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Written by Vet Evidence Based

Hip And Elbow Dysplasia In Dogs: Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

Margarita Boyd
Written by: Dr. Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS
Hip and elbow dysplasia are painful health conditions that can appear in dogs of any breed. Learn how to deal with this genetic condition by using this guide.

Hip and elbow dysplasia are painful conditions that can cause swelling, abnormal joint development and eventually arthritis in dogs.

These conditions most commonly affect medium to large breed dogs, and often they inherit them from one of their parents.

The symptoms usually start when the dog is growing as a puppy, but they can cause painful joint problems later in life too.

Hip and elbow dysplasia are common problems, so if you are a dog owner it’s important that you are aware of the symptoms.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at both hip and elbow dysplasia.

We will look at which breeds are at higher risk of developing these diseases, the symptoms to watch out for and the treatment options available.

Also, we will discuss how these conditions can be prevented, to help reduce the number of pups living with these painful conditions.

What Is Hip Dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is a painful condition that causes one or both hip joints to develop abnormally while the puppy is still growing. It can lead to painful arthritis when the dog is older too.

The hip joint is a ball and socket joint, which consists of the head of the femur (ball) fitting into the acetabulum of the pelvis (socket).

In dogs with hip dysplasia, the growth of the joint becomes unequal and abnormal leading to:

  • Laxity (looseness) of the hip joint
  • Abnormal positioning of the head of the femur (subluxation) in the joint
  • Abnormal joint wear
  • Development of osteoarthritis and bone spurs

What Is Elbow Dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia is a condition that causes the elbow joint(s) to develop abnormally. The symptoms usually start when the pup is between 5-18 months old but can cause arthritis problems in later life too.

The elbow joint consists of 3 different bones, the radius, the ulna, and the humerus.

If the three bones don’t fit together perfectly like a puzzle, then the dog’s weight is abnormally distributed on the joint leading to pain, lameness, and arthritis.

The American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) states that elbow dysplasia is a disease which involves three conditions of the elbow:

  • Fragmented coronoid process (FCP)
  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)

Usually, a dog with elbow dysplasia only suffers from one of these conditions.

What Causes Hip And Elbow Dysplasia?

Genetics play a big part in the development of hip and elbow dysplasia, with the problem often passed down from parents to the puppies.

When puppies are born their joints are totally normal at birth, but if they have a genetic predisposition for these diseases, then their joints can quickly start to develop abnormally.

Other factors which increase a pup’s risk of developing hip and elbow dysplasia include:

  • Excess energy consumption
  • Obesity
  • Excess levels of calcium and vitamin D in the diet
  • Trauma
  • Hormonal influences

Are Some Breeds At Higher Risk Of Elbow And Hip Dysplasia?

Yes, some breeds are at higher risk of developing hip and elbow dysplasia than others. Any size or type of dog can develop dysplasia of the joints, but medium to large breed dogs seem more prone to these conditions than smaller breed dogs.

The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals looked at all its records between 1970-2015 and found these breeds had the highest incidence of hip dysplasia: (1)

  • Newfoundland
  • Bloodhound
  • American Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • Bullmastiff
  • Rottweiler
  • Chesapeake Bay retriever
  • Chow chow
  • German Shepherd
  • Golden Retriever
  • Mastiff

The same study found the breeds at the highest risk of elbow dysplasia in the United States included:

  • Chow Chow
  • Rottweiler
  • Bernese Mountain dog
  • Shar pei
  • Newfoundland
  • German Shepherd
  • American Staffordshire Terrier
  • Irish Water Spaniel
  • English Setter
  • Bullmastiff

What Are The Signs Of Hip And Elbow Dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia affects one or both hip joints, while elbow dysplasia affects one or both elbow joints. Therefore, the signs for each one will be slightly different.

Just because a dog has hip dysplasia, doesn’t necessarily mean it will suffer from elbow dysplasia, as the conditions are different.

The symptoms may range from mild, intermittent lameness to a severe lameness with the dog in constant pain.

Hip dysplasia Elbow dysplasia
“Bunny hop” lameness of hind legs Limping lameness of front legs
Limping/lameness of hind legs Stiffness
Stiffness Difficulty getting up and lying down
Difficulty getting up and lying down Painful when elbows touched
Painful when elbows touched Reluctance to jump
Wobbly when walking Difficulty going up or down stairs
Reluctant to jump Not interested in walks
Difficulty going up or down stairs Front paws pointing outwards
Not interested in walks Swollen elbow joints
Skinny hips- due to lack of muscles on the hind limbs Elbow(s) held at strange angle

How Is Hip & Elbow Dysplasia Diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will take a clinical history by asking you a number of questions about your dog’s lifestyle, previous history, and current problem.

Then they will complete a full physical examination of your dog, during which they will carefully palpate and move the joints, checking for swelling or pain.

Radiographs/x-rays are required to diagnose hip and elbow dysplasia. Usually, your dog will be sedated for x-rays, as this allows the vet to move your dog’s limbs and take various images without causing him any discomfort.

The vet will assess the x-rays looking for changes to the bones and joints consistent with hip or elbow dysplasia. The changes in the x-rays are not always consistent with the level of pain and clinical signs.

For example, some dogs with significant changes on x-rays may only have mild pain, while other dogs with minimal changes on x-rays may show significant pain and lameness.

If x-rays show a suspicious area of abnormal bone or a mass, then a surgical biopsy may be completed to check for inflammation, infection or cancer cells.

Your dog may need blood tests to check his overall health status, or to rule out other underlying conditions.

Depending on your dog’s clinical signs and history, specific blood tests may be recommended for infectious diseases such as Lyme’s disease, ehrlichiosis or fungal infections.

Sometimes the vet may take a sample of the synovial fluid from inside the joint(s), and this will be submitted to a laboratory for analysis. This can check for signs of infection, inflammation or even cancer cells.

What Are The Treatment Options?

If your dog has hip or elbow dysplasia, there are different treatment options that can make him more comfortable.

Usually, your dog will need life long management of these conditions and may need a combination of different treatment approaches to get the best outcome. A dog’s treatment will depend on the severity of his condition.

1. Pain Relief

Your veterinarian may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) as a pain relief medication for your dog. These are available as tablets or a liquid and are usually given once or twice daily with some food.

Common side effects of NSAIDs include gastrointestinal signs (e.g. vomiting, diarrhea, or gastric ulcers) and dogs receiving this medication long term should have regular blood tests to monitor their kidney health.

2. Weight Loss

If your dog is overweight, then a weight loss program will help your dog a lot! If he is carrying extra weight, it puts extra pressure on the joints and worsens his symptoms of arthritis.

One study in dogs with hip dysplasia showed that weight reduction can improve a dog’s symptoms and lameness. (2)

3. Exercise Plan

Your vet will discuss how much exercise your dog needs. Controlled low-impact exercise helps to keep your dog active and healthy and his joints mobile.

Examples include short lead walks a couple of times a day, swimming/hydrotherapy or walking on soft surfaces. Repetitive strenuous exercise may cause your dog more pain, and make his hip or elbow dysplasia worse.

4. Joint Supplements

There are many different joint supplements available for dogs, claiming to help with hip or elbow dysplasia. However, there isn’t much research to say that they definitely work.

Many vets have found promising results and continue to recommend joint supplements including green-lipped mussels, fish oil, Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan orGlucosamine hydrochloride (HCl) and chondroitin sulfate. (3), (4), (5), (6)

5. Surgery

In some cases of hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia, surgery may be suggested to alleviate pain, restore the joint function and improve your dog’s quality of life.

Surgery is becoming a more commonly offered treatment option as techniques and knowledge of these conditions improve. There are lots of different techniques available and your vet will discuss which one is best for your dog.

These surgeries are completed by specialist orthopedic veterinarians.

6. Make Your Dog Comfortable

It’s important to try to take measures to make your dog more comfortable. He might need rest if his hip or elbow dysplasia is causing him pain or discomfort.

Make him comfortable by getting him a comfy orthopedic bed to sleep in, which makes getting up and lying down easier. If your dog regularly slips in certain areas of the home, invest in some non-slip flooring to help him out.

7. Physiotherapy

In some cases, physiotherapy may be of benefit to your dog. This can help to build up muscle in the hips or elbow regions, to take the pressure off the affected joints.

Should I Breed My Dog If He Has Hip Or Elbow Dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are both inherited conditions, meaning that they can be passed down from parents to their offspring. Therefore, if your dog has one of these conditions it is recommended that you don’t breed from them.

Can Hip And Elbow Dysplasia Be Prevented?

There are still lots of unanswered questions about hip and elbow dysplasia in dogs. However, as research and knowledge grow on these two common canine conditions, some evidence on how to help prevent them has become more obvious.

Not all cases of hip or elbow dysplasia can be prevented, but there are some things you can do to help reduce your pup’s risk of developing joint problems.

Diet

Diet plays a big role in the abnormal development of joints in growing puppies.

This is especially important if you have a large breed puppy or a breed that is at a higher risk of developing joint problems. It’s important to feed your dog an appropriate balanced and complete diet.

Research has shown that feeding your pup too much food (excessive energy consumption), and excess levels of calcium and vitamin D, increases your dog’s risk of hip and elbow dysplasia. (7)

Prevent Obesity

There is good evidence to suggest that obesity increases a dog’s risk of osteoarthritis.

Studies have also shown that weight loss can be an effective treatment option for obese dogs suffering from arthritis. (8)

Exercise

One Norwegian study showed that puppies using stairs daily from birth to 3 months of age had an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia.

The same study showed that pups under 3 months of age that had exercised on outdoor exercise on the soft ground had a decreased risk of developing joint problems. (9)

Screening Programs

Screening programs help to check for hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia in dogs before they are bred, to help reduce the number of pups born with these painful conditions.

These schemes have been developed by veterinary and canine health specialists.

Your veterinarian submits X-rays of the dog’s hips and/or elbows to a panel of experts, who assess the X-rays and grades them.

Ideally, breeders should only breed from dogs with scores below the breed average. If you choose to buy a pedigree pup, you can ask the breeder about hip or elbow scores for the pup’s parents. (10)

Don’t Breed Dogs With Hip And Elbow Dysplasia

The best way to prevent hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia is to stop breeding from dogs with these conditions. As cute as your dog’s face is, if he/she has one of these conditions then you shouldn’t breed from him/her!

Conclusion

Hip and elbow dysplasia are two common conditions in dogs which can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort.

The two conditions share many similarities, as they are both inherited diseases that mainly affecting large breed dogs, with the abnormal joint development starting in the puppy phase.

You can reduce your pup’s chance of developing joint problems by feeding an appropriate diet, preventing obesity and offering regular exercise on soft ground.

Both hip and elbow dysplasia often require life long management, with pain relief, weight control, controlled exercise and sometimes surgery.

With veterinary help and the correct treatment, your dog can often continue to live a long happy life.

Screening programs have helped to reduce the incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia in certain breeds, and it is important not to breed your dog if he/she has either of these conditions!