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.
In-depth Information on Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Elbow dysplasia is just one of a number of bone and joint diseases that affect young, growing dogs. A number of diseases that cause front leg lameness need to be considered and excluded by your veterinarian. These include:
In-depth Information on Diagnosis
Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests and subsequent treatment recommendations. Diagnostic tests needed to recognize elbow dysplasia, and exclude other diseases, include:
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).
Combinations of these lesions are not uncommon.
In-depth Information on Treatment
Treatments for elbow dysplasia in dogs may include conservative medical management or surgery.
Follow-up Care for Dogs with Elbow Dysplasia
A soft-padded bandage can be helpful after surgery to reduce swelling. This should be kept clean and dry by placing a plastic bag over the foot when your dog goes outside to go to the bathroom. Check the toes at the bottom of the bandage daily for evidence of swelling, excessive sweating or pain.
Confining a puppy for 4 to 6 weeks after surgery can be extremely difficult and frustrating for both you and your dog. However, it is essential to maximize the success of the surgical procedure. The abnormal cartilage that has been removed has to heal and this becomes more difficult if the elbow is working too hard. Very occasionally, sedatives may be recommended by your veterinarian to get through this phase of the recovery.
Ideal confinement includes: restriction to a single room or small portion of the home; no going up or down stairs; no jumping on or off furniture; leash-walking only to go to the bathroom and then going straight back inside.
Staple or suture removal would take place at 10 to 14 days after surgery. Where the incision(s) are exposed, they can be examined on a daily basis for swelling, discharge or redness.
After the period of rest, exercise should be slowly and gradually increased over the next 4 to 6 weeks, starting with short leash walks, then getting gradually longer with greater freedom around the house to include the use of stairs.
Where the ulna has been cut, follow-up X-rays will probably be necessary at 6 weeks after surgery in order to assess bone healing.