When an owner first notices that her dog is stiff or sore when rising after rest, or sees that he is limping on one or both front legs, it probably is time for a trip to the veterinarian. If elbow dysplasia is diagnosed, the goals of treating the condition will be to remove the structural bone or cartilage defects that are causing the dog’s discomfort and to minimize any ongoing degenerative changes. Pain relief, of course, is one of the most important therapeutic goals.
Surgery is the treatment of choice for most dogs diagnosed with elbow dysplasia. However, which surgical procedure to use remains somewhat controversial. Most general practitioners will refer patients with elbow dysplasia to a veterinary orthopedic specialist to perform the corrective surgery. The orthopedic surgeon will assess the dog and determine the best treatment protocol, depending upon the age and condition of the dog, the severity of elbow dysplasia, the underlying cause of the disorder and whether it affects one or both of the front legs (is unilateral or bilateral). In some cases, elbow dysplasia can be corrected using a technique called arthroscopy, which is a minimally invasive surgical procedure. In other cases, other surgical procedures may be more appropriate.
Post-operative supportive care includes cold packing the affected elbow joint several times daily, to reduce swelling and relieve pain. The dog’s activity should be restricted to very short on-leash walks, only to potty, until the dog can safely bear weight on the affected leg. This normally takes about 4 to 6 weeks. Range of motion exercises can be very helpful during this period; these involve the owner physically moving the dog’s affected front leg in a number of different positions, including flexion, extension and rotation. Good nutrition, effective weight control and dietary management are always extremely important, as overweight dogs have a more difficult recovery from any sort of leg surgery.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help to reduce the pain and inflammation associated with elbow dysplasia, whether or not surgery is performed. There are a number of different NSAIDs on the market; the dog’s veterinarian can recommend and prescribe those that are appropriate. Some NSAIDs cause gastrointestinal irritation. Long-term administration of corticosteroids normally is not recommended for dogs with elbow dysplasia, because those drugs have been associated with cartilage damage. Chondroprotective medications, such as glucosamine, hyaluronan, polysulfated glycosaminoglycans and chondroitin sulfate, may help alleviate joint inflammation and pain and may help limit or delay the progression of cartilage damage and degeneration.
Surgery normally is successful in relieving the pain and lameness caused by elbow dysplasia. The prognosis for dogs with elbow dysplasia to return to pain-free function is fair to good, with appropriate surgical treatment and post-operative aftercare. However, most dogs that have multiple developmental defects in their elbow joints will continue to have degenerative joint disease, including arthritis, whether or not surgical correction is attempted.