Elbow dysplasia is one of the most common causes of foreleg lameness in dogs of large and giant breeds, particularly younger dogs. Elbow dysplasia in dogs occurs when multiple abnormalities occur in the joint of the elbow, which is a complex structure made up of three bones and supporting cartilage. The term used to refer to the development of problems and abnormalities of the elbow joint is “primary lesions.”
Certain breeds and types of dogs are much more susceptible to developing elbow dysplasia than others, and there is a genetically inherited element to the condition, which is the most common cause for its appearance. Breeds known to have elevated risk factors for elbow dysplasia include:
Particularly if you have a large or giant breed of dog under the age of two years old, you should be alert to the signs and symptoms of developing elbow dysplasia.
Lameness will occur in the forelimbs, either in one or both of the front legs. It can be harder to identify a front leg limp than it is with a rear leg, and a bobbing head movement when placing weight on the lame leg is one of the clearest indications of lameness.
If the dog is lame in both legs, their gait may appear unusual and have a paddling or waddling movement to it as they struggle to walk on two lame legs. The lameness my present itself or be exacerbated by exercise, but in some cases, the affected dog will be fine during exercise but appear to be lame afterwards.
If you suspect that your dog is developing elbow dysplasia, your vet will need to conduct a clinical examination of your dog’s front limbs, manipulating and rotating them to identify the issue. They may also need to see your dog walking and running to identify the issue with their gait.
If your vet suspects elbow dysplasia, they will then usually take an x-ray of the affected leg or legs, or in some specialised clinics, perform a CT scan and arthroscopy to take a 3-D view of the joint.
Both surgical and non-surgical treatment and management may be considered after a diagnosis of elbow dysplasia, depending on a range of factors including the age and condition of the dog, the extent of the problem, and financial considerations.
If the degree of dysplasia is not extreme and is not having a significant effect on the quality of life of the dog, the condition may be managed without surgery, and ongoing monitoring undertaken to identify any changes or progressions of the condition. Non-surgical management generally involves weight management, anti-inflammatory medications and painkillers, and modifying the dog’s exercise routine to ensure that they are kept fit without exacerbating the issue.
There are several different options available for surgical correction of elbow dysplasia, depending on the precise root of the issue and the preference and speciality of the veterinary surgeon.
This surgery is indicated when the cause of the issue is isolated to a small area of one bone, and involves removal of the bone fragment in question to correct the issue.
This surgery releases a branch of the bicep muscle that may be consistently impacting upon the joint bones, leading to stress fractures and pain.
In advanced cases of elbow dysplasia, parts of the effected bone can be cut away and replaced with plate and screw fixings. This serves to reduce pain and pressure on the joint, and improve movement and quality of life.
This surgery involves salvaging the remaining viable bone of the joint and implanting an artificial joint in place of the damaged bone, when the degree of damage and dysplasia is so acute as to be unsalvageable.
Where the elbow has suffered from stress fracturing, keyhole surgery may be used to repair and correct the fracture, removing any deformed bone. This surgery is a very specialised procedure, and is only available at a very limited number of specialist referral clinics within the UK.
While some of the above surgical procedures are unusual, cutting edge and very modern, elbow dysplasia is one of the most commonly studied conditions by canine osteopaths. Top-level specialist veterinary surgeons and referral clinics are constantly working to develop new treatment methods for elbow dysplasia, and other treatment options may be available.
How effective or otherwise any treatment protocol is for any particular dog is highly variable, and depends greatly on the treatment method followed, the veterinary care and the dog in question. Elbow dysplasia is a complex and challenging condition, and often, even top-level surgical treatment may not prove thoroughly effective for the duration of the dog’s life.
Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition, and it is possible to test parent dogs for a propensity to the condition prior to breeding. Dogs that show elevated risk factors for elbow dysplasia should not be bred from.