Elbow Dysplasia and Home / Exercise Adaptations

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Elbow dysplasia is hereditary but is also associated with rapid growth and high energy diet. Large breed dogs tend to be affected. Examples are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Basset Hounds
  • Saint Bernhards
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Australian Shepherds

However, elbow dysplasia could be seen on rare occasions in smaller breeds.

In this condition, the elbow suffers structural defects related to the cartilage. First starts with gradual degradation of the joint causing chronic pain. Unfortunately, it later develops in inflammation and osteoarthritis causing further problems. 

Elbow Dysplasia is a group of multiple disorders in the cartilage and surrounding structures of the elbow joint. These developmental disorders are named as fragmented medial coronoid process (FCP), ununited anconeal process (UAP), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), and elbow incongruity.

OCD occurs when there is failure of endochondral ossification or osteochondrosis leading to cartilage thickening and fissure formation. Factors that predispose this are such as diet, rapid growth, hormonal imbalance, trauma and genetics. As a consequence, you will also see UAP and FCP.

When there is joint incongruity, leading to increased pressure on the anconeus, it is known as UAP. Now the underlying pathophysiology of FCP is unknown but is believed to be secondary to elbow incongruity or a form of osteochondrosis. 

Signs of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Signs tend to show up in dogs between 6 and 9 months of age. FCP may be present in older dogs with degenerative joint disease. They often present with a history of limping on one or both forelimbs which will worsen during exercise. Dogs with bilateral elbow problems might not be limping bur present with stiffness in both front legs. On palpation of the limbs, you will see expressions of pain and discomfort. Often pet owners notice a reluctance to play or take long walks.

Diagnosis of Elbow Dysplasia

Taking radiographs of the elbow is the standard means of diagnosing this condition. However, there are times you will not see changes on x-rays with early signs so the clinician will require the use of advanced imaging like nuclear scintigraphy, CT, MRI, and ultrasonography. If lesions are not identified with the mentioned tools, arthroscopy may help identify subtle lesions.

Treatment of Elbow Dysplasia

At identification of symptoms in the elbow, the veterinarian will prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the pain. Exercise will be restricted to short leash walks for 4-6 weeks. Then a referral to a veterinary surgeon is considered for further evaluation. 

In persistently lame dogs with elbow dysplasia, treatment tends to involve removal of UAP FCP or OCD which will result in an improvement in limb movement. When there is elbow incongruity, surgery to improve congruity will help minimize ongoing damage to the joint. However, once the degenerative joint disease starts it will progress in this condition.  

Rehabilitation after Surgery

A personalized rehabilitation program is as important as successful surgery in achieving a satisfying long-term outcome. But rehabilitation doesn’t only play a major role in surgical cases it’s beneficial effects should not be underestimated in conservatively managed cases too.

  • Laser therapy can help to reduce swelling and pain after surgery. It also stimulates healing processes.
  • Physiotherapy helps to strengthen the musculature and improves joint mobility.
  • Acupuncture can alleviate pain and promotes healing. It can also help to relax tight musculature which is a constant source of pain
  • Hydrotherapy helps to strengthen your dog’s musculature without putting too much load on the affected joints.

Elbow Arthritis

Unfortunately, many dogs will develop osteoarthritis in spite of surgical intervention. Some studies even come to the conclusion that the development of arthritic changes do not differ between surgical and non-surgical cases.

Osteoarthritis is one of the most commonly diagnosed medical conditions in our canine companions. The disease which is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) leads to restricted movement and mobility issues. When a dog is diagnosed with osteoarthritis, it means that the affected joint is in a state of chronic inflammation and pain.

Complementary Therapies for Secondary Elbow Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disorder. Even until today no cure has been found to stop the disease process entirely. As arthritis can’t be cured we have to learn how to manage it to make our dog’s life as comfortable as possible.

Here is what we can do to alleviate the symptoms of elbow arthritis:

  • Weight loss is the easiest and most powerful ways to treat arthritis. A 9% reduction in body mass will significantly improve mobility in a overweigh dog.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids have been proven to have an anti-inflammatory effect and should be given long-term.
  • Acupuncture helps to bring down the inflammation and reduces the pain level.
  • Physiotherapy and Hydrotherapy help to improve joint mobility.
  • Home and Exercise Modifications are essential to avoid re-injury and give your dog the best possible quality of life.

Home & Exercise Adaptions 

Ensuring that your arthritic dog has a stable and comfortable environment can go a long way to helping them manage their condition. Consider making changes to the following: 


Climbing stairs can be a difficult task when your joints are inflamed and painful. Access should be limited through the use of gates or closed doors. If the stairs are hardwood or another material that can be slippery, consider adding something like stick on carpeting to help provide a less slippery surface. 

If possible, provide your dog with support (like a harness) as they come and go on stairs. 


Like the stairs, if your flooring is hard and slippery, consider putting down non-slip carpeting to help provide your dog with something to grip while trying to walk. 


There have been many advances made in the field of bedding and not just for humans! Many companies make supportive bedding, often constructed from memory foam, for dogs with osteoarthritis. 

Not all memory foam or supportive beds are the same so be sure to do your research and read reviews before making a purchase. Consider a bed that is large enough for your dog but that isn’t too high and difficult to get in and out of. 

Install Ramps 

Ramps can be installed over short stairways to help your dog come and go. Additionally, if your dog frequently rides in the car or sleeps in your bed, consider lightweight ramps that can help them climb in and out.

Should My Dog Still Exercise If They Have Arthritis? 

Yes, it’s important for dogs with arthritis to keep moving. This will help them to retain their muscle mass and it will help to prevent stiff joints. It’s important for the exercise to be low-impact. Consider the following:


If there is a safe and clean place to take your pet swimming nearby and they enjoy this activity, do it! The water helps to support your pet’s weight and also prevents them from making any extreme, quick movements. 


Walking is gentle enough to be a good form of exercise for arthritic pets. Be sure to start out slow and let your pet warm up. Don’t let them run or leap and try to avoid stairs or sharp inclines. 

Exercise should be done for 15-30 minutes every day. 

Understanding your dog’s pain tolerance level is key. Many dogs will power through the pain and do further damage to their joints simply because they are excited. Even if they are thrilled about participating in high-impact sports like frisbee or agility, they will likely feel serious discomfort later on. 

When combined with supportive treatment options such as acupuncture and pain medication if needed, these adjustments to your home and exercise routine could help ease your dog’s pain. 

Author: Dr. Felix Wilsmann, IVAS, IVCA

Links: https://atlantic-points.com/elbow-dysplasia-in-dogs/


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