By Dr. Elizabeth Knabe, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
The elbow tends not to be a joint we think of when it comes to lameness in dogs or cats. For dogs, most of the attention seems to focus on the hips and knees. Bigger dogs put more weight on the hips and knees, causing arthritis and injuries. Small dogs can have hereditary knee and hip issues that lead to pain and limping.
Elbow problems, however, tend to be more subtle and harder to recognize. A pet may not even limp. The animal does not want to favor one limb by increasing the weight on the opposite, equally painful limb. This is especially true in cats and small dogs as they are lightweight to begin with and can distribute their weight well.
How can owners tell if their pet might have elbow problems?
For dogs, they may notice that they stand and walk with their elbows pointing outward, away from the body. Dogs carry 60 percent of their body weight on their forelimbs while standing, so adjusting the elbows outwardly is an attempt to reduce the pain. In walking, dogs may not pick up their front feet as much to minimize bending the elbows. Going downhill puts more stress on the forelimbs, so dogs may be reluctant to descend stairs.
Cats with elbow problems will be harder to recognize, but they too will show a stiffer gait with less bending of the joints. They may not want to step into the litter box, which requires bending the elbows. They may also sink low in the front limbs when jumping down from a height. In fact, if an older cat presents with a fractured upper canine tooth, veterinarians look for elbow arthritis that could cause the cat to buckle and hit its head as it lands.
The exact cause of elbow problems is not always clear. The elbow is the most complex joint in the body since it requires a smooth fit to occur between three bones: the humerus of the upper leg and the radius and ulna of the lower leg. If anything disrupts the smooth fit between these bones, it can lead to abnormal wear and joint damage.
Sometimes heredity comes into play in young dogs where the development of the elbow joint surfaces is abnormal. Older dogs that have hip arthritis may shift more weight to their front limbs. This extra weight load may cause any subtle elbow irregularities to now become a problem. Very fit canine athletes are often doing the same motions over and over, which can lead to repetitive stress injuries of the elbows.
Early recognition of elbow problems by you and your veterinarian will allow for the most options in treatments.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.