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Key takeaways

Elbow dysplasia in cats is a group of abnormalities that affect the elbow joints of the front limbs.  

  • In cats, elbow dysplasia is very rare but can lead to lameness and drastically affect quality of life
  • The most noticeable symptom of elbow dysplasia is mild lameness of the front limbs and swelling of the elbow
  • Diagnosis involves diagnostic imaging (X-ray, CT, or arthroscopy) of the elbow
  • Definitive treatment consists of open joint surgery
  • Milder cases might be managed with medications, such as anti-inflammatories
  • Early diagnosis and treatment create the best chance for a positive outcome
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A closer look: Elbow Dysplasia in Cats

The elbow consists of the meeting of three bones; the ulna, the radius, and the humerus. These three bones usually grow at the same speed and fit together perfectly, forming the elbow joint. Elbow dysplasia happens when one or more of these bones does not develop normally. Misalignment of the bones within the joint causes friction between them and within the joint cavity. Left untreated, the rubbing between misaligned bones causes wear and tear and inflammation, leading to arthritis, which can be debilitating and very painful.

In cats, the signs of elbow dysplasia might become visible at a young age, or in the middle or latter stage of life. Lameness is usually followed by lethargy and reclusiveness, symptoms that sometimes might be mistaken for aging indicators.

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Risk factors

Left untreated, elbow dysplasia inevitably leads to chronic, more severe arthritis of the elbow.

Elbow dysplasia is extremely rare in cats. The condition affects kittens early in development and the prospect of crippling arthritis in such young cats can be alarming. Elbow dysplasia is not a life-threatening condition, but it deeply affects quality of life. The best outcome generally comes from early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

Possible causes

Most cases have a genetic origin, but traumatic injuries early in life while bones are still growing can also lead to elbow dysplasia.

Main symptoms

The first and major symptom is mild lameness in the front limbs.

Testing and diagnosis

The diagnostic process consists of diagnostic imaging (X-rays or a CT scan) of the elbow. Sometimes, surgery is necessary for a complete diagnosis. This usually involves the use of an arthroscope: a small camera inserted in the joints. The diagnosis might prove difficult as the condition is so rare in cats.

Steps to Recovery

Treatment can be divided into two categories.

Symptom relief is recommended for cats with well established arthritis or mild symptoms. Anti-inflammatories are also usually prescribed along with a diet rich in Omega-3 and supplements.

Surgical repair is often the preferred treatment. Arthroscopy can work both as a diagnostic tool and as a treatment. Sometimes, open joint surgery is necessary. Early surgical treatment is generally considered the best therapy to minimize arthritis complications.

Even with successful treatment, management of elbow dysplasia is life-long. Most afflicted patients suffer from chronic arthritis and it inevitably affects quality of life.


Prevention proves extremely difficult as elbow dysplasia is a developmental condition. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment increase the chances of successful management. Due to the genetic nature of this condition, affected cats might be unsuitable for breeding purposes.

As with all inflammatory disorders of the joints, weight management helps to alleviate symptoms and provides the best quality of life. Joint degeneration due to arthritis is more rapid in obese cats than those with an ideal body weight.

Is Elbow Dysplasia in Cats common?

Elbow dysplasia is an extremely rare condition in cats, while it is far more common in dogs.

Typical Treatment

  • Surgery
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Supplements
  • Weight management


Greg Harasen, DVM - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Becky Lundgren, DVM - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Joseph Harari , MS, DVM, DACVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Joseph Harari , MS, DVM, DACVS - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual

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