What is canine elbow dysplasia?

Canine elbow dysplasia is a common genetic condition caused by abnormal growth of the elbow joints. These growths mean that the bones that make up the joint don’t fit together properly, resulting in rubbing, pressure and pain.

A complicated orthopaedic condition, elbow dysplasia is used to describe conditions that cause elbow osteoarthritis. In dogs, there are three different developmental conditions that are referred to commonly as elbow dysplasia.

What are the symptoms of
elbow dysplasia?

It’s important to correctly diagnose the issue in order to offer the best treatment:

  • Fragmented coronoid process (FCP) – when stress placed on the joint causes stress fractures that result in bone fragment within the elbow joint.
  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) -an inflammatory condition that occurs when the cartilage on the end of a bone abnormally develops, separating from the bone itself.

The condition may also be caused by growth rate incongruity, a condition in which the radius and ulna bones grow at subtly different rates, resulting in misplacement of the joint.

How is elbow dysplasia caused?

There are several factors that lead to the development of elbow dysplasia in dogs. It is a primarily genetic condition, but elbow dysplasia can also occur depending on environmental factors such as diet, weight, hormones or trauma. Certain dog breeds are more likely to suffer from elbow dysplasia and, while many breeds can develop the condition, it tends to affects active or larger breeds more. These include:

  • German Shepherds
  • Rottweilers
  • Labradors
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Basset Hounds
  • Newfoundlands

How can I tell if my dog has elbow dysplasia?

The most common sign that your dog may be suffering from elbow dysplasia is lameness, limping or stiffness on one or both of their front legs. This often presents itself as nodding of the head when walking on their good leg, or a lifting of the head when the bad leg is placed on the ground. Other symptoms may include:

  • Pain when walking or stretching
  • Swelling in the elbow joints
  • Decreased range of motion
  • An usual gait or turned out foot


vet assessing a dog


How is elbow dysplasia in dogs diagnosed?

As your dog ages, their condition may get worse and could lead to joint degeneration or malformation. Therefore, if you think that your pet has elbow dysplasia, it’s important to seek medical help as soon as you can.

To diagnose the condition, your veterinary professional will first ask for a full medical history including any symptoms, abnormal behaviour or other relevant information. This is to determine the nature of the problem and to rule out any other conditions that may be mimicking symptoms, such as infection or tumours.

Elbow dysplasia is most commonly diagnosed using simple radiography, but more serious cases may also require advanced diagnostic imaging such as a CT or MRI scan to check for the presence of bone fragments.

How is elbow dysplasia treated?

As elbow dysplasia can refer to a series of different conditions, the best course of action will differ depending on the case, however there a range of different treatment options available and your veterinary specialist will be able to advise on the best course of action for your pet.

Non-surgical treatment:

In most cases, non-surgical treatment will be offered first to see whether the condition can be improved and pain can be effectively managed, before surgery is considered, Many dogs can manage the condition with a combination of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help with pain and inflammation, physiotherapy or hydrotherapy and weight and exercise management.

Surgical treatment:

If your dog is not responding to non-surgical treatments, your veterinary professional may recommend surgery. Surgery can be performed to remove loose fragments of bone or cartilage, align or reattach biomes, or if the bone has degenerated, this can be removed.

Elbow dysplasia in cats

Like dogs, cats can suffer from elbow dysplasia, but it is more likely later on in life. The condition in cats presents itself in a number of ways, and symptoms include:

  • Unwillingness to play
  • Decreased activity
  • Pain when stretching or jumping
  • Reduced range of motion

Similarly to in dogs, cats with elbow dysplasia are usually diagnosed via advanced imaging, while anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise moderation and weight control are all commonly used to control the condition long-term. If bone fragments are loose, your cat may require surgery, however this will be determine by a veterinary specialist.

Can my pet live with elbow dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia, unfortunately, cannot be cured, and even after treatment, many pets will still continue to be affected, either by elbow osteoarthritis, loose fragments or elbow misalignment. However, with the proper treatment and pain management, there is no reason why your pet cannot have a great quality of life.