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The OFA labels three conditions under the diagnosis of elbow dysplasia. These are: fragmented medial coronoid of the ulna, osteochondritis of the medial humeral condyle in the elbow joint and ununited anconeal process.

These conditions are generally found in large breeds and often show a very high rate of heritability. Symptoms of front leg lameness, and heat and swelling of the elbow joint are found as early as four months of age in affected individuals.

The front limbs of a four legged animal act as the animal’s fulcrum. Imagine a dog as a teeter-totter. The head and neck form one end, and the back and hind legs the other end. If a dog has hip dysplasia, it is possible for him to get up from a sitting position by throwing his head and neck down, thereby lightening the load on his rear. He can also trot around with his head down. Watch for it in the show ring! It is not possible, however, for him to lighten the load on the front legs in a corresponding manner. Elbow dysplasia is most often bilateral, though one leg will appear worse than the other. A dog with elbow dysplasia will exhibit great difficulty in lowering his front when he tries to lie down. He will lower each leg a little at a time. He’ll rise to a sitting position in a similar manner.

The trouble with Elbow Dysplasia is that the OFA has labeled any x-ray with some sclerosis as dysplastic. Sclerosis is the result of degenerative changes and will appear in any joint over time. It results from normal wear and tear. You had some by the time you hit twenty. Eventually the joints showing mild sclerosis will develop osteoarthritis. This is arthritis as a result of wear and tear. Dogs with the three conditions the OFA cites will develop massive sclerosis in a very short time. However, some breeds show a slight degree of sclerosis in the elbow joint by two years of age without any of the elbow conditions the OFA describes being present. These dogs are not painful in these joints.

An example of this occurs in English Setters. These dogs have light bone for their height, and many have very poor angulation in the shoulder, resulting in an upright front structure. This upright structure means more pounding on the joints of the front limb. To me, these two factors seem to be the reason they may have a slight amount of wear and tear sclerosis. These dogs are not lame.

The greatest danger here is that someone who knows an English Setter with an OFA diagnosis of “elbow dysplasia” and knows that the dog isn’t lame in the slightest, will go advise someone buying a Newfoundland from bloodlines known to produce bad elbows. They will say that elbow dysplasia doesn’t cause lameness, so the people may end up with a Newf with a more severe lameness than if it had hip dysplasia. Lumping the apples and oranges together does a disservice to breeders.

The OFA provides a necessary service. It is a level playing field for evaluating hip films and elbow films submitted by veterinarians of widely varying ability to read the films themselves. They are a fairly administered database for the use of breeders, and they have taken on the task of administering other genetic databases. This is good since the OFA’s track record in handling databases is excellent.

The OFA is not, however, perfect. Dogs with good hips are occasionally labeled as dysplastic and dysplastic dogs are occasionally passed. Since the panel of film readers changes quarterly, there is an inherent inconsistency factor, but this rotation also ensures that no bad panel will be in effect forever. While we should give them credit for all of their good services, this should not blind us to occasions and situations where they fall short. Occasionally they misread films and they have broadened the Elbow Dysplasia diagnosis in a manner harmful to those trying to breed good dogs.

The Patella registry is a joke, since it depends solely on your veterinarian’s physical exam. False negative findings can result because of adrenalin and muscle tone while the dog is being examined. Some veterinarians may be un-informed or lacking in skill in this exam. The Patella exam is too subjective to be included in a database.

Canine Fertility Center - Dr. Mary C. Wakeman, D.V.M.