Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Elbow dysplasia (ED) describes a group of developmental conditions which results in the bones of the elbow joint not fitting together perfectly. 

• Dogs with ED usually present with forelimb lameness and pain around the elbows

• Other symptoms include reluctance to exercise, walk downstairs, or jump down from even relatively low heights 

• ED frequently affects both elbows which can make lameness more subtle, with affected dogs shifting their body weight between the forelimbs to reduce discomfort

• Investigation of ED involves physical examination and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment options include pain medication, exercise management, weight loss, joint supplements, physio/hydrotherapy, and surgery

• Prognosis is good for reducing elbow pain and improving quality of life, however, ED is a progressive condition and long term prognosis varies depending on severity, age of onset, and adherence to ongoing management protocols

A Closer Look: What is Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs?

ED often impacts both sides of the body (bilateral) which often makes lameness less obvious. Dogs with bilateral ED are more likely to present with a subtle shifting of weight between the forelimbs and reluctance to jump or climb down from a height. Diagnosis is most common between 5-18 months old

Risk Factors

ED is commonly seen in young large breed dogs. It is a degenerative condition where symptoms are mild and intermittent in the early stages, but progress over time and significantly impact quality of life. While ED is not a fatal condition, some cases result in euthanasia once pain can no longer be managed effectively. Cases of forelimb lameness should be presented for veterinary assessment.

Possible Causes

ED results from a combination of genetic inheritance which predisposes to the disease, and environmental factors such as obesity, diet, and exercise, which determine the speed and severity of onset.

Main Symptoms

• Forelimb lameness (limping)Reluctance to move downstairs or jump down from even a low height

Reduction in exercise tolerance • Shifting weight between the forelimbs (joint pain)

Testing and Diagnosis

Investigation of ED includes:

• Physical examination to localize pain to the elbow

• Diagnostic imaging using a combination of x rays, CT scan and arthroscopy

• Laboratory testing including joint fluid analysis

Steps to Recovery

Management of ED involves treatment of pain and improving elbow function.

Conservative management of ED includes:

• Pain relieving medication • Exercise management • Body weight control • Physio/hydrotherapy

• Joint supplements

There are multiple surgical options available to address ED, including removal of bone fragments from the elbow. Other surgical options for ED are numerous but have variable or uncertain outcomes.

ED is not curable and requires lifelong management. Outcomes vary depending on severity, age of onset, and lifestyle factors such as bodyweight. Most dogs improve with treatment and have a reasonable quality of life. In some cases, pain management is eventually less effective and euthanasia becomes the only humane outcome.


ED is a heritable condition. Screening tests are available to detect dogs with, or at risk of, ED. Dogs with ED should not be bred to prevent passing on the gene. In dogs with predisposing factors, managing body weight, exercise demands, and adhering to a nutritionally balanced, vet approved diet, can help reduce the likelihood and/or severity of ED symptoms developing.

Is Elbow Dysplasia Common in Dogs?

The prevalence of ED varies between breeds. It is more common in young, large breed dogs. Specific breeds with a high disposition to ED include Labrador retriever, Newfoundland, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, English Springer Spaniel, and Golden retriever.

Typical Treatment

Treatment of ED includes:

• Medication - pain relief • Exercise management • Bodyweight management • Physio/hydrotherapy

• Joint supplements • Surgery

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