The Basics of German Shepherd Dog Elbow Dysplasia

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Elbow dysplasia is a degenerative joint disease, which causes pain to your German Shepherd dogs.

Elbow dysplasia leads to arthritis of the elbow joint. Left untreated, it is likely to cause lifelong pain and discomfort ranging from mild to severe.

Statistics vary, conservatively 12-20% of all German Shepherds are affected by the disease.

Forelimb lameness is a sign of elbow dysplasia in your German Shepherd dogs. If your dog has this symptom, go to your vet where exploratory scans can give an idea of what’s happening with your German Shepherd.

The Basics of Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs

Elbow dysplasia and dysplasia are diseases which affect the function of the elbow or hip in the German Shepherd dogs.

It causes osteoarthritis to develop.

This disease is a complicated and unexplored area of canine science. 

What Causes Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs?

Elbow dysplasia is a condition caused by the abnormal growth of cells, tissue, or bone.

The condition leads to malformation of the elbow joint.

It is the most common cause of elbow pain and one of the most common causes of forelimb lameness in German Shepherd dogs.

At what age can my German shepherd dog get elbow dysplasia?

Your German Shepherd will likely show signs of elbow dysplasia by 5-9 months of age.

Typically, at four to ten months; however, most symptoms can be seen from four to eighteen months.

Elbow Dysplasia Symptoms to Watch for in Your German Shepherd Dog:
  • Elbow lameness and a painful elbow area. Your dog protecting that area.
  • Stiffness.
  • Pain when extending or flexing the elbow.
  • The tendency for dogs to hold the affected limb away from the body.
  • A build-up of fluid around the joint.
  • During movement, a grating of bone and joint is heard when the disease is in the advanced stages.
  • A lessening of your dog’s range of motion.


What are the causes of elbow dysplasia in German shepherd dogs?
  • Genetics.
  • Developmental problems.
  • Poor nutrition.

When you take your German shepherd dog to your veterinarian, he or she will look for causes of the symptoms before arriving at a diagnosis.

Assessment includes:

  • Trauma to the joint.
  • Inspecting for infection.
  • Test for an arthritic condition.
  • Both elbows will probably need to be x-rayed since there is a high incidence of the disease occurring in both legs.
Breeding and Elbow Dysplasia in Your German Shepherd Dog

Inbreeding and selective breeding practices cause German Shepherds to get this condition.

Breeders need to be focused on German Shepherd’s health and well being. Only caring about the bottom line will make them only short-term gains.

What are the symptoms of elbow dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs?
  • Not all German Shepherds will show signs of elbow dysplasia early on.
  • Later signs of lameness could be a sign of degenerative joint disease.
  • Your German Shepherd’s will have low energy when they exercise, and become stiff afterward.
  • Visually, there’s pain when the dog flexes his elbow.
  • Limited range of motion. Here, your German Shepherd’s mobility is slow and painful, which could indicate elbow dysplasia.
How is Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherds Diagnosed?

In some instances, what looks like elbow dysplasia might be arthritis. Your local vet will look for signs of arthritis and trauma to the elbow.

How is Elbow Dysplasia Treated in German Shepherds?

How the owner wants to treat this condition will vary based on the severity of the disease and the needs of your animal. Sometimes, surgery might be appropriate.

In other cases, rehabilitation could be enough to help your German Shepherd’s life.

In general, keep on the lookout for limpness in the elbows and sluggish energy, and remember, prevention is better than treatment.

How to Treat Your German Shepherd Dog’s Dysplasia
  • Rest your dog.
  • Only if your vet prescribes it could you use painkillers. Be careful with using pharmaceuticals, as the side effects can be horrible for your German Shepherd.
  • Surgical procedures.
  • Lifelong treatment and preventive treatment.


Ways to Manage Your German Shepherd’s Elbow Dysplasia

This area is complicated because of the lack of information about the underlying genetics. Why are German Shepherds more prone to the disease?

Medical science hasn’t explored this area of the disease and so information has been slow to gather. However, this is what science knows so far:

  • The disease is influenced by environmental factors.
  • Out-breeding German Shepherd dogs with lower chances of elbow dysplasia decreases the chance of dysplasia.
  • Keep your dog at a healthy weight helps.
  • Keeping a gentle exercise routine helps.
  • From the start, make sure to feed your German Shepherd with proper nutrition.
What Does A Vet Look for in Dysplasia in German Shepherd dogs?

Your local vet will assess your German Shepherd’s hip and elbow joints.

They observe your German Shepherd’s generative joint disease, as the smallest sign of pain could be an early sign you want to detect.

Nearly 20% of German Shepherds will develop hip dysplasia during their lifetimes.

How to Recognize Dysplasia in Your German Shepherd

Observe how your German Shepherd stands up. With dysplasia, the end of a bone no longer fits snugly into the socket of a joint, causing the bone to move around. This leads to pain and inflammation.

  • When your German Shepherd tries to stand up, their dysplasia can make this process slow and difficult.
  • This difficulty may be more noticeable in the morning or after exercise.
  • With hip dysplasia, the top of the thigh bone (the femur) does not fit in the joint.


  • In elbow dysplasia, uneven growth of the radius and ulna (lower front leg bones) can damage cartilage in the elbow joint.
  • Watch your German Shepherd. Dysplasia may cause your German Shepherd to walk or run abnormally. If he has hip dysplasia, he may swivel his hips or have a bunny hop when he walks or runs.
  • During the bunny hop, your German Shepherd will move forward with his legs together rather than one at a time.
  • A bunny hop is common with hip dysplasia.
  • With elbow dysplasia, you may notice your German Shepherd is reluctant to extend or flex his elbows as he walks.
  • Monitor your German Shepherd’s activity level. If your dog is limping or sluggish, it may not want to play like usual; their joints could be in pain and discomfort.
  • If German Shepherds don’t want to do any running or jumping, don’t push them. Be attentive and watch for the signs. It is always better to be safe than sorry.


Test Your German Shepherd’s Response to Your Touch

Try touching the area around your German Shepherd’s elbow or hip joints. If they become aggressive by growling or showing teeth, then your pooch is in pain.

If your German Shepherd does not like you touching the painful area, stop. They may become irritable and try to bite you.

Take your German Shepherd to Your Veterinarian.

When you start noticing signs of dysplasia in your German Shepherd, take them to your local veterinarian.

A physical exam and X-rays of the affected joints will be performed to determine the cause of pain. 

Your German Shepherd may need to be sedated for the X-rays and orthopedic exam, particularly for hips. Always follow a trained professional’s advice.

The level of joint damage seen on an x-ray does not always mean a dog is in a lot of pain. For example, your German Shepherd may be in a great deal of pain but have few signs of joint damage on the x-ray.

Treating Your German Shepherd Dog’s Dysplasia Without Surgery

Devise a treatment plan with your veterinarian. Although dysplasia is irreversible, it can be treated and managed for the long term.

Treatment is either non-surgical or surgical with the goals of:

  • Reducing pain.
  • Slowing the progression of dysplasia.
  • Improving joint mobility.
  • Work with your veterinarian to find the best solution for your German Shepherd’s pain and level of condition.

Pain reduction is essential to treating dysplasia. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs commonly reduce pain and inflammation.

These drugs have serious side effects, like gastrointestinal bleeding. Your German Shepherd cannot take them long-term.

Tylenol and Ibuprofen, which are human pain medications, can cause serious organ damage in dogs.

Do not give your German Shepherd dogs any drugs that haven’t been cleared by your veterinarian.


Manage Your German Shepherd’s Weight

Extra weight on German Shepherds puts extra pressure on their joints, which can increase their chance of getting dysplasia.

  • If your German Shepherd is overweight, get him down to his ideal weight. This will lessen this pressure and relieve some of his pain and discomfort.
  • A complete and balanced diet will ensure your German Shepherd continues to receive all of his nutrients.
  • Discontinue giving your German Shepherd table scraps. These are often high in fat and calories. You can give your German Shepherd natural treats, such as bananas or apple slices.
  • Develop a weight loss plan with your veterinarian. This will help ensure your German Shepherd loses weight safely and gradually.
Nutrition Supplements for Your German Shepherd

Give your German Shepherd nutritional supplements. Nutritional supplements help repair damaged joints and keep them healthy.

Perform moderate exercise with your German Shepherd, but don’t force or push; it is just about lightly moving around.

Choose lower-impact exercises, such as leash walks, swimming, and slow walks on a treadmill.

When you walk your dog outside, choose grassy areas that will provide more cushioning than concrete or asphalt.

If you are not sure which exercises would be best for your German Shepherd, ask your veterinarian for recommendations.

Exercise your German Shepherd each day for short periods of time of 15 to 20 minutes.

Observe your German Shepherd during the exercise sessions. If it starts to slow down or wants to stop, end the session and let the dog rest.

Your German Shepherd’s Bed is Critical To Help With Dysplasia.

Give your German Shepherd a comfortable place to sleep. A warm and cozy bed isn’t exactly a treatment but will help your German Shepherd feel better.


Things to Consider for Your German Shepherd’s Bed
  • Keep your dog’s bed warm and dry.
  • You may want to consider purchasing an orthopedic bed. When your German Shepherd lies down, an orthopedic bed prevents pressure on the joints.

Read this article for choosing the right bed for your German Shepherd.

In German Shepherds, hip problems usually become noticeable around four months of age. For elbow dysplasia, symptoms start to appear between four and ten months of age.

There is no link between the age at which dysplasia starts and its severity.  Genetics and nutrition are the primary causes of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. Although dysplasia is irreversible, there are many things you can do for your German Shepherd.

If you have a German Shepherd puppy, you can help prevent dysplasia by feeding him a puppy-specific diet. Avoiding “jumping” activities will be less jarring on their bones.

Dysplasia treatment is very similar to that of arthritis. Watch out for your German Shepherd puppy, look for the symptoms mentioned in this article, and be ready to take action early.

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