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Understanding and treating elbow dysplasia in dogs

Dog undergoing elbow dysplasia check at a vet office

Elbow dysplasia is a common cause of foreleg lameness in dogs. This is a troubling condition with signs of elbow dysplasia in dogs sometimes showing up before their first birthday. But this doesn't mean owners are powerless to help their pets. Choices such as the dog's diet and how much exercise they get (amongst other factors) make the difference between a dog jumping for joy or limping towards early arthritis.

What Exactly is Elbow Dysplasia?

The words 'elbow dysplasia' means poor growth of the elbow joint. Think of it like a creaky door. If the door isn't the right shape for the frame, then the door won't close properly and makes a nasty grating noise. Only in this case the door is the elbow, and if it doesn't move properly it becomes inflamed. And inflammation is painful, which is why elbow dysplasia dog causes lameness.

One Joint: Three Bones

Elbow joints are a complicated hinge made up of not just two bones (like most joints) but three, which must all fit together perfectly. If one bone is slightly short or the wrong shape then problems beckon, just like our clunky door.

In the early stages of elbow dysplasia the joint is inflamed and sore. But over the weeks, months, and years,the bone under most pressure develops micro-fractures. These tiny cracks spread and form fissures, which then crack off to make the problem a whole lot worse.

The body tries to correct this inflammation and protect the joint by laying down new bone. This process of inflammation and new bone growth is probably better known to you as arthritis. Sadly, early onset arthritis is one of the distressing consequences of elbow arthritis.

The Risk Factors for Elbow Dysplasia Dog

Some dog breeds are at increased risk of elbow dysplasia dog, but their owners can help by reducing the risks. By being savvy about what helps speed the process, they can avoid these situations and protect those precious joints. This isn't just true for elbow dysplasia but also applies to hip dysplasia.

Inherited Elbow Dysplasia

Sadly, some pups inherit genes from their parents that code for poor elbows. Prospective owners are wise to select pups from screened dogs that have healthy joints to try and dodge this unwelcome birthday gift.

Those breeds that are the poster-dogs for elbow dysplasia include:

  • Labrador retriever
  • Golden retriever
  • German shepherd dog
  • Rottweiler
  • Bernese mountain dog
  • Newfoundland

What do these dogs have in common? They are all large or giant breeds...which brings us onto the next risk factor.

Rapid Growth

Bones need to grow at the right rate and most definitely not too fast. Big dogs have a lot of growing to do and 'rich' food encourages their bones to grow quickly...often too quickly. This means the blood supply can't keep up and the resulting bone is weak with a poor quality cartilage lining. Weak bone is a friend to micro-fractures, which is why feeding pups a diet designed for the growth of large breeds dogs is so important.

Too Much Exercise Too Young

Active young pups have a seemingly boundless supply of energy, but even so it's important not to overtire them. Those tender young joints are in part supported by muscle, and if those muscles get tired it risks the joint surfaces banging together and causing damage. For dogs prone to elbow dysplasia, this gives those micro-fractures a helping hand. For this reason strenuous exercise is best avoided until their bones have finished growing.

Oh yes, and being overweight places a similar strain on joints as exercise...so keep those pups slim and trim.

Signs of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

What are the elbow dysplasia dog symptoms to be alert for?

  • Limping on a front leg: This can occur as young as six-months of age
  • Stiffness after rest, which improves as the dog moves around
  • One elbow sticks out more than the other or the front paws aren't parallel

This can be accompanied by other general signs of discomfort such as restlessness at night or grumpiness. All of the above may be signs of elbow dysplasia in dogs but it takes a vet to confirm the diagnosis.

Diagnosing Elbow Dysplasia Dog

There are many reasons for a dog to limp, such as a sprain or strain or a thorn in the pad. It's essential the dog is checked by a vet, who may then suggest imaging to reach a definite diagnosis.

In general practice the vet may x-ray the elbows, but it may be necessary to refer the patient for specialist CT scans. The latter are much more useful because they give a detailed 3-D picture (rather than a flat 2D image) of the elbows. Sometimes other tests are required, such as endoscopy.

Treating Elbow Dysplasia Dog

From drugs to physiotherapy or surgery there are many ways to help dogs with elbow dysplasia.

Lifestyle Choices

It isn't the dog that puts food in the bowl...but you. It's you that decides what to feed and how much of it. Making good choices and exercising sensibly keeps a dog slim, trim, and healthy -- and this includes their joints.


Some food supplements have a pharmaceutical like action but aren't drugs. Specifically, chondroitin and glucosamine provide the joints with the building blocks of repair and aid healthy joints. There's a strong argument that these supplements should be given to young growing dogs to protect their joints, and not just the arthritic seniors.

Pain Relief

Elbow dysplasia is a painful condition and some elbow dysplasia dogs need pain relief. It's best to build a strong relationship with your vet so they can adjust the dog's pain relief needs as the condition progresses.


Therapies such as massage, hydrotherapy, heat, and acupuncture all have a role in keeping the supporting muscles strong and keeping the elbow dysplasia dog going for longer.


The elbow dysplasia dog may require surgery to get them back on their paws. Key to success here is visiting a specialist surgeon who does their groundwork with a CT scan and can pinpoint which procedure will best benefit the dog.

We all want the elbow dysplasia dog to lead a long and active life. What will you do to protect your pet's joints?

The article was written by Pippa Elliot, BVMS

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