elbow dysplasia

Knowing the signs of elbow dysplasia, getting a diagnosis, and establishing an integrative treatment plan limits damage, relieves pain and inflammation, and improves quality of life.

Elbow dysplasia is an orthopedic condition affecting the elbow joint in dogs and puppies. The canine elbow is a front limb joint formed by the convergence of three bones — the tibia, fibula and humerus. This trio of bones creates a hinge joint, permitting elbow extension and flexion. Dysplasia refers to the abnormal formation of a body part; with elbow dysplasia, the dog or puppy’s tibia, fibula and/or humerus come together improperly and form an abnormal joint.

Typically, in elbow dysplasia, one or all of the bones forming the elbow fracture, and/or the cartilage covering the interior joint surface becomes damaged, causing arthritis (joint inflammation) and pain. When left unresolved, arthritis can progress to degenerative joint disease or DJD, in which joint surfaces become irregular and range of motion and mobility are likely to be permanently compromised.

What are the clinical signs?

The development and maturation stages of a dog’s life are the most common times when elbow dysplasia occurs. Growing puppies and young adult dogs less than 12 months of age are typically affected.

Clinical signs of elbow dysplasia are generally seen in, but are not exclusive to, the front limbs. A dog or puppy may exhibit lameness, an inability to completely flex or extend the affected limb, swelling of the elbow joint, or a reluctance to go down stairs or get off elevated surfaces (couch, bed, etc.). Other signs include vocalization, lethargy, decreased appetite, a reduced willingness to play and interact with other pets and people, and more.

How is elbow dysplasia treated?

The primary goal is to manage pain and improve the dog’s quality of life. Treatment of elbow dysplasia often requires collaboration between a general practice veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary surgeon, and veterinarians trained in complementary and alternative medical therapies.

Activity restriction and rest are crucial when treating elbow dysplasia and other disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Dogs must avoid activities in which the elbow bears weight, especially going down stairs or getting off elevated surfaces, jumping, playing and running. Generally, strict cage rest for weeks to months at a time is required.

Mainstream medselbow dysplasia

Conventionally, veterinary prescription pain medications are the first line of choice when treating elbow dysplasia. NSAIDs and related medications address the issue of inflammation and help with swelling and pain. Drugs with more of a pain-numbing effect, including opiates like Fentanyl, Methadone, and Tramadol, GABA-analogues like Gabapentin, and others may be used in conjunction with NSAIDs or as a sole means of treatment.

Integrative treatment

My veterinary practice is all about multi-modal pain management, as I strive to keep my patients comfortable and make their joints healthier so that less medication is needed. Doing so involves using multiple modalities, including supplements, herbs, and other therapies.

  • Commonly used supplements include chondro-protectants, food-derived substances that can enhance cartilage health. They include glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM, phycocyanin, and others. Injectable chondro-protectants are prescription medications, and are generally more effective than oral products as there’s no need for absorption from the digestive tract. The medication moves from the site of injection through the blood and into the joint, within a few hours.
  • Omega 3 and 9 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect when a body weight-appropriate dose is consistently given. Dogs best absorb and utilize Omega fatty acids that come from animal sources like fish oil, as compared to vegetarian sources. Always refrigerate fish oil once opened (even in capsule form) to prevent spoilage; otherwise, the effectiveness is reduced, and the dog may become unwilling to ingest it.
  • Herbs like ginger, celery root, and turmeric can have a natural anti-inflammatory effect. Boswellia is a potent antioxidant that can reduce tissue damage.
  • Acupuncture can improve blood flow, tissue oxygenation, the release of pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory hormones, and have a general calming effect. Needle, electrostimulation, moxibustion, laser, and other forms of acupuncture can be used to help your dog’s elbow dysplasia.
  • Provided your dog’s condition is stable enough for activity, physical rehabilitation may be used to improve his range of motion, flexibility and muscle strength. I refer my patients to practitioners certified in animal physical rehabilitation so a plan can be created for in-facility and at-home care. Underwater or above-ground treadmills, swimming, balance boards, inflatable exercise tools, warm and cold compresses, laser therapy, extracorporeal shock therapy, and other modalities can be used by rehabilitation experts.
  • If deemed necessary, the best means of treating your dog’s elbow dysplasia may be surgery. You should consult with a board certified veterinary surgeon to determine if surgery or other novel treatment, such as stem cell and platelet rich plasma therapies, should be pursued.

Hopefully, your dog or puppy won’t develop a life-altering orthopedic condition like elbow dysplasia. But should it arise, make sure to partner with your primary veterinarian and one or more veterinary specialists so that a team of therapeutic minds will focus their energies on enhancing your dog’s quality of life.


Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is a certified veterinary acupuncturist from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. His practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness, offers integrative medicine. Dr. Mahaney writes a veterinary blog for patrickmahaney.com and is working on his first book, The Uncomfortable Vet.