White french bulldog
© Pixabay

Everything you need to know about elbow dysplasia in dogs

By Nick Whittle Author

Updated on the

'Dysplasia' is a term that means ‘badly formed’. It refers to a condition of malformation of the hip or elbow joint. This malformation leads to the ‘misalignment’ of the bones of a joint which results in one or more of the bones being subjected to excessive force as the dog walks.

These forces can cause microscopic stress fractures within the bones of the joint which bring about a dog’s pain and lameness.

What is elbow dysplasia?

The elbow joint is a complicated meeting of three bones. Malformation of the joint is thought to begin early in a dog's life, and as she grows the malformation causes lesions to appear in the joint process.

In time, the lesions cause various osteoarthritic complaints of the adult dog. Elbow dysplasia is very common in young, large breeds.

We will talk later about what treatments are available for a dog with elbow dysplasia. In short, treatment consists of either an ongoing management of osteoarthritis or complete joint replacement.

There are many factors that can contribute to the abnormal growth of a puppy's elbow joints. The British Veterinary Association cites the dog’s genetic code as one possible stimulus. But, ‘factors such as growth rate, diet and level of exercise may influence the severity of the disease in an individual dog.’

How do you know if your dog has elbow dysplasia?

Because of the shape of the joint and its complexity, a dog's elbow is particularly vulnerable to dysplasia. Its structure is such that even a minute mechanical abnormality causes a dog's joint to suffer chronic degeneration.

The animal's mobility worsens too, although the symptoms of elbow dysplasia are not always obvious until the dog reaches her sixth month. An advanced case of elbow dysplasia may be revealed by the following:

  • Limping and ‘paddling’ gait
  • Increased pain and lameness after waking up
  • Pain when joint is manipulated

Are certain breeds more prone to elbow dysplasia?

Because the condition seems more intrinsic to genetic determination than external factors it is not surprising that certain breeds of dog are more prone than others to suffer with elbow dysplasia. The BVA lists the following as breeds more likely to exhibit signs of elbow dysplasia:

Labradors are a breed prone to elbow dysplasia ©Pixabay

What treatments are there for elbow dysplasia?

Corrective treatments and the management of dysplasia are determined by the severity of the illness. Some vets may opt for a conservative approach to the condition and recommend certain NSAIDs for pain relief in tandem with weight control.

Dogs that do not respond well to conservative treatments and suffer with worsening disability may be recommended for surgery of one form or another.

Elbow surgery may involve:

  • Correction of joint step; usually done by cutting the ulna to re-establish elbow congruence
  • Removal of any coronoid fragments and removal of loose cartilage
  • Surgical alteration of the elbow joint to shift weight away from damaged areas
  • Reattachment or removal of an united anconeal process of the medial joint compartment
  • Joint replacement if the elbow is severely diseased

For dogs that cannot for some reason undergo surgery, a non-surgical therapy is recommended. Fitzpatrick Referrals lists the following as 'cornerstones of non-surgical treatment':

  • Body weight management 
  • Physiotherapy
  • Exercise modification
  • Medication (anti-inflammatory painkillers)

What home remedies are there for elbow dysplasia?

Homeopathic remedies of dysplasia are many and various, and should be considered for the control of pain and improvement of joint health. However, it must be remembered that these home remedies do not cure the ailment.

Furthermore, before you consider administering your dog with a regimen of homeopathic treatments you should discuss the matter with your vet; they may have additional recommendations.

The following could be used in conjunction with conventional treatments:

Fish oils are known to improve joint health. The constituents of the oil are thought to reduce the inflammation of swollen joints due to arthritis and limit the progress of other osteoarthritic conditions.

There are several products on the market that are specifically designed for dogs.

Generally speaking, canine supplements are worth considering. Supplements for human consumption such as glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to slow down chronic deterioration of joint cartilage and in doing so improve joint mobility.

Some homeopathic vets recommend the use of human supplements for dogs, but this should be discussed with your vet.

Obesity is cited as another likely cause of elbow dysplasia© Pixabay

Obesity is cited as another likely cause of elbow dysplasia. If the disease is diagnosed of your dog you should control the animal's diet. Some homeopathic vets recommend substituting a grain-heavy diet with meat and vegetables because a low-grain diet is thought to help ease joint pain.

To provide a safe and secure environment for a dog suffering with elbow dysplasia (or recovering from corrective surgery) is essential.

Place mats on concrete or tiled floors to reduce the risk of her slipping; provide a bed that is soft, padded and big enough to support her four limbs. You should also place large rugs in other parts of the house in order that your dog can follow you around and be comfortable when she lies down next to you.

Elbow dysplasia can be managed successfully with other non-surgical treatments such as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, homeopathy and acupuncture. However, it is her comfort at home and the care she receives from you that are the biggest influences on her quality of life.

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