How to Spot and Treat Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

If your young dog bobs his head when he walks, then you need to know about elbow dysplasia.

Feeding a puppy too much too soon could raise his chances of developing elbow dysplasia. By: localpups

If you have a young, large-breed dog who has intermittent foreleg lameness, then you need to know about elbow dysplasia.

This is the most common cause of foreleg lameness in young dogs and can lead to premature arthritis, which then negatively affects the dog’s enjoyment of life. Getting the problem sorted out early could prevent this from happening.

Here are some important facts to know.


What Is Elbow Dysplasia?

This is an umbrella term for several anatomical problems that affect the elbow, a complex joint that comprises 3 bones that must mesh together perfectly to form a pain-free hinge.

Common reasons for elbow dysplasia:

  • One bone grows too slow or too fast
  • Badly shaped bones
  • Abnormal loading on the joint
  • Micro fractures beneath the joint surface
  • Chips of bone break off from the joint surface

Unfortunately, the condition gets steadily worse over time as the damage and inflammation worsen the joint’s ability to hinge smoothly and without pain.


Does your dog’s head bob up and down as he walks?

If so, your dog has foreleg lameness. This may have nothing to do with his elbow (he may just have a splinter in his paw), but if the lameness persists, tell your veterinarian.

Most dogs with elbow dysplasia have a long-term limp in a front leg. Often they can fetch and are full of life, but they either are limp or stiff when getting out of bed.

Your vet’s suspicions are raised if the dog has pain in the elbow when the leg moves in a certain way. To investigate, the vet may X-ray the leg, but in the early stages of dysplasia the results are often inconclusive. This is because X-rays are not sensitive enough to pick up micro fractures or show damage to the joint surface.

Large-breed dogs may be more susceptible than others are to developing elbow dysplasia. By: jwillier

The gold standard tests are an MRI or a CT scan and endoscopy of the joint. These give a full picture of the bone and joint surface, which helps clinicians advise whether surgery could help or if medical therapy is the best way forward.


This condition is genetic and transferred from parents to puppies. Experts believe there are more than 100 genes that code for elbow development, and it takes only 1 error to place a dog at risk.

However, not all dogs with a gene coding for dysplasia go on to develop disease. Some are just unlucky, while others have a helping hand to push them over the edge.

These risk factors include:

  • Being overweight as a puppy: Carrying extra weight places a strain on the elbows.
  • Too much exercise: Over-strenuous or over-tiring exercise while the bones are still developing can cause damage, such as chipped cartilage or micro fractures.
  • Growing too rapidly: Feeding an over-rich diet that forces the puppy to grow too big too quickly can damage the joints.

Plenty of dogs develop elbow dysplasia who were slim puppies and exercised sensibly. Sometimes things are just beyond our control.

Watch this quick clip of a dog with elbow dysplasia in action:


A veterinarian must accurately diagnose the condition first to find which part of the elbow is faulty — then he or she can decide if surgery is an option. Many of the problems causing dysplasia have specific operations that may make a difference.

If surgery isn’t an option, the following treatment may be appropriate:

  • Weight management: Slimming down sometimes makes a big difference so the elbows then carry less weight.
  • Pain relief: Painkillers from the NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) group are effective and have a good safety profile.
  • Physiotherapy: Methods such as physiotherapy, massage and hydrotherapy help keep the joint supple and strengthen the supporting muscles.
  • New therapies: These include emerging techniques such as stem cell therapy or platelet rich plasma, which show promise.


Ultimately, reducing the risk of elbow dysplasia lies in the hands of breeders working in cooperation with screening programs to eliminate the condition.

Current practice involves taking radiographs of the elbows of the mother and father and breeding only from dogs with healthy elbows. Even this isn’t foolproof — not all damage shows in early life.

Screening parents isn’t always possible with stray or adopted dogs. If you notice the symptoms of elbow dysplasia in your dog, check with your vet to determine what treatment is needed, if any.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Nov. 2, 2018.


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