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Dogs don’t play tennis, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have achy elbows. Elbow dysplasia — and eventually arthritis — happens simply because the elbow joint isn’t made right. Signs include pain and limping. Dogs can take supplements to support joint health and drugs to help ease pain and inflammation, but corrective surgery is often recommended.
Elbow dysplasia occurs when the bones and cartilage that make up the elbow joint don’t come together properly, leading eventually to painful movement in the forelimb.
The elbow is made up of the humerus (the long bone of the upper forelimb), which communicates at the elbow joint with the radius and ulna (the two bones that compose the lower forelimb) below it. All these bones and their associated cartilage need to develop properly and fit together just right for the elbow to withstand a lifetime of wear and tear. When they don’t, elbow dysplasia occurs.
Four abnormalities specific to the elbow are considered forms of elbow dysplasia, although other abnormalities can also be involved in the disease:
These variations of elbow dysplasia have in common one additional thing: They invariably lead to pain and elbow arthritis. Though improper nutrition during puppyhood and trauma to the elbow can contribute to elbow dysplasia, this disease is most commonly the result of genetic factors that lead to less than optimal joint conformation.
Dogs affected with elbow dysplasia may show signs of mild to moderate pain and lameness in the forelimbs as early as 4 months old, but some will show no signs of the disease until later in life. Both elbows are typically involved, but one may be much more grievously affected.
Diagnosis of elbow dysplasia is typically arrived at through X-rays confirming visible changes to the joint. But a history of front-limb lameness in a young dog or thickening of the elbow that a veterinarian can detect during physical examination usually raises the alarm. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans of the area can also be very helpful to identify the exact version of elbow dysplasia present. Surgical exploration (usually through arthroscopy but also through open-joint surgery) is also considered a method for determining the extent of the joint’s damage and initiating surgical correction.
Large-breed dogs are most affected, but smaller dogs can also be affected, including Pugs, Basenjis, and Shiba Inus. Below are the top 10 breeds affected, courtesy of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).
Bernese Mountain Dog Black Russian Terrier Newfoundland Chinese Shar-Pei
The treatment of these cases varies according to the exact form the disease has taken and the stage at which it presents. If possible, surgically removing loose flaps of cartilage and smoothing out the cartilage in the joint are undertaken. However, this is best achieved in the disease’s earliest stages. After arthritis has set in, it becomes increasingly difficult and less beneficial to do surgery.
Some veterinarians perform the surgery themselves; others may refer this procedure to a veterinary surgeon or orthopedic specialist. Some veterinarians can perform surgery using arthroscopic surgical equipment (surgically introducing a fiberobtic scope into the joint). Open joint surgery is also an option.
Non-surgical options for management include pain-relieving drugs, such as pet-approved anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications. Long-term use of nutraceuticals (like glucosamine/chondroitin and fatty acids) has also been found to be of some assistance, as well as weight management and physical therapy/controlled exercise.
Elbow dysplasia is considered an inherited disease. Affected dogs should not be used for breeding.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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