Rehabilitation of canine elbow dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is the term used to describe a developmental abnormality in the elbow joint which involves a complex structure of three bones.  If the three bones do not fit together (articulate) absolutely perfectly the consequence is an abnormal concentration of forces on a specific region of the elbow joint causing lameness.

There are multiple management options for elbow dysplasia; conservative and surgical however rehabilitation, in either case, can facilitate mobility.

Conservative management of elbow dysplasia

Physiotherapy can help to alleviate the symptoms of elbow dysplasia and enhance your dog’s general wellbeing.

Aims of rehabilitation

  • Reduce pain and swelling
  • Maintain and/or increase joint mobility with a specific stretching programme which will be tailored to your dog
  • Maintain and/or increase muscle mass

Physiotherapy treatment options

Hydrotherapy options

Water-based therapy is a perfect environment for a dog with elbow dysplasia. The warm, supportive medium provides pain relief and allows mobilisation of joints in a buoyant / semi-buoyant environment, maintenance and strengthening of specific muscle groups and enhancement of general cardiovascular fitness which on land might not be so easy.

Hydrotherapy can be provided in a 100% buoyant environment such as our pool or in a variable buoyancy environment such as our underwater treadmill. Your chartered physiotherapist will advise you which is best for your dog depending on the severity of clinical signs and whether your dog is having conservative or post-operative rehabilitation.

What can I do to help my pet at home?

A specific home care exercise programme and walking advice will be given to you by your chartered physiotherapist and it will be uniquely designed to suit your dog’s needs. Your physiotherapist will also be able to offer advice on ADL (activities of daily living) such as how best to assist your dog in and out of a car, the avoidance of slippery floors, the avoidance of high impact activities such as jumping up or down from furniture, running up and down stairs.

The following table outlines an example elbow dysplasia rehabilitation plan:*


TimescalePhysiotherapy aimsPhysiotherapy treatment options
0-2 weeksReduce swelling and pain
Reduce muscular guarding and maintain soft tissue flexibility
  • Laser
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Heat therapy
  • Careful joint range of motion exercises
Allow limb loading as able
  • Active exercises
  • Underwater treadmill
2-4 weeksProgress limb loading and gait re-education
  • Home exercise programme
  • Neuromuscular electrical stimulation
  • Underwater treadmill
Increase muscle mass
  • Low-level exercise programme
  • Electromuscular stimulation
Maintain soft tissue length and flexibilityPassive ROM and stretches
Management at home
  • Exercise restriction
  • Advice regarding flooring
  • Advice regarding the importance of avoiding jumping and climbing on and off furniture
4-6 weeksContinue as above, include core stability exercises
  • Progression of home exercise programme to challenge balance and strength e.g. cavaletti poles, alternating gradients and surfaces
  • Low-level agility equipment use
Advice on maintaining controlled exercise when dog is feeling better
6 – 12 weeksIncrease exercise toleranceIncrease exercise level, considering land and water-based options.
Continue to increase core stabilityHome exercise programme considering land and water-based exercises
12 weeks +Return to full function or establish deficits and advise re long-term management.Progress to off-lead exercise and previous exercise level if appropriate.

*Please note that rehabilitation plans should only be followed under the guidance of a qualified rehabilitation professional, who will be able to provide a tailored plan based on the individual patient’s rehabilitation needs.

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