Dear Dr. Thompson: My 2-year-old Labrador started limping on one of his front legs. It seemed to be much worse after he was out running around and playing. We took him to our vet and he took X-rays that showed there may be arthritis developing in the elbow already and he might need surgery if there is a bone chip in the joint. Will he have a problem with this for the rest of his life?
What you are describing is an all too common condition in his breed called elbow dysplasia. People are much more familiar with hip dysplasia in dogs, but when the elbow is affected it can have a significant impact on function because dogs bear 60 percent of their weight on the front limbs.
Dysplasia is a term that means abnormal development. The elbow joint is made up of three bones (radius, ulna, humerus) that must all grow together at the same rate in order for the fit of the joint to be perfect. If one of the bones grows faster or slower it will have a dramatic impact on the joint. Any of three different conditions can occur in the elbow and cause pain and limping. A small bone on the back of the joint called the anconeal process can fail to fuse the rest of the ulna. There may be small bone chips on the bottom of the elbow joint called a fragmented medial coronoid process or disease of the cartilage on the humerus. Any one or all of these will lead to pain and degenerative changes in the elbow over time. In young growing dogs there may also be an obvious gap in the elbow joint from damage to a growth plate in the ulna.
Some of the conditions are more readily diagnosed on an X-ray, but early in the disease it may not be easily detected. Those cases may require a CT scan of the elbow or arthroscopy where a small camera is inserted into the joint to evaluate the inside of the elbow. Depending on what part of the elbow is affected and the severity of the disease, surgery can be helpful to improve function and alleviate pain. If small chips are present they can be removed arthroscopically and diseased cartilage can be removed. In young dogs the ulna on the back of the joint may need to cut to allow for the elbow joint to fit properly. Fortunately a large percentage of dogs will be helped by surgery.
Even if he is able to be helped with surgery, the arthritis in the elbow will most likely progress as he gets older. A combination of treatments can help him with his arthritis and your veterinarian can make some recommendations on what will be best for him. And while it doesn't help your dog, there are screening tests that try to prevent this from being passed from future generations. Good luck with your dog and I hope he has options to treat his condition.
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