What are the Causes of Canine Elbow Dysplasia?
Canine elbow dysplasia, a disease that occurs in the elbows of dogs, is caused by abnormal growth of cells, tissue, or bone in the elbow joint. Additional reasons for canine elbow dysplasia include defects in cartilage growth, trauma, genetics, exercise, and diet.
It’s likely that a combination of the factors listed above leads to a mismatch of growth between the two bones that are located in the forelimb between the elbow and the wrist (radius and ulna). If the growth of one bone is slower than the other, cartilage in the joint can become damaged. It’s believed that the mismatch in growth between the two bones, radius and ulna, may occur only during a puppy’s growth, but it may persist when the puppy has finished growing.
Recognizing the Symptoms
While elbow dysplasia is commonly seen in large to giant breed dogs, particularly in Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers, it can occur in any dog breed. It’s important to know that different breeds have predispositions to different forms of the disease. Notably, sight hounds are completely free of the disease – lucky dogs!
Dogs affected by elbow dysplasia often show signs beginning at an early age, typically from 5 months on, but some may first be diagnosed after 4–6 years.
Affected dogs develop front limb lameness that typically worsens over a period of weeks to months. The lameness is usually worse after exercise, and may never completely resolve itself with rest. Often, both forelegs are affected, which can make detection of lameness difficult as the gait is not asymmetric. In this case, the dog usually becomes unwilling to exercise for long periods, or may even refuse to finish a walk.
Once the elbow joint has been damaged, inflammation will occur, which may cause progressive arthritis, pain, and an inability for the dog to use its elbow.
How to Diagnose
If you’re headed to the veterinarian for a look at your dog’s elbow(s), a combination of x-rays and clinical examinations are typically used to diagnosis elbow dysplasia. Usually, the dog will express pain upon fully bending or extending its elbow, and often your veterinarian will want to watch your dog walk to detect any lameness. X-rays will typically show signs of arthritis, but may also show the presence of small bone fragments in the joint. Your veterinarian may also choose to refer you to a board-certified veterinary surgeon so that more advanced diagnostic procedures such as CT scans, MRI scans, or arthroscopy can be performed.
How to Treat Elbow Dysplasia
Methods of treatment depend on the severity of the disease. In many cases, surgery is recommended; however, your veterinarian may recommend medical management if the problem is either very mild or so severe that the joint will not likely benefit from surgery. Treatment can be divided into the correction of a joint step between the elbow and wrist if present, and treatment of any other joint damage. Often, surgery is performed arthroscopically, but conventional open surgery can also be done. Depending on the individual dog’s elbow problem, surgery may involve:
- Correction of the joint step
- Removal of any fragments and loose cartilage
- Surgical alteration of the elbow joint to shift weight away from damaged areas
- Joint replacement if the elbow is severely diseased
How to Provide Care Post-Surgery
The way in which you care for your dog will depend on the type of surgery performed. Your veterinarian will advise you on specific post-surgical care guidelines, but in general, your dog will need to be quiet and confined for about 2–6 weeks or more (depending on the speed of recovery).
The outcome of treatment will also vary between dogs, but typically, the milder the disease and the earlier it’s treated, the better the long-term outcome. Most dogs benefit from surgical treatment even if the disease is more advanced; however, once arthritis is well established, it will slowly progress over time regardless of treatment. The goal then becomes to slow the progression of the arthritis, and prolong the use of the elbow.
If you have concerns about your dog, and need to locate a board-certified veterinary surgeon, use the VetSpecialists.com search tool on the website’s homepage. The tool allows you to search for a veterinary specialist and select the type of animal based on your location by zip code or city name. Contact the hospital of your choice to discuss your pet’s symptoms, and to review whether there is a need for a referral from your primary care veterinarian.