Elbow Dysplasia

by Dr. Francesca Matthews

What is Elbow Dysplasia?


Elbow dysplasia has a strong hereditary link. That is, the genetics of the puppies' parents play a big part in whether a puppy is likely to develop the condition. It should also be noted that certain environmental factors such as rapid growth, over supplementation of a diet and excessive exercise may serve to make these conditions significantly worse.


In these affected dogs there is a problem with the cartilage and bone associated with the elbow joint. It is a form of osteochondrosis.


There are several specific forms of Elbow Dysplasia that are recognised.  Affected dogs may only show an issue in one of these areas.


What are the clinical signs?


Elbow dysplasia may show up in three different ways:

  1. Forelimb lameness in young dogs between 4 and 12 months of age
  2. Older dogs becoming lame and x-rays (radiographs) of the elbows that show evidence of arthritis in the elbows
  3. Breeding dogs that are currently sound produce puppies with elbow dysplasia.



Image source wikimedia commons


How is it diagnosed?


Our veterinarians will make a diagnosis of elbow dysplasia based on the presenting signs of pain in the elbow, other signs in the elbow such as swelling and restriction of movement and evidence of the disease on x-rays (radiographs).


To obtain an accurate diagnosis, we will usually need to do numerous x-rays at different angles (called ‘radiographic views’).


In young dogs there may be no radiographic signs present but the young dog may still have elbow dysplasia.


Depending on our veterinarians advice, which will depend on your dog's specific situation, they may request repeat radiographs in a few weeks or months or in some cases they may recommend surgical examination of the joint. This means giving your dog an anaesthetic and using surgical instruments to look inside the joint. We would refer you to surgical specialists for this procedure. The surgical specialists in Christchurch are VetSpecs.


How is it treated?


Treatment will depend on the severity and also the presence of changes on the x-rays (radiographs). The basis of treatment is to reduce pain and slow further development of arthritis. Treatment can range from conservative to surgical intervention.


Conservative treatment involves limiting exercise, maintaining correct body weight and anti-inflammatory medication. In many cases this is only effective short term and signs of arthritis still develop.


In dogs that continue to be lame, whether they have arthritis in the joints (which shows up on x-rays), surgery would be considered the best option. It involves the surgeon removing any abnormal fragments of cartilage or bone that are present in the joint.


Surgical results vary depending on breed, extent or arthritis already present and the type of osteochondrosis present. The surgeon performing the surgery will be able to give you all the statistics prior to surgery. Again surgery would be done by surgical specialists. We refer our clients to VetSpecs.


Even if you opt for surgery the joint may still develop arthritis but the severity of the arthritis and the joint pain is frequently less so surgery is still the treatment of choice.


How do I minimise the chances of the puppy I buy developing this condition?


Do your research prior to jumping in and purchasing a puppy. In certain breeds of dog the diseases has high heritability. That is, if one or both of the parents have it, there is a high chance of the offspring also having the disease.


In New Zealand, run through the New Zealand Veterinary Association, we have a screening programme. Screening is based on assessing a single x-ray (radiograph) of each elbow joint of dogs age one year or over. A panel of experienced veterinary radiologists examine the radiograph and give it a grade based on the extent of arthritis present.


If you are breeding from your dogs, contact us for more details on the scheme and whether your breed is one that should be screened.


I have found a puppy I want and the breeder has given me the elbow grade of the puppies parents – what do they mean?


A grade of zero is the best score possible whereas a puppy that has one or more parents with a grade 3 should not be considered.


While choosing a puppy with parents with grades of zero for the elbows does not guarantee your puppy won't develop elbow dysplasia, it does reduce the chances significantly.


Breeders of at risk breeds should be screening their breeding stock prior to mating and only breeding from dogs with zero grades for elbows.


In some breeds, possibly because of limited genetics in New Zealand or because of previous unscrupulous breeding, the average from the breed is extremely high. See the most current report of the New Zealand Veterinary Association on breed elbow scores. This makes choosing the right breeder even more important in these breeds.


If you are selecting an at risk pedigree puppy from a pet shop, ask the pet shop what the puppies parents elbow score was. It is irrelevant whether they come with papers or not. If the pet shop can’t provide you with that information, think carefully prior to purchasing. Ask us for advice specific to the puppy you want to purchase.


As well as selecting well, is there anything else I can do to reduce the likelihood my puppy will develop elbow dysplasia?


Yes there definitely is!


Make sure you feed your puppy a premium brand food, designed specifically for type (for example, large breed puppy for a Labrador). In addition you should control your puppies' exercise for the first 12 - 18 months of its life. This includes minimising jumping, running up and down gradients, including stairs and excessively long and vigorous walks.


Our veterinarians can advise on a specific plan for your puppy.




  1. Choose your new puppy carefully. Seek the advice from our veterinarians as part of the process.
  2. If you are a breeder, choose your breeding stock carefully and have the information available to prospective purchasers on the selection process for the sire and dam and any tests that have been done (such as elbow screening).
  3. Once you have selected your puppy, feed it a premium food correct for age and breed and use controlled exercise only in the first 12 – 18 months or as directed by your veterinarian.
  4. Make sure your veterinarian plays an integral role in helping with your puppy choice and care, especially in the early part of its life to give it the best start.
  5. Even when all due care and diligence is followed, there may still be a small chance your puppy may develop elbow dysplasia. In this case veterinary attention is required and surgical intervention may be recommended.
  6. If you have pet insurance check whether this condition will be covered if you have done all the research before and followed the recommendations in the first year. While elbow dysplasia is strongly hereditary, it is not always the case. 


If you don’t already have pet insurance, you should seriously give consideration to it. Read more about pet insurance


Click here to read the New Zealand Veterinary Association information sheet

Copyright and disclaimer