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Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

What Is Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

Elbow dysplasia is a condition affecting dogs’ elbow joints, comprising the humerus, radius, and ulna. This disorder disrupts normal bone growth and development, impairing joint function and causing discomfort, pain, and arthritis. It is particularly prevalent among young, large-breed canines.

Elbow dysplasia presents with four primary lesions, each affecting different components of the joint:

  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP): UAP involves the separation of the anconeal process, a segment of the ulna bone. This detachment typically occurs between 4 to 8 months of age, leading to joint instability due to the failure of fusion or detachment of the anconeal process.
  • Fragmented coronoid process (FCP): FCP arises when the coronoid process, an essential part of the ulna bone, fails to properly attach. This absence compromises the joint’s articulating surface, resulting in joint looseness, inflammation, and eventual arthritis.
  • Osteochondrosis of the medial humeral condyle: This condition disrupts the normal transition of cartilage into bone, leaving cartilage where bone should form. In this case, the medial condyle fails to develop into bone, causing cartilage to flake off, leading to pain, swelling, and lameness.
  • Medial compartment disease (MCD): MCD occurs when abnormal pressure within the joint erodes one articulating surface, exposing bone and causing inflammation and pain. This form of dysplasia carries a poor prognosis as the damage cannot be reversed, and cartilage cannot regenerate. Surgery may be an option, but further research is necessary to improve outcomes.


Screening for elbow dysplasia in dogs is not common unless there’s a known history in the dog’s lineage or the breed is predisposed to the condition. Recognizing symptoms can be crucial, though some are subtle, making diagnosis challenging. Signs of elbow dysplasia in dogs include:

  • Lameness or limping in one or both forelimbs, occasionally accompanied by a head bob. Despite the discomfort, most dogs can still bear weight on the affected limb.
  • Swelling around the elbow joint.
  • Thickening of the joint.
  • Reduced range of motion in the affected limb.
  • Pain when manipulating the joint.
  • Elbow protruding outward.
  • Altered gait.
  • Reluctance to engage in usual activities like running or playing.


Elbow dysplasia is believed to have a hereditary component, but it’s also linked to several other factors such as:

  • Previous traumatic injuries.
  • Nutritional imbalances or deficiencies.
  • Abnormalities in cartilage growth or bone development.
  • Hormonal influences.

Certain large-dog breeds have a higher predisposition to elbow dysplasia, and it commonly affects both elbows rather than just one. These breeds include:

  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • German Shepherds
  • Rottweilers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Mastiffs


Initially, a veterinarian will conduct a physical examination to pinpoint the source of pain and discomfort in the elbow area. Subsequently, X-rays of the affected limb will be taken. Sometimes, to ensure precise diagnostic imaging, sedation or anesthesia might be necessary for the dog.

It’s common practice to X-ray the opposite limb as well for comparative analysis and to assess if any disease is present in that elbow too.

If the signs of elbow dysplasia are not clear from the X-rays, additional diagnostic measures such as a CT scan or arthroscopy may be recommended. Arthroscopy involves using a camera called an arthroscope to capture images of the elbow joint. In some instances, treatment of the condition can be initiated during the arthroscopic procedure.


The primary objective of treating elbow dysplasia in dogs is to mitigate the advancement of arthritis and restore proper function to the affected elbow joint. Surgery stands as the most recommended treatment option, aiming not only to eliminate diseased or damaged tissue but also to restore functionality to the joint. Swift surgical intervention is crucial to prevent further trauma to the joint.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that even with surgery, arthritis may still develop to some extent. Since most surgeries focus on removing the problematic parts causing dysplasia, the joint may lack essential structures and may not fit perfectly together.

Arthroscopic surgery is often favored due to its minimally invasive nature and the technical expertise required for repair. This procedure is typically conducted by a veterinary orthopedic surgeon.

For dogs unsuitable for surgery, supportive treatment options include:

  • Administration of medications targeting pain and inflammation.
  • Joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin, which aid in reducing inflammation, promoting healing, and retaining water, thus providing additional cushioning to the joint.
  • Weight management, as excess weight exacerbates joint problems.

Living and Management

The long-term prognosis for dogs with elbow dysplasia is generally favorable, particularly if there is minimal or no apparent degeneration. Recovery typically spans several weeks, followed by additional weeks of physical therapy and rehabilitation. Consistent adherence to these protocols often results in a quicker recovery and better overall outcome compared to relying solely on surgery.

Rehabilitation strategies may include passive range-of-motion exercises, massage, acupuncture, or physical therapy to optimize the return to function as swiftly as possible. It’s crucial to implement exercise restrictions and minimize high-impact activities, particularly on hard flooring, for the dog’s long-term well-being.

For dogs unable to undergo surgery due to various reasons, they can still enjoy a good quality of life despite the condition. However, degenerative changes and osteoarthritis will inevitably develop over time, leading to chronic pain. In such cases, medications like NSAIDs, joint supplements, and specialized diets may be prescribed to manage discomfort and slow down disease progression.


Preventing elbow dysplasia in dogs primarily involves addressing its presumed genetic predisposition. Pets diagnosed with elbow dysplasia should undergo spaying or neutering to prevent the condition from being passed on. Additionally, breeding of affected parents should be avoided to prevent further propagation of the condition.

Minimizing joint trauma and stress is also crucial in prevention. This can be achieved by preventing dogs from activities such as jumping down from furniture or excessive stair climbing. Maintaining a healthy weight is also important to reduce strain on the joints.

For susceptible breeds, it’s advisable to screen puppies for elbow dysplasia using X-rays as a preventive measure. This proactive approach can help identify potential issues early and implement appropriate management strategies.

Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs FAQs

Is elbow dysplasia in dogs curable?

Regrettably, elbow dysplasia cannot be cured. However, it can be effectively managed through various treatments. Surgical interventions and medications can significantly improve your dog’s quality of life, allowing activities like playing fetch to remain part of their routine.

How long can a dog live with elbow dysplasia?

The prognosis for dogs with elbow dysplasia varies based on the extent of arthritis present at diagnosis. Dogs with minimal arthritis typically have a more positive outlook compared to those with significant arthritis. Thankfully, with appropriate surgical interventions and medical management, dogs affected by elbow dysplasia can lead relatively healthy lives.

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