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Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs

Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.

Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs

Elbow Dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs

Unfortunately, because of inbreeding and very selective breeding practices in German Shepherds—especially as the breed was being formed—conditions like elbow dysplasia are common. If breeders cared more about the health of the breed, it might have been bred out. Instead, joint issues like elbow dysplasia are one of the main health problems for German Shepherd dogs, even now, with better breeding practices.

What Is Elbow Dysplasia?

This is a condition in larger dogs caused by the growth of tissue, bones, or other cells which creates a malformation on the elbow joint of the dog. In some cases, the dysplasia will only cause pain. In other situations, it might cause serious lameness. The symptoms of this condition will be visible as early as four months of age.

Equally common in males and females, this painful condition often develops due to genetic inheritance, nutrition, and activity. It can be appear in early puppyhood and adulthood.

Symptoms of Elbow Dysplasia in Dogs

Not all dogs will show signs of this condition when they are young. They might, however, eventually start to show signs of lameness suddenly, which then quickly evolves into a degenerative joint disease as the dog matures. One of the most common symptoms in dogs that did not show signs of elbow dysplasia when young is lameness during exercise and stiffness after exercise.

Another common sign is pain when the dog flexes his elbow. An affected dog might also protect the leg, cradle the leg, or avoid having it handled. A vet will be able to identify a build-up of fluid in the joint, which is related to the bone and joint grating against one another. If the dog lacks a healthy range of motion in the limb and joint, this could also indicate elbow dysplasia.


It is important to keep in mind that larger dogs are also predisposed to other joint problems like arthritis. In some instances, what looks like elbow dysplasia might actually just be arthritis. A vet will want to look for signs of arthritis, as well as for signs of trauma to the elbow.

A tumor might also be causing the problem. Usually, it is only with an x-ray that a vet can determine if the issue is a result of dysplasia. Both legs will need to be looked at and a sample of fluid in the joint will also need to be examined.

How Are Joint Problems Treated?

How the owner wants to treat this condition will vary based on the severity of the condition and the needs of the animal. Sometimes, surgery might be appropriate. In other cases, physical therapy and recommended activities could be enough to prevent this issue from becoming so grave that it negatively affects the German Shepherd’s life. In general, however, prevention is always better than treatment.

Escalation of elbow dysplasia in dogs can be prevented by keeping your dog at a healthy weight, keeping them active, and ensuring that they have proper nutrition, especially during puppyhood.

Building a strong, happy, healthy dog is by far the best way to prevent this condition from taking a toll on the life of your German Shepherd. It is vitally important that dogs that are found to have this condition are not bred, as it is highly likely to be passed on to that dog’s young.

Working with a vet to check on your dog on a yearly basis, assessing his or her joints, and keeping an eye out for degenerative joint disease can prevent a small problem from becoming a very painful one further down the line.

Exercise and Elbow Problems

As we’ve mentioned, German Shepherds are known for needing more exercise than other dogs. If you don’t start exercising them regularly from a young age, then their bodies will not develop in the proper proportions and their muscle and bone structure won’t be able to support them. They may also gain excess weight which can hinder their development, make them slow and sluggish, and also make them more likely to develop elbow dysplasia.

If your dog is already displaying signs of elbow problems, then you’re going to want to make sure you can get them on a strict regimen of exercise involving minimal weight-bearing. Weight-bearing exercises like running and walking can place a lot of strain on your German Shepherd and make these problems even worse. Consider taking them out for a swim; swimming is a great full-body exercise that doesn’t place too much strain on the joints.

Proper Nutrition for Healthy Joints in Dogs

The food that you feed your dog is the fuel that it uses to grow and develop into a healthy animal. Just like our own bodies, we don’t want to be filling them with bad food that can cause the development of serious health problems.

Not only is this breed prone to developing joint problems, but they’re also extremely sensitive to stomach issues. These are both valid reasons for you to double and triple check the ingredients and the quality of the food you plan to feed your dog.

German Shepherds need quite a bit of protein when compared to other dogs. You should make sure that the protein comes from a healthy source like grass-fed meats or fish are great. Fish also provide them with omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for the development of a healthy brain.

They also need a good balance of carbohydrates (not too much) and fats to make sure they can enjoy the energy that they’re capable of. Make sure the carbs come from complex sources and are not refined carbohydrates, which are just as bad for dogs as they are for us. Once you’re sure that you're offering proper nutrition to your pup, then you’ve completed the first step of ensuring your German Shepherd will grow into a healthy dog with a minimal chance of developing elbow problems.


Therapeutic Methods

There are a couple of methods that you might want to consider for keeping your dog comfortable if they’re already beginning to show signs of elbow problems.

  • Massage therapy: Massage therapy is a great way to encourage muscles and bones to grow properly, as well as for minimizing stress and discomfort that come with elbow problems. Massaging your dog on a regular basis is a good idea regardless of the breed, but German Shepherds benefit from regular massage quite regularly.
  • Orthopedic dog bed: Getting an orthopedic dog bed can be a tremendous help for your dog, whether or not it’s already beginning to show signs of developing elbow dysplasia. These beds are made to ergonomically support the dog in a healthy manner and prevent the emergence of conditions associated with unhealthy sleeping habits.
  • Water therapy: Supported swimming or water therapy.

If these solutions don’t work, then there are more serious, last-resort measures that can help your German Shepherd with elbow dysplasia. If natural medicine doesn’t work, then you can get your dog some pharmaceutical medication to ease the pain and inflammation. If that doesn’t work, then as a very last resort, you may need to look at surgery to align elbows, but this isn't always feasible or successful.

Either of these will require the advice of a veterinarian, who will best be able to determine whether or not your dog actually has a problem serious enough to render these treatments necessary.

Further Reading

  • Morgan J, P. Hereditary Bone and Joint Diseases in the Dog: Osteochondroses, Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia. Schluetersche, 2003, 328p.
  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Canine Elbow Dysplasia.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Sam Shepards


Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on January 12, 2020:


Ivan Porter please look into my article on stomach and bowel problems in German Shepherds:

Possibly also reads the comments there and when in doubt talk to a vet.

I hope all works out ok with your puppy.

Ivanporter on January 12, 2020:

Please help I have a 6 mth gsd pup I have tried him on every type of food like hills. Hills prescription. Pedigree. Bakers with veg an now at the min my pup is on Royal canin for gsd pups an still loose sorry diarrhoea.. I exercise him twice daily in the morning his poop in the garden is likely to be 90% hardish but at bedtime I walk him again an how can you pick up diarrhoea whilst walking.. the vet has him also on a pill called omeprazole 20mg cause he is sick quite often throwing up like yellowish bile.. I have had Rottweilers terriers but this is my 1st gsd pup. An altho not right he is very playful an very loving. He my friend an love him dearly that’s why I need him sorted out. Please please can someone out there please give me some advice to help my puppy’s health as a animal lover I hate to see him like this. Thankyou for taking the time to read my comment