Humans have their tennis elbow, but they don't have a corner on the market. Dogs also are prone to an inherited disease called elbow dysplasia.. Both elbows are normally affected, but the condition also can affect just one limb.
Elbow dysplasia describes a type of damage within the elbow joint, often resulting in severe arthritis. Some dogs will display only a slight limp or an otherwise abnormal gait; others will end up virtually crippled by the pain. Dogs in the early stages of the disorder often hold their elbows outward or stand with their feet rotated outward. Or, they may shuffle their feet excessively and flip their front feet outward as they walk. Some are notable only by the dog spending an inordinate amount of time sitting or lying down, keeping weight off of its feet.
To understand the condition, it's necessary to know how a dog's elbow is put together. As with humans, the elbow joint is composed of three bones, the radius and the ulna (the bones between the wrist and elbow joints) and the humerus (the upper arm bone). They are designed to fit together perfectly, with the radius serving as the main weight-bearing bone. The ulna acts as a lever arm for the extensor muscles of the entire elbow joint. In a normal canine elbow, the surface transitions smoothly from the ulnar joint surface to the radius joint surface. Level to or slightly below these is the medial coronoid nerve.
Elbow dysplasia is the result of several types of abnormalities, any of which can occur within the joint, creating space between structures which should not exist. Dogs carry about 65 percent of their weight on the front half of their bodies, meaning the front legs absorb most of the impact during movement. When elbow dysplasia is present, too much weight is forced onto the ulna, causing damage to internal structures. The space then can fill with fluid and bone chips, creating pain, escalating lameness and, eventually, causing arthritis. Most dogs develop the problem early, between four and seven months of age, and many also develop lesions on the affected limb, created by the internal damage.
Elbow dysplasia occurs more commonly in medium- and large-sized dogs. Any breed may be affected, but those most prone to the disorder include: Australian Shepherds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Chow Chows, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards, Shar-Peis, Shetland Sheepdogs, Springer Spaniels and some types of Terrier.
Treatment for elbow dysplasia typically is a combination of medication and surgery, in order to relieve the pain and restore the dog to a more normal activity level. Any fragments or debris inside the elbow are surgically removed to alleviate immediate pain and prevent further deterioration of the joint. Along with surgery, anti-inflammatory medications are prescribed, and the dog's weight, diet, and exercise are carefully monitored. However, as with arthritis in humans, elbow dysplasia is a progressive disorder, and the problem can be managed, but not cured.