Causes of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs A Painful Joint Condition

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Elbow dysplasia is a potentially debilitating form of arthritis that is usually found in large breed dogs and senior dogs. Find out what causes elbow dysplasia and what you can do to prevent and cope with it.

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Youโ€™ve probably heard of hip dysplasia, but what about elbow dysplasia in dogs? This painful condition is common in many large breed dogs, and can really affect their quality of life.

Because elbow dysplasia causes swelling and pain in your dogโ€™s elbows, it may result in difficulty walking, exercising, and even standing up. Your dog may not be able to walk or play as much as they would like to, and you may find that they choose to sit or lie down the majority of the time.

But what causes this debilitating condition? Letโ€™s take a look.

Causes of Elbow Dysplasia

The word dysplasia refers to any abnormal development of cells, organs, or tissues. Elbow dysplasia, therefore, is an abnormal development of the elbow.

A dogโ€™s elbow joint is made up of three bones: the humerus, the radius, and the ulna. These bones are supposed to fit together perfectly to form the elbow joint, but in dogs with elbow dysplasia, a developmental problem results in abnormal joint formation.

There are four different types of developmental defects that can appear in a dogโ€™s elbow: 

  • Fragmented coronoid process (FCP): A small fragment of the ulna bone has broken off and floats around inside of the elbow joint, causing irritation to the lining of the joint and deterioration to the cartilage of the humerus bone.
  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP): A bone outgrowth within the elbow becomes detached and causes irritation and degeneration of the joint.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD): A small piece of joint cartilage becomes loose and detaches from the surface of the joint. This causes irritation and pain.
  • Growth rate incongruity: When the radius bone and ulna bone grow at different speeds, it can cause an abnormal curvature of the radius bone. Because the two bones donโ€™t fit together properly, surface cartilage can wear down quickly.

Elbow dysplasia can become more severe if your dog is putting too much stress on the defective joint because they are overweight, or if they are engaging in activities that create a pounding effect on the joint (for example, running on asphalt).

Breeds Likely to Develop Elbow Dysplasia

In general, elbow dysplasia tends to affect large breed dogs. Breeds that are often affected by elbow dysplasia include: Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Chow Chow, Newfoundland, English Setter, English Springer Spaniel, Rottweiler, Bernese Mountain Dog, and Chinese Shar-Pei.

Most times, puppies begin showing signs of elbow dysplasia between 4 and 10 months of age. Some dogs may not show signs until they reach adulthood and the condition has progressed to degenerative joint disease, also known as osteoarthritis.

While it may be difficult to predict this condition with a mixed breed dog, if you plan to purchase from a breeder, you should ask them to provide documentation that the puppyโ€™s parents have been screened for elbow dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).

What to do About Elbow Dysplasia

If your dog is showing symptoms of elbow dysplasia, contact your veterinarian. They will typically diagnosis the problem through a physical examination and X-rays. There are number of treatment options available for dogs suffering from elbow dysplasia, including medications, therapies, supplements, and surgeries. Your veterinarian will recommend the best treatment for your dog.

Symptoms Of Dog Elbow Dysplasia 

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Elbow dysplasia is a painful condition caused by abnormal elbow joint development. When the bones in the elbow do not grow together properly to form a normal joint, it can cause uncomfortable wear and tear. This results in pain and inflammation that can affect the way your dog walks and how they behave.

Of course, there are many conditions that can result in a decreased interest in exercise or a change in behavior, so how can you tell if elbow dysplasia is the culprit? Here we will review the telltale signs of this troublesome joint condition.

Signs of Elbow Dysplasia

Because elbow dysplasia causes pain and swelling, the most obvious symptoms will be physical. Your dogโ€™s behavior may also change as they try to avoid activities or circumstances that will make their physical symptoms worse. The severity of the symptoms can vary from dog to dog -- some may experience only occasional pain or limping while others will have agonizing arthritis that affects their every move.

  • Limping or Lameness: Since elbow dysplasia makes it painful for your dog to walk, you may see limping or complete lameness in the front legs. If a dog has elbow dysplasia in both legs, they may not limp because both legs hurt equally. If one leg hurts more than the other, however, you will notice them favoring one leg. Many dogs with elbow dysplasia in both legs will change the way they stand or shift their weight to be more comfortable instead of limping. Your dogโ€™s lameness, limping, or shifting may get worse after exercise.
  • Abnormal Gait: Many dogs with elbow dysplasia develop an abnormal gait and the feet may appear to paddle, sweep, or rotate outward when they walk. In addition, some dogs will hold the affected elbow away from the body, while others will pull it in tightly.
  • Swelling: Elbow dysplasia commonly causes swelling of the elbow joint, and you may be able to see and feel it on your dog. The swelling may be especially apparent after exercise.
  • Pain: You may see obvious signs of pain when your dog extends or flexes their elbow. In fact, one of the ways that veterinarians check for elbow dysplasia is by extending your dogโ€™s front legs and seeing how they react.
  • Lethargy: The pain caused by elbow dysplasia can tire a dog out. Many dogs affected by this condition will try to avoid exercise and will prefer to spend their time sitting or lying down.

The symptoms of elbow dysplasia usually appear in puppies between the ages of 4 and 10 months. However, some dogs may not show symptoms until they are into adulthood and degenerative joint disease -- or osteoarthritis -- has set it.

If your dog is showing signs of elbow dysplasia, donโ€™t wait -- contact your veterinarian right away. Improper use of the affected joint can make the problem worse, and the sooner you begin treatment for the condition, the better your dog will feel.

More on Dog Joint Health

5 Ways to Prevent Joint Problems in Your Dog
Joint Health Products for Dogs with Arthritis
A Joint Health Exercise Routine for Dogs

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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