What is Total Elbow Arthroplasty?

Elbow dysplasia and advanced arthritis in dogs can be painful and affect your dog’s overall well-being. Truly bad cases could lead to the dog’s inability to walk bearing weight on that limb. Once dysplasia has begun, it will only worsen over time. When pain medications and anti-inflammatories are no longer effective, a total elbow arthroplasty, or elbow replacement, will give your dog a healthy gait again by alleviating their pain and ridding the dog of the damaged joints. Once you have decided your dog is ready through radiographs and observation with your veterinarian, your vet practice should be able to recommend a veterinary surgeon to perform the elbow arthroplasty.

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Total Elbow Arthroplasty Procedure in Dogs

A total elbow arthroplasty involves removing the surface of the elbow joint and replacing it with a mechanical joint. This is a minimally invasive surgery, but it will require sedation in the form of general anesthesia, recovery time, as well as some form of physical therapy to get the dog using the new joint.

Your veterinarian will start with X-rays to get a proper view of all aspects of the damaged joint. Once the dog is prepped for surgery and under general anesthesia, your veterinary surgeon will open the elbow area, exposing the joint. Then the surgical team will mill this joint, ridding the bones of a surface layer to make room for the prosthetic joint. The final portion of the total elbow arthroplasty will involve fusing the new joint to the dog’s elbow bones.

There are various options for the mechanical piece of the surgery. Your veterinarian will offer you the different products the surgical team works with and advise you on the best elbow prosthesis for your dog based on size, breed, and condition of their elbow.

Efficacy of Total Elbow Arthroplasty in Dogs

Your dog may need rehab or physical therapy once the procedure is completed. The dog will also require weeks of recovery. However, once a few months has passed with proper care and exercise, your dog’s new elbow should improve your dog’s gait, demeanor, and overall health. Studies have shown ongoing improvement even years post-surgery. Unless your dog has multiple elbows in dysplasia or other debilitating diseases, he should recover and live a full and active life.

Alternatives to a total elbow arthroplasty include daily medications for pain management, but this does not necessarily give your dog mobility. As a last alternative, your veterinarian may suggest the fusing of these bones together, known as an arthrodesis. This is possible for dogs who are not candidates for a total elbow arthroplasty.

Total Elbow Arthroplasty Recovery in Dogs

Recovery after a total elbow arthroplasty will be a crucial time for your dog. Your veterinary surgeon may require the dog stay in the veterinary hospital for three to five days. The surgical team will observe your dog closely after surgery. They will handle bandage changes and wound care. While still in the hospital, the dog will start physical therapy to begin to use the joint again. Many surgeons will have the dog swim, as swimming provides the best motion in the easiest fashion for the dog. Without bearing weight on the new joint, the dog can mobilize the new prosthetic while swimming to get a full range of motion.

Once home, you may need to replace bandages on the surgical site. Moreover, your veterinarian or physical therapist will give you a list of exercises to do with your dog. They may also request you have the dog swim once home or bring the dog into their office for physical therapy.

It could be up to twelve weeks before your dog recovers and begins to gain motion in the elbow. It may be up to six months before the dog achieves full range of motion in the new elbow joint.

Cost of Total Elbow Arthroplasty in Dogs

Total elbow arthroplasty is not a simple procedure and requires the use of a prosthetic device you will need to include in your budget. Including radiographs and office visits, this surgery could cost between $3,000 and $6,000. The difference being the specialists your veterinarian recommends for the surgery as well as for post-op care, such as a physical therapist. Your veterinary surgeon may have different prosthetic devices from which to choose, however depending on the breed of your dog and scope of damage in the elbow; those options may be limited. 

Years of pain medications, ice packs, and rest for your dog may not be as expensive. However, the quality of life your dog will have may affect your decision to go forward with this type of therapy. Your veterinarian may also suggest an arthrodesis to fuse the joint bones together. However, the cost of this procedure is relative to the total elbow arthroplasty.

Dog Total Elbow Arthroplasty Considerations

Before considering this surgery, have your veterinarian scan your dog for other diseases. Your dog should not be a candidate for a total elbow arthroplasty if they have cancer. If one elbow is failing, there is a chance the other joints may be failing as well.

Elbow dysplasia is an intractable disease. If your dog is experiencing the pain of elbow dysplasia, their pain and mobility will only worsen over time. Immobility in your dog will affect their other joints and muscles from inactivity.

There is always a chance if one elbow has been affected, the other joints may be affected as well. However, improving one affected elbow could also give your dog improved mobility on all joints. Be sure your veterinarian screens all joints for mobility and disease during the diagnosis process.

Total Elbow Arthroplasty Prevention in Dogs

Elbow dysplasia is typically a degenerative genetic condition. Many large breed dogs are susceptible to dysplasia, especially if they have had a high protein diet early in life. Large breeds tend to grow quickly in early months. Talk to your veterinarian about a large breed puppy food and when to take them off a puppy diet and onto a large breed adult diet. Speak to your veterinarian about supplements to add to your dog's diet as they grow. Large and giant breeds can gain better health and stronger bones from supplements such as glucosamine and omega fatty acids. Be sure to get the proper doses from your veterinarian before supplementing your dog’s diet.

Improper fitting of particular joints is also considered hereditary within many breeds.

For smaller breeds, be sure to help your dog maintain a healthy weight. Obesity will put unwanted pressure on your dog’s joints.

Know your breed well before committing to adding a dog to your family. Some breeds are susceptible to disease or conditions others are not. Each breed has its individual disadvantages and advantages. Your best defense against expensive medical procedures in the life of your dog is knowing the breed well before you choose your dog.