a combination of genetic factors, over-nutrition with rapid growth, trauma and hormonal factors. Affected dogs are usually large breeds, including: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Rottweilers, Bernese mountain dogs, Newfoundlands, German shepherds and chow chows. Signs usually begin between 5 to 12 months of age.
Elbow dysplasia results in elbow arthritis which may be associated with joint stiffness (reduced range of motion) and lameness.
What to Watch For
Symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs may include:
Diagnosis of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Diagnostic tests needed to recognize elbow dysplasia, and identify or exclude other diseases, include:
Treatment of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Home Care and Prevention
After surgery, the leg is usually placed in a soft padded bandage for two weeks after which time stitches are removed. For the first 4 to 6 weeks after surgery, exercise is restricted. This can be difficult to enforce in young active puppies.
After this time your pet can undergo a gradual increase in exercise. In some cases, intermittent lameness may persist despite surgery. It is usually mild and may improve with medical management.
The exact cause of elbow dysplasia remains unknown, but it is almost certainly multifactorial, meaning that the abnormal development of your dog’s elbow joint occurs because of a combination of genetic, growth rate, nutritional, hormonal and traumatic factors.
Of these contributing factors, genetics and nutrition are probably the easiest to consider in terms of prevention of elbow dysplasia. When selecting a pedigree breed known to have a predisposition for elbow dysplasia, it would be helpful to know whether the parents had evidence of elbow dysplasia, or not. For this reason, a scoring scheme for elbow dysplasia has been set up by the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals (OFA). Dogs can be registered when they are over 24 months of age by submitting elbow X-rays to the OFA. They will be evaluated and scored as being normal or abnormal. Abnormal elbows will be graded from I through III, depending on increasing severity of change. This registry is described as “closed” in that it gives out information only on normal dogs to parties other than the breeder (owner). Clearly, it is preferable to purchase a puppy where the sire and the dam have been found to have certified, normal elbows.
An “open” registry for elbow dysplasia to consider is the Institute for Genetic Disease Control at Davis, California.
Certain puppy diets have a high protein content that has been cited as a possible reason for bony developmental abnormalities such as elbow dysplasia. Obviously not all puppies on such diets get elbow problems. Monitor your pet’s rate of growth by measuring weight and height. If your dog seems to be growing too fast, it may be advisable to change the diet to a lower-protein, adult diet, after consultation with your veterinarian.
Despite medical and surgical intervention, dogs with dysplastic elbows will go on to develop some degree of elbow arthritis. However, early diagnosis and treatment may help to minimize this problem. Prompt evaluation of a forelimb lameness that gets worse with exercise is recommended.