Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Need a New Elbow?

Pet Column for the week of January 28, 2008

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

Most dog owners have heard of hip dysplasia--a genetic disease that shows up in young, large breeds like Labradors, golden retrievers, and German shepherds. Thanks to breeders screening parents-to-be and owners requiring radiographic proof that the parents of their puppy are hip dysplasia-free, the incidence of the disease has been on the decline.

But just as in life as soon as you've put out one fire, another flares up. Now it's elbow dysplasia that's in need of a fire hose. In February, Dr. Wanda Gordon-Evans, a veterinary surgeon and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, will begin offering total elbow replacement surgery for dogs with elbow dysplasia. She is the only veterinarian in the Midwest to offer this revolutionary surgery.

According to Dr. Wanda Gordon-Evans, "elbow dysplasia refers to various problems that cause pain and inflammation in young dogs." This leads to arthritis. Elbow dysplasia is an inherited, genetic disease just like the more commonly known disorder found in hips. Usually, owners of afflicted pets complain that their dog is painful and has difficulty getting around. Veterinarians can confirm a diagnosis with radiographs (x-rays) or a CT scan.

If caught while the pet is still young, surgery can be performed to help slow the progression of arthritis and decrease pain in the short term. However, arthritis continues to progress over the dog's life. Pain can be controlled with medicine in some elbow dysplasia patients. Unfortunately, in many cases even the strongest dose does not provide enough comfort for the animal, and owners are left to consider euthanasia for the sake of their pet's quality of life.

However, Dr. Gordon-Evans can now provide pet owners with another option--surgery. She explains that, "the typical candidate for total elbow replacement surgery is lame 80 percent of the time and is severely affected by daily pain despite drug therapy." Although elbow dysplasia usually presents itself by 18 months of age, most of the patients she sees are middle-aged since other therapies are tried first.

Dr. Mike Conzemius invented this surgery just a few years ago while Dr. Gordon-Evans was completing her residency with him at Iowa State University. Despite how new the procedure is, success rates are high. "Eighty percent of the dogs improve greatly after surgery," says Dr. Gordon-Evans. The surgery itself usually takes about two to three hours, and the dog goes home approximately two days later. While your pooch is catching up on its sleep in the operating room, its entire elbow joint will be removed and replaced with a synthetic one.

Although the chance of your canine companion becoming an all-star athlete after surgery is slim (it probably won't be the next Air Bud), it should be able to lead a nearly pain-free life. The implant used is made from the same materials as human joint replacements and will last a lifetime. Although elbow dysplasia usually starts at a young age, dogs need to be almost full grown, or around one year old, for the procedure to allow their growth plates to close.

A large dog with severe elbow dysplasia is certainly not a happy one. Going for a long walk or a game of fetch is definitely out of the question. With the help of an expert surgeon and a small implant, there is a good chance Fido will be out chasing that squirrel again in just a few weeks.

For more information about elbow dysplasia, contact your local veterinarian.