Elbow dysplasia is the term used to describe abnormal formation or development of the elbow joint.
It’s fairly common. ManyPets paid 1,594 elbow dysplasia claims in 2021 at an average cost of £1,071.16 each. Surgical costs for treatment can easily reach thousands of pounds.
What causes elbow dysplasia?
There are three bones that come together to make up what we know as the elbow:
This makes the elbow a bit more complex when it comes to function compared to most other joints that only involve two bones.
There are a few factors that contribute to elbow dysplasia, but we know that genetics plays a major part. We also know that weight plays a role in the severity of clinical signs.
The label 'elbow dysplasia' over the years has somewhat been used as a blanket term covering several different conditions, all of which result in an abnormal elbow joint. If this joint doesn’t fit together just right, then the pressures and forces on the bone and cartilage will cause inflammation and pain.
Some of the conditions that cause elbow dysplasia include:
a fragmented coronoid process (FCP)
an ununited anconeal process (UAP)
radioulnar incongruity, and osteocondrosis dessicans (OCD)
But in all of these cases, the joint does not fit together appropriately and the forces put upon the abnormal joint lead to damage and arthritis.
Which dogs get elbow dysplasia?
Elbow dysplasia tends to be a concern primarily in large and giant breed dogs, though in theory any breed of dog can be affected.
The breeds that most commonly get elbow dysplasia are:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
A lot of these breeds are also predisposed to hip dysplasia, so it's important to get your dog to a vet if they're limping to find out exactly which joints and bones are the problem.
Symptoms of elbow dysplasia
Symptoms of elbow dysplasia in dogs include:
Lameness (limping), including lameness that worsens after activity but improves with rest
Reluctance to exercise
Increased recovery time after exercise
Abnormal gait (this may be hard for owners to detect as many dogs have both elbows affected)
The symptoms of elbow dysplasia typically revolve around the pain caused by inflammation within the joint. This causes limping.
I have many clients bring their dogs in for lameness (limping) and say, “I don’t think they are in pain”. Unfortunately this is not the case.
Dogs that are limping are almost always doing so because they are uncomfortable. Dogs with elbow dysplasia are no exception.
Usually these pups will start showing symptoms early on in life, even between four-six months old, although they may not be diagnosed until several years old.
Diagnosis of elbow dysplasia in dogs
To determine what specific anatomical changes are the underlying cause, and to confirm elbow dysplasia, imaging is required.
Sometimes changes on radiographs (x-ray) alone may suggest disease is present, but often a CT scan is recommended for a more precise and complete picture.
If your veterinarian suspects elbow dysplasia, they’ll probably refer you to a specialist for a CT scan and to discuss options. Scoping the joint, known as arthroscopy, can also help assess damage within the joint space.
Elbow dysplasia treatments and costs
Elbow dysplasia can be treated in two general ways: medical management of clinical symptoms or surgical intervention.
The route chosen depends on the severity of the symptoms, the severity of the anatomical changes, owner preference, and what your vet recommends.
Lifetime pet insurance with a high policy limit can help with the cost of treatment whichever route you go down.
ManyPets' Complete policy has up to £15,000 of cover, which should be enough to treat really costly conditions like elbow dysplasia.
If you decide medical management's right for your dog, the limit refreshes each year when you renew, so it can keep paying for treatment, year after year.
Check whether an online pharmacy could dispense your pet's elbow dysplasia medication and make their treatment more affordable.
If surgery’s suggested, the type will depend on the anatomy that is causing the abnormal elbow shape in the first place.
For example, in some dogs, cuts can be made in the bone to affect the angles at which the elbow joint comes together. This is the case for dogs that have excessive stress on parts of the ulna because their radius is too short. A surgery called a proximal ulnar osteotomy can be done to improve this by making a cut into the ulna and changing the way the elbow joint sits together.
The cost of proximal ulnar osteotomy surgery is usually in the thousands of pounds. In September 2022 we found prices of:
£2,855 (including CT scan) at a referral vet in Northampton
£1,750 at a vet in Leeds
Other types of elbow surgery can cost even more.
While this surgery cannot reverse arthritic changes that have already started to take place, the goal is to prevent or slow further changes and improve pain associated with the abnormal joint.
In some dogs, surgery is either not an option or not recommended.
For these pups we can use many aspects of medical management including pain relief, weight control, specific exercise regimens that decrease joint stress, joint supplements like omega 3 fatty acids, and physical therapy (such as hydrotherapy).
Some specialty facilities even offer trials of regenerative techniques such as stem cell or PRP therapy.
Life expectancy of dogs with elbow dysplasia
Fear not, our sweet pups with elbow dysplasia can still live long and happy lives.
Quality of life will depend on the aspects discussed above, including what anatomical changes caused the issue initially, how significant those changes are, and what therapies are available.
While unfortunately some pets are severely impacted and the joint disease that results may be bad enough that quality of life has to be evaluated sooner than we would hope, the good news is most pets have options on providing relief throughout their lifetime.