Elbow dysplasia in dogs is considered the leading cause of canine forelimb lameness. Elbow dysplasia
is a general term meaning arthritis of the elbow, that encompasses several conditions of the elbow
joint, including fragmented coronoid process (FCP), ununited anconeal process (UAP), osteochondritis
dessicans, and joint incongruity. All of these are causes of elbow dysplasia, but are different conditions
with their own distinct pathophysiology.
Fragmented coronoid process – condition in which a small piece of bone on the inner side of the joint
breaks off the ulna. The fragment irritates the joint and wears away the cartilage of the humerus.
Ununited anconeal process – condition in which a fragment of bone on the back side of the joint has
failed to unite with the ulna during growth.
Osteochondritis dessicans – OCD is a condition in which a piece of cartilage becomes partially or fully
detached from the surface of the elbow joint. This results in inflammation of the lining of the joint and
Joint incongruity – a condition where the joint does not have the correct conformation and the cartilage
of the joint wears out rapidly. This leads to progressive arthritis.
Elbow dysplasia primarily affects medium and large breed dogs, and clinical signs manifest as puppies,
usually between 5-8 months of age. However, dogs can be brought in at any age suffering from
osteoarthritis secondary to one of the causes of elbow dysplasia. A high incidence of occurrence
has been noted in Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, and
Labrador Retrievesr. Other breeds affected are the Newfoundland, Saint Bernard, Mastiff, Springer
Spaniel, Australian Shepherd , Chow Chow, Shar-Pei, Shetland Sheepdog, and some Terrier breeds.
Typically, both elbows are affected, but dysplasia can be unilateral.
All dogs with elbow dysplasia will have forelimb lameness, although the degree may vary. It usually gets
worse after exercise, and the animal seems stiff when getting up from resting, and will tire easily. The
dog will typically stand with the elbows held close to the body, and the paws rotated outward. (show
picture of standing dog with elbow dysplasia) The joint(s) may appear thickened or swollen, and the
dog may resist manipulation of the elbow. He/she will have a decreased range of and arthritis often
develops in the abnormal joint over time.
Your veterinarian can diagnose elbow dysplasia based on the history, clinical signs, and a complete
physical exam, as well as radiographs of the elbow(s). A CT scan and/or arthroscopy may also be
performed, since they are more accurate than traditional x-rays.
All forms of elbow dyplasia are hereditary, and are genetically inherited rather than caused by injury or
trauma. There is also some evidence that nutrition plays a role in the development of elbow dysplasia,
because diets that promote rapid growth can lead to OCD, which is one of the causes of elbow dysplasia.
Because elbow dysplasia is a progressive condition, surgery is often the best option for affected dogs, in
combination with medical management. Dogs with elbow dysplasia benefit from physical therapy and
anti-inflammatories. In cases where the dysplasia is due to an ununited anconeal process or fragmented
coronoid process, surgery is performed to remove these damaging bone fragments. OCD and FCP can
also be treated with arthroscopic surgery. In cases where joint incongruity – the failure of the bones to
grow synchronously – is the cause, surgery may be performed to alter the lengths and curvature of the
radius and ulna.
Elbow dysplasia is primarily and inherited disorder, so responsible and selective breeding is important.
For breeds prone to this condition, feeding a diet that promotes slow, steady growth rather than rapid
growth is critical. As with any orthopedic condition, disease progression can be slowed with proper
weight management, which will decrease stress on the joint and slow the development of arthritis in
the joint. If your dog is diagnosed with elbow dysplasia, regular veterinary exams are important for
monitoring the progression of the disease.
If your dog is a candidate for surgery, the best prognosis comes with early treatment. Many dogs with
elbow dysplasia function well as pets, but even after surgery will not be suitable working or agility dogs.
If arthroscopic surgery is performed, most dogs will begin using the limb the same day as the surgery,
and after 2-3 months, the dog should be using the limb well and lameness is significantly reduced.
Recovery is somewhat variable between dogs, especially if arthritis is present. Most of the dogs with an
ununited anconeal process will be helped with surgery – about 60% return to normal function, 30% are
improved, while 10% do not improve with surgery. Approximately 75% of the dogs with a fragmented
coronoid process or OCD of the elbow will benefit from surgery. Because surgery will not remove the
arthritis that is already present in the joint, some pets may have some stiffness or lameness after very
heavy exercise or during cool, damp weather conditions. Additionally, dogs that have dramatically
swollen elbows prior to surgery tend to have a lower success rate.