Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs
Written by Shula Berg BVSc CertAVP(GSAS) GPAdvCert(SASTS) MRCVS
Clinically reviewed by Elizabeth McLennan-Green BVM&S CertAVP(SAM) MRCVS
Table of Contents
The canine elbow joint is made up of three bones; the humerus, the radius and the ulna, which form a complex joint. Dysplasia means “abnormal growth”, and elbow dysplasia is an umbrella term used to describe a group of developmental abnormalities. Most dogs affected by elbow dysplasia have one or two of the described components, but never all.
The conditions which fall under the term “elbow dysplasia” include the following:
The coronoid process is a bony protuberance on the ulna which is situated in the centre of the elbow joint. Although it is a small area of bone, its location means a lot of weight is transferred through it during standing. In dogs with coronoid disease, part of this process doesn’t fully join to the body of the ulna during growth. It is held in place by cartilage, which coats the surface of the bone, however, over time it cracks, fragments, and can detach completely. This unstable piece of bone can cause great discomfort during walking and running, often described as similar to having a small pebble in your shoe. Coronoid disease is more common in Labradors and Rottweilers.
Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD)
OCD is a disorder affecting the junction between cartilage and bone. Inside a joint, a layer of cartilage covers the bone to protect it and cushion the joint, with the deeper layers of cartilage merging into the bone itself. In OCD, these deeper layers don’t develop properly, and the cells eventually die off. This happens in a small (5-10mm) area and eventually causes the affected patch of cartilage to detach, becoming a flap. This catches in the joint and is uncomfortable. OCD is more common in Labradors and Golden Retrievers.
Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
The anconeal process is a triangular shaped area of bone attached to the ulna, which sits at the back of the elbow joint. In some breeds of dog this develops as a separate piece of bone which fuses to the body of the ulna by 5 months of age. In a small number of dogs, this fusion is incomplete, leading to a loose fragment of bone. This is uncomfortable, causing lameness. UAP occurs most commonly in German Shepherds and other large breeds.
Incongruity means that there is a difference or disparity – with the term elbow incongruity we mean that the three bones which make up the elbow joint are not aligned correctly. If two or more of these bones fail to line up properly the joint will not move smoothly and will be uncomfortable. There are various reasons for elbow joint incongruity. Sometimes it is linked to the conditions previously described, however, it can be due to other growth disorders or be a primary condition in its own right.
As elbow dysplasia is developmental, most dogs will first become lame at 6-12 months of age. All components of elbow dysplasia present similarly, and often cannot be distinguished on exam alone.
Over time, elbow dysplasia leads to development of arthritis, causing pain and lameness. Typically, dogs with arthritis demonstrate stiffness rather than overt limping, and this is often worse after rest. Dogs with arthritis due to elbow dysplasia often start showing symptoms from around 6 years of age.
Often, we have a high index of suspicion of elbow dysplasia due to the dog’s breed, age and history. The first step in diagnosis is radiography (x-rays) of both elbows. Sometimes this shows us the abnormality very clearly, however changes affecting the internal aspects of the elbow joint may not be visible on x-ray due to superimposition of the bones. UAP is the only component of elbow dysplasia that can be reliably diagnosed on x-ray, though OCD can often be seen.
If radiography is not diagnostic, the next step is a CT scan. CT creates a 3D image of the joint, so enables the inside of the joint to be visualised as clearly as the outside. CT is ideal to identify coronoid disease, confirm OCD, and diagnose incongruity. Occasionally, your vet may have a high enough index of suspicion for elbow dysplasia that they recommend a CT scan without radiographs first.
Examination of the joint, either arthroscopically (using a camera) or at surgery, may be required to assess the cartilage. This is most likely to be advised in cases of coronoid disease or OCD.
Due to the complex nature of elbow dysplasia, and the multiple conditions it can include, it is difficult to summarise treatment. For some components of elbow dysplasia there is debate between specialists about the most effective treatment, and there are many newer treatments being developed.
Some parts of elbow dysplasia are treated surgically, such as a UAP which can be screwed back in place, or an OCD lesion in which the cartilage flap can be removed. Treatment of coronoid disease is the area most under debate, and your vet will recommend what they feel is most appropriate for your dog as an individual. Since elbow dysplasia is so complex, and a developing field, referral to an orthopaedic specialist may be advised.
In general terms, dogs with elbow dysplasia should not be allowed to become overweight. Supplements can be used to help with joint health, and physiotherapy or hydrotherapy used to build muscle mass. Medication such as anti-inflammatories may be used for short periods or sometimes as a long-term management solution to alleviate joint pain.
In general, the long-term prognosis for dogs with elbow dysplasia is reasonable. Dogs with elbow dysplasia will develop arthritis in the joint at some point in their life, though early diagnosis and treatment aims to limit this. Many dogs live an active and happy life even with arthritis. Your vet will be able to assess and monitor your pet’s journey and advise if intervention is needed.
Please note that the content made available on this webpage is for general information purposes only. Whilst we try to ensure that at the time of writing all material is up to date and reflects industry standards, we make no representation, warranties or guarantees that the information made available is up to date, accurate or complete. Any reliance placed by yourselves is done so at your own risk.
Page last reviewed: 16th January 2024
Next review due: 16th January 2026