Dogs that are lame, limping or showing other signs of pain in one or both of their front legs should be seen by a veterinarian. They may be suffering from elbow dysplasia, especially if they are a large or giant breed puppy less than one year of age, although there certainly are lots of other things that can cause front limb lameness in dogs. Elbow dysplasia is usually diagnosed when the affected animal is between 4 and 12 months of age. The attending veterinarian will take a thorough history from the dog’s owner about its overall health, focusing on when the lameness first was noticed and whether it has gotten worse, gotten better or stayed about the same since that time. She will perform a physical examination, paying particular attention to palpating, or feeling, each of the dog’s legs. The veterinarian also will watch the dog as it walks moving away and coming forward, looking for evidence of limping, swelling, elbowing-out (abduction of the elbows) or any other observable gait or conformational abnormality. Many veterinarians will recommend taking blood and urine samples as part of the initial evaluation, to assess whether any infection is present and to check the function of the dog’s key organs.
Elbow dysplasia can’t be diagnosed simply by a physical examination and blood or urine testing, although blood and urine evaluation is highly recommended by most veterinarians to get a baseline assessment of the dog’s overall health. Blood work is especially important before a dog is put under general anesthesia. The most effective way to diagnose elbow dysplasia is by taking radiographs (X-rays) of both elbows, even if only one seems to be affected. Most veterinarians will take films from several different angles, with the elbow joints extended and in extreme flexion. This will help identify which, if any, of the four main developmental defects are causing the dog’s lameness. Other diagnostic tools, including computed tomography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), bone scan and linear tomography, can show the elbow joints in greater detail, if radiographs turn out to be inconclusive.
A joint tap (arthrocentesis) can be performed to sample the synovial fluid inside of the elbow joints. Synovial fluid is a yellowish-white, viscous fluid that lubricates and nourishes the moving parts and articular cartilage inside joint cavities. Assessment of joint fluid can help confirm or rule out a diagnosis of elbow dysplasia. Another technique, called arthroscopy, can also be useful. This involves surgically inserting a tiny camera into the joint, which lets the veterinarian look at the joint structures and identify any structural abnormalities.
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) evaluates and certifies radiographs of dogs 2 years of age and older for a number of hereditary abnormalities, including the presence or absence of elbow dysplasia. Radiographs of younger dogs can be submitted for preliminary interpretation, but official OFA certification can’t be obtained until a dog reaches 24 months.