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Elbow Dysplasia: When Fido's Funny Bone Makes Him Limp


Pet Column for the week of June 9, 2003


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Joint disease is a problem faced by many canines today. Hip dysplasia is the one most people are familiar with as a cause of rear limb lameness. Its front limb counterpart is elbow dysplasia.

"Elbow dysplasia has only been recognized as a disease in the last 10-15 years. In contrast hip dysplasia has been diagnosed for the last 30 or 40 years," explains Dr. Diane Dunning, a veterinary orthopedic specialist formerly at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Dysplasia simply means a developmental abnormality, it can be in the size, shape, or formation. Elbow dysplasia is a combination of four developmental abnormalities: an ununited anconeal process, osteochondrodystrophy (OCD) of the distal humoral condyle, a fragmented medial coronoid process, and elbow incongruity. Dogs may have just one abnormality or all four.

In English, the anconeal and coronoid processes are bony bumps on the ulna located near the elbow. The ulna is the arm bone that runs from your pinky finger to the elbow. The humoral condyle is a bump found at the end of the humerus near the elbow. The humorus is the large arm bone extending from the shoulder to the elbow. Problems with the humoral condyle and coronoid process are due to abnormal cartilage formation. Sometimes the bones do not fit together properly resulting in elbow incongruity or an ununited anconeal process.

"The classic presentation of elbow dysplasia is an active large breed dog. Rottweilers are the posterchild of this disease. Other commonly affected breeds are Bernese Mountain dogs, Laboradors, and Golden Retrievers. There is a breeder certification process and an elbow registry. It is important to check your breeder's certification to insure that elbow dysplasia is not present in their breeding line," comments Dr. Dunning. Problems usually begin around 6 months of age or older.

Owners will notice their dogs are lame in the forelimb. Generally one leg appears worse than the other. Both front legs are affected 30-60% of the time. "There is often swelling of the joint and dogs usually exhibit pain on range of motion," says Dr. Dunning.

Arthroscopic surgery is the most common treatment. Dogs who elect to have surgery have a better overall prognosis, a fair to excellent chance of return to normal function. "The prognosis for each dog varies. It depends on the severity of the disease, if there is lots of incongruity no amount of surgery will completely fix it," says Dr. Dunning.

Post operative care is the most important factor in the success of a surgery. After surgical correction of elbow dysplasia strict cage rest for 4-6 weeks is necessary. Strict cage rest means the dog spends all of its time in the cage except for short walks on leash.

Absolutely no playing is allowed! This sounds mean and most owners take pity on their canine friends but keeping the dog off that elbow is the best thing you can do for your dog. A slow return to normal activity is best. Most dogs are also given anti-inflammatory drugs to aid the healing process.

"Later in life dogs with elbow dysplasia will develop some degree of Degenerative Joint Disease, a form of arthritis. They are more likely to have arthritis than dogs who have never had previous problems. Dogs who have had elbow dysplasia surgery develop arthritis later than dogs with untreated elbow dysplasia. Also the arthritis is less severe," states Dr. Dunning.

If you have questions about elbow dysplasia contact your local veterinarian for more information.