Elbow dysplasia in dogs

4 December 2023 - 5 min read
a bulldog being examined for elbow dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is the term used to describe abnormal formation or development of the elbow joint.

It’s fairly common. ManyPets paid out £751.51 on average for elbow dysplasia claims in the 12 months up to November 2023. But if surgery is needed treatment costs 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:

  • The humerus

  • The radius

  • The ulna

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 your dog’s 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 osteochondritis dissecans (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:

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.

How much does elbow dysplasia surgery cost for dogs in the UK?

If surgery is 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 November 2023 we found prices of:

  • £2,855 (including CT scan) at Abingdon Park Referrals

  • £2,000 at Frank Pet Surgeons

  • £1,643 at West Mindlands Veterinary Referrals

  • £2,000 at Paragon Veterinary Referrals

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.

Alternatives to elbow dysplasia surgery

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 speciality 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.

Does pet insurance cover elbow dysplasia?

It’s a good idea to take out insurance for your dog while they’re young and healthy. That way, if they’re later hit with a diagnosis like elbow dysplasia, you’ll have help with the cost of expensive surgeries and ongoing pain medication.

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 pharmacycould dispense your pet's elbow dysplasia medication and make their treatment more affordable than buying it directly from your vet.

Veterinary surgeon Dr Kirsten Ronngren joined ManyPets in 2022. Alongside her extensive experience as a vet in small animal and feline-only clinics, Kirsten is passionate about online content creation. Kirsten’s a regular on ManyPets’ social media and video content with her no-nonsense attitude to keeping our customers’ pets happy and well.