An In-Depth Look at Elbow & Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

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Hip and elbow dysplasia are similar diseases that commonly affect large and giant breeds of dogs. The term “dysplasia” simply refers to a condition that develops as a result of abnormal development. Therefore, the underlying problem in both hip and elbow dysplasia is abnormal development of the respective joints.

Joint Abnormalities

The Causes of Hip and Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Hip and elbow dysplasia are multifactorial diseases, meaning that many different factors combine to determine which individuals are affected and which are not. Potential risk factors include:

  • a complicated pattern of genetics
  • large size
  • rapid growth
  • diets that are rich in calories, fat, and calcium

A healthy hip is composed of a “socket” within the pelvis (acetabulum) that encircles approximately two-thirds of a “ball” at the top of the femur (femoral head). The femoral head is held securely within the acetabulum. Hip dysplasia results in an acetabulum that is flatter and less “cup-like” than it should be.

The elbow joint involves three bones – the humerus of the upper foreleg and the radius and ulna of the lower. Uneven growth of these bones and/or abnormalities in the development of the cartilage that covers their articular surfaces can all result in a dysplastic elbow. The conditions most commonly associated with elbow dysplasia in dogs are:

  • ununited anconeal process (UAP)
  • fragmented coronoid process (FCP)
  • ununited medial epicondyle (UME)
  • osteochondritis dissicans (OCD)

A dysplastic hip or elbow does not flex, extend, or rotate as smoothly as it should, which results in joint inflammation and pain. Over time, abnormal bony deposits form around the affected joint(s) resulting in secondary osteoarthritis. Some dogs suffer from dysplasia of multiple elbow and/or hip joints.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

The Symptoms of Elbow and Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Dogs with dysplasia typically limp, favoring the leg that is most severely affected. When multiple joints are involved, dogs may simply appear stiff or be unwilling to partake in normal activities. Pain may be most evident after a dog has been inactive and improve with exercise or worsen after strenuous activity. Often, dogs appear more comfortable after taking a few days or weeks off to rest, but the symptoms return when exercise levels return to normal. Other symptoms can include:

  • difficulty standing up
  • a reluctance to go up or down stairs
  • pain when jumping onto or off of objects
  • hind-end “bunny hopping” (hip dysplasia)
  • loss of muscle mass in the affected leg

Some young dogs with hip or elbow dysplasia demonstrate only mild symptoms. However, as they age their secondary osteoarthritis can progresses to the point that their lameness becomes a more significant quality of life concern.

Diagnosing Hip and Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Many other diseases are associated with symptoms similar to those caused by hip and elbow dysplasia. To rule some of these out, veterinarians need to perform a complete history, physical, and orthopedic examination. The doctor will watch the dog walk and trot and palpate its joints through their full range of motion. At this point, the veterinarian may be suspicious that dysplasia is responsible for a dog’s clinical signs, but x-rays (radiographs) are necessary to reach a definitive diagnosis.

Because dysplasia and the arthritis it causes are painful, dogs should be sedated so they can be properly and comfortably positioned for x-rays. In many cases, multiple views of the suspect joint(s) are necessary. Comparing corresponding joints from the left and right sides of the body is often very helpful. Early dysplastic changes may be difficult to visualize on x-rays, or advanced osteoarthritis may obscure the abnormality that initiated changes within a joint. In complicated cases like these, advanced imaging techniques (e.g., CT scans) or surgical exploration of the joint may be necessary before a diagnosis can be reached.

Treating Hip and Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

When dogs are diagnosed with hip or elbow dysplasia before significant osteoarthritis has developed, surgery to repair the joint is the best treatment option. A variety of surgical procedures are available. Veterinarians who specialize in orthopedic surgeries can determine which is best based on an individual dog’s situation. Elbow/hip replacement or surgery to remove part of the hip joint can also be considered in advanced cases when medical management (NSAIDs and joint supplements) fails to maintain a pet’s quality of life.

If surgery is not a viable option, a variety of therapies can be used to keep dogs comfortable and slow the progression of osteoarthritis. These include:

  • weight loss
  • physical therapy
  • exercise
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (e.g., Rimadyl, Deramaxx, Previcox)
  • nutritional supplements (e.g., Cosequin, Dasuquin, Glyco-Flex, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Vitamin E)
  • pain relievers (e.g., tramadol, gabapentin, amantadine)
  • acupuncture
  • cold laser therapy
  • stem cell therapy
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

Prevention of Hip and Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Wise breeding decisions help reduce the incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia in at risk breeds of dogs. Genetic testing is not yet available, but evaluating a dog’s joints with special x-ray techniques like those used by the Orthopedic Foundation of America (OFA) or PennHIP prior to mating is helpful. Breeding only parents with healthy joints reduces, but does not eliminate, the chances of dysplasia in their offspring.

Feeding young, at risk dogs appropriately can also help prevent hip dysplasia. Large-breed puppy foods are less calorie-dense and contain lower concentrations of calcium and fat in comparison to diets for other puppies. These characteristics help slow a puppy’s growth rate. Individuals fed this way still reach their optimum size, it just takes them a little longer to do so. Over-feeding, even if an owner is using a large-breed puppy formulation, negates these benefits however.


The osteoarthritis that develops as a result of hip and elbow dysplasia is progressive, so many dogs require increasingly aggressive intervention as they age. A combination of different treatment modalities (e.g., non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, nutritional supplements, and acupuncture) is often more effective than any one therapy alone.


Canine elbow dysplasia: Aetiopathogenesis and current treatment recommendations. Michelsen J. Vet J. 2012 Dec 21.

Canine hip dysplasia: reviewing the evidence for nonsurgical management. Kirkby KA, Lewis DD. Vet Surg. 2012 Jan;41(1).

Chronology of hip dysplasia development in a cohort of 48 labrador retrievers followed for life. Smith GK, Lawler DF, Biery DN, Powers MY, Shofer F, Gregor TP, Karbe GT, McDonald-Lynch MB, Evans RH, Kealy RD. Vet Surg. 2012 Jan;41(1):20-33.

Diet, exercise, and weight as risk factors in hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers. Sallander MH, Hedhammar A, Trogen ME. J Nutr. 2006 Jul;136

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