Elbow Dysplasia (for Pet Carers)

January 26, 2018 3:45 pm

What is elbow dysplasia?

A developmental disorder of the elbow joint, i.e. it happens in the period during which a young animal is growing.

There are three bones that make up the elbow (the humerus, the radius and the ulna).

Dog elbow

(From https://www.petmd.com/sites/default/files/03mar-gr_shep_elbow.jpg)


In some dogs, as they grow, problems arise within the joint:

  • A bit of the soft growing bone may break off into the joint.
  • And/or the elbow may not develop into a well-fitting (congruent) joint. When an animal with a healthy elbow bends or straightens their elbow, the bones/joint surfaces glide smoothly over each other. In animals with elbow dysplasia, the bones ‘catch’ or hit each other.

The result is a vicious cycle of inflammation, pain and eventually arthritis.

Which dogs is elbow dysplasia more likely to affect?

It affects young growing dogs – their bones and joints are still becoming fully formed.
It especially affects medium-to-larger breed dogs and heavier dogs. This is not surprising because they have more weight going through their bones and joints. And, they tend to have more growth spurts than smaller dogs.

Some of the breeds most affected include Labrador retrievers, German shepherd dogs and Springer Spaniels.

Can it affect cats?

Elbow dysplasia can affect cats. But as with other dysplasias, it is thought to be much less common than in dogs.

What are potential signs of elbow dysplasia?

  • Reluctance to jump, e.g. out of the car
  • Limping on front legs
  • (Head nodding due to lameness)
  • Stilted gait
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Potential signs of pain – may be vague such as a change in demeanour, not being playful (which a young dog should be!), etc.

Signs may start to be noticed from around 6-7 months of age onwards.

How is elbow dysplasia diagnosed?

The condition should only be diagnosed by a veterinary surgeon.

They will take into account the dog’s age and breed, and the signs you report. They will then examine the dog’s legs and assess the elbows with lots of manipulation looking for signs of pain, swelling or reduced range of motion.

This may then be followed by further tests under general anaesthesia including x-rays or a CT scan. They may also wish to examine the inside of the elbow using a key-hole camera (arthroscopy).

How is elbow dysplasia managed?


Some dogs need surgery to remove bone fragments floating around in the elbow. And to smoothen the rough joint surfaces. This is key-hole surgery done with the use of a small camera (arthroscopy).

In other cases, more invasive surgery may be needed to try and reshape the joint and spread the forces going through the joint more evenly.

In some dogs, elbow replacement may become indicated in later life. This is a highly specialised procedure only done in a small number of referral centres.


Physiotherapy also has a role to play in the management of elbow dysplasia. This is both in dogs that do have surgery and those that do not.

  • Strengthening exercises are used to build up the muscles (especially the triceps but also the biceps) supporting the elbow.
  • Exercise and manipulations are also done to improve the dog’s gait pattern.
  • Exercise control. It is never a good idea to over-exercise a young growing dog. Shorter, more frequent walks are better than long walks done less often.
  • Limiting jumping out of the car, off the sofa, etc.
  • Limiting ball games – some is fine but avoid too much.

As mentioned above, elbow dysplasia leads to arthritis in the joint. Our aim is to try and delay the onset and minimise the severity.

Pain-killers may also be needed. This should be discussed with your vet on a regular basis so treatment can be tailored to your individual dog.

And weight control is also essential to reduce the weight going through the elbows.

Like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia is a lifelong condition. But it can be managed very well and for a long time with your dog having a good quality of life. The key is to be proactive and to get the right input from your veterinary surgeon working together with a veterinary physiotherapist.

To listen to the podcast episode which accompanies this blog post, click here.

Thanks as always for reading,


PS. One final tip from me is to get dogs accustomed to using a ramp from a very young age in case problems develop later in life. This applies to dogs who may develop elbow dysplasia but to many other dogs too! It is one of my favourite physio tips for all dogs that will grow to a size where they cannot easily be carried!

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