Elbow dysplasia in dogs

September 11, 2022 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
a bulldog being examined for elbow dysplasia
a bulldog being examined for elbow dysplasia

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

It’s fairly common. Here's what you need to know.

What Causes Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

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 weight plays a role in the severity of clinical signs.

Over the years, the label elbow dysplasia has been somewhat 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 pressure 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 Breeds 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:

limping labrador elbow dysplasia

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 in life, even between four and six months old, although they may not be diagnosed until several years old.

Diagnosing 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-rays) 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, the owner's preference, and what your vet recommends.

If you decide medical management is right for your dog, the limit refreshes each year when you renew, so it can keep paying for treatment year after year.


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.

How Much Does Elbow Dysplasia Surgery Cost?

The cost of proximal ulnar osteotomy surgery is usually in the thousands. 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.

Medical Management Options

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 initially caused the issue, 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 that most pets have options for providing relief throughout their lifetime.

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.