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Understanding Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

What is elbow dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia or ED, is the most common cause of front leg limping in dogs. When a dog has elbow dysplasia it means that the bones in their elbow joint don’t properly align which leads to pain, front limb lameness, joint instability, and the eventual development of arthritis. In fact, elbow dysplasia is the most common underlying cause of elbow dysplasia. 

There are five different types of elbow dysplasia:

Golden retriever wear elbow brace to help with dysplasia
Golden Retriever wears an elbow brace to support elbow dysplasia.
  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
  • Ununited medial epicondyle (UME)
  • Fragmented medial coronoid process (FMCP)
  • Osteochondrosis (OCD)
  • Elbow joint incongruity 

Although there are several types of elbow dysplasia, all of them result in varying degrees of lameness, cartilage damage, and arthritis. 

How does elbow dysplasia affect dogs?

Elbow dysplasia can affect one of both legs, although 80% of dogs with ED are likely to have it in both front legs. Signs of ED begin to appear at an early age, most dogs will begin to show signs of elbow dysplasia at around 5 months of age. As the dog ages, the condition worsens which can lead to joint degeneration and malformation of the elbow joint. 

Elbow dysplasia symptoms include:

Full Support Dog Wheelchair
  • Limping 
  • Joint stiffness, usually worse after exercise 
  • Front paws are turned out or angled outwards
  • Elbows positioned at a strange or unusual angle
  • In serious cases, elbows appear swollen or puffy
  • Decreased range of motion in the front limb
  • Show signs of pain when front leg is extended or flexed
  • Difficulty getting up or struggling to stand up

Dogs exhibiting signs of elbow dysplasia need to be examined by a veterinarian or orthopedic specialist. Along with a thorough physical exam to check range of motion, assess elbow swelling and pain your veterinarian will likely recommend radiographs to confirm the diagnosis. 

Symptoms of elbow dysplasia can often be managed by:

  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine
  • Managing a dog’s weight and keeping them at a healthy weight
  • Physiotherapy and canine rehabilitation 
  • Pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications

Is elbow dysplasia in dogs genetic?

Senior boxer wears elbow brace for front leg

The exact causes of canine elbow dysplasia are unknown although genetics do play a role. Elbow dysplasia is considered an inherited condition and can occur in any dog breed. Large or giant dogs are the most likely dogs to have elbow dysplasia, however breeds such as German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Golden retrievers are the most common. 

Although any dog can develop elbow dysplasia, male pups are one and a half times more likely to develop the condition over females. Another high risk category are pets that are overweight. As the body weight increases, so does the risk of developing elbow dysplasia. 

Natural treatments for elbow dysplasia

How to best treat your dog’s elbow dysplasia will depend on the severity of their symptoms. Although corrective surgery may be necessary in the most severe cases of ED, there are natural treatments for elbow dysplasia that are easy to manage at home in dogs with mild to moderate dysplasia symptoms. Conservative management treatments include one or more of the following treatments:

Weight Control

Dogs dealing with elbow dysplasia need to maintain a healthy weight. Overweight or obese dogs place additional stress on their joints, which can mean worsening joint pain and further limiting the mobility in an already weak leg. By regularly exercising your dog you can prevent muscle atrophy and reduce the risk of gaining weight. But, be careful not to over exercise your pet and avoid strenuous activities like running or jumping that place more stress on the front leg. Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the right exercise regime and meal plan for your dog to maintain their ideal weight.  

Physiotherapy and Rehab Therapy for Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow brace for large dog

Through rehab exercise, dogs can increase their leg strength and build up muscle around their elbow to help relieve pressure on a dog’s elbow. Additionally, by working with a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner your dog can work on increasing their range of motion through passive exercise.

Hydrotherapy is a safe and effective way to help your dog get the exercise they need. During hydrotherapy sessions your dog is able to walk and move without putting strain on their joints. Other integrative therapies such as cold laser therapy can help to decrease elbow pain and reduce inflammation. 

A custom elbow brace can be beneficial to support the elbow joint. Not only does the brace keep the elbow in alignment, but the hinged joint allows for natural range of motion.

Life expectancy for dogs with elbow dysplasia

Although elbow dysplasia is a painful disease, a dog with elbow dysplasia can expect to live a long life. Expect your dog to show a degree of lameness and stiffness throughout their life. Since most pets are diagnosed at a very young age, they will require lifelong treatment and regular vet visits to monitor the condition’s progress. Understand that most pet’s with elbow dysplasia will develop arthritis as they age, which means that their treatment plan will evolve as their symptoms change. By watching your dog’s weight, keeping them active, and actively working to relieve symptoms of joint pain and inflammation it’s possible for your dog to live a long and active life.

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