Exercising a Dog with Elbow Dysplasia: Small Walk or Exercise?

Today we are going to look at exercising dogs with elbow dysplasia

Is the elbow joint causing lameness in your canine companion? If so, you may think that exercise is out of the question; however, it is an integral part of keeping your dog’s elbows healthy if you are managing the condition and even after surgery.

Elbow dysplasia is a developmental abnormality; it can be genetic but environmental factors such as exercise habits, excess weight and nutrient deficiency can also play a part. If the three bones of the joint don’t fit together perfectly, it results in an abnormal concentration on a specific area leading to lameness.

Your vet will look for clinical signs, although sometimes the symptoms of elbow dysplasia are hard to detect in the early stages and may require x-rays

You can do much at home to help your hound, for example, flooring advice – we would recommend keeping wooden or hard surfaces to a minimum.

Your pup should have an orthopaedic bed to avoid stress on the joints and a low impact exercise plan will maintain soft tissue length, prevent muscular guarding and increase your dog’s muscle mass.

Keep reading to find out what elbow dysplasia is, what signs to watch out for and what activities can improve your dog’s general health and well-being.

What is Elbow Dysplasia?

Elbow dysplasia is an incurable disease that causes abnormal development of the elbow joints’ complex structure of three bones. The genetic disorder, which can be detected through X-ray imaging, affects mostly large breed dogs. The elbow can be found in the middle of the front leg. Its primary function is bending and straightening between the upper arm bone and forearms. 

There are four types of canine elbow dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is a degenerative disease, meaning it worsens over time. It causes swelling, pain instability and can often lead to arthritis. The condition often affects both front legs, but it is usually worse in one elbow. There are multiple management options, although surgery may be required.

Signs your dog has problems with their elbow joint

There are a few symptoms of elbow dysplasia you should watch out for:

  • Limping after walks or playtime
  • Stiffness when getting up
  • The elbow joint may appear swollen
  • Your pooch is reluctant to go on daily walks
  • Their feet may rotate outwards
  • You notice a decreased range of motion in one or both elbows
  • Your dog may try to relieve the pain by walking differently and have an abnormal gait
  • A Clinical examination may show pain when the elbow joints are manipulated

Breeds most at risk of developing elbow dysplasia

Some breeds are more prone to this condition than others; below is a list of dog breeds susceptible to this degenerative joint disease.

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • German Shepherds
  • Rottweilers
  • Bassett Hounds
  • St Bernards
  • Mastiffs
  • Labradors

Dog Elbow Dysplasia Surgery Recovery

Your vet will advise you of precisely what is required after surgery. Typically your dog will need to be confined or crated for about two weeks. After that, your pup will have a four-week rehabilitation period with controlled exercise to establish deficits that should not include jumping, running, or playing with other dogs.

Exercising a Dog with Elbow Dysplasia

If your best friend lives with ED, there is more than just pain management to think about. An exercise routine is crucial to prevent further joint damage. Low impact activities support general cardiovascular fitness and many dogs benefit from a specific stretching programme tailored to their needs.

Below are a few things you can do with your dog after a diagnosis of elbow dysplasia.

Hydrotherapy for pain relief

Often used for post-operative rehabilitation, swimming or walking on an underwater treadmill offers fantastic benefits for elbow dysplasia in dogs. It strengthens specific muscle groups, increases muscle mass, improves circulation, provides pain relief, and reduces swelling without putting pressure on the elbow joint.

Some insurance companies will include a few sessions in a variable buoyancy environment as part of the physical therapy. Afterwards, even if you haven’t got access to an underwater treadmill, there are hydrotherapy pools throughout the country. Swimming in rivers or lakes is also good; just be sure it’s safe with no slippery rocks to negotiate.

Cavaletti for large breed dogs

Cavaletti for large dogs is an excellent activity for joint mobility, absolutely perfectly suited for dogs suffering from either elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia.

It involves spacing out some poles for a pup to step over. Cavaletti increases the joint range of motion, improves balance and strengthens muscles not used in normal walks.

Low-level agility equipment

Low impact agility exercises are an excellent part of any home exercise program for dogs with elbow dysplasia. Obviously, your dog is not going to whip around a competition course in record time.

However, poles raised a couple of inches off the ground for Fido to step over, weave poles and maybe a wobble board will help maintain soft tissue length, joint mobility and strengthen the core, which relieves pressure on the limbs.

Nose work

Elbow dysplasia in dogs shouldn’t make your dog’s life miserable; obviously, they can’t jump or play fetch like they used to, but there are still some fun games you can play. Nose work is excellent as it provides mental stimulation and your dog gets up and moves about the house without the risk of injury.

Balance Exercises

If your pup is showing signs of elbow dysplasia, using wobble boards is an excellent core strength exercise you can do at home as part of the long term management of the condition.

Balance or BUJA board benefits include improved core and back strength, better balance and stability, and increased flexibility. There is a huge array of equipment available online and they don’t cost the earth.

Controlled walking

Maintaining controlled exercise is vital to facilitate mobility and walking advice should be discussed with your veterinary surgeon or physiotherapist. Your dog may not be able to walk for long periods, but it can still enjoy on-lead exercise; a couple of short walks a day, preferably on soft ground, should suffice. You can also buy elbow pads online to support your pooch when walking.

Be aware that slippery surfaces are a real hazard to dogs suffering from elbow dysplasia, so invest in some non-slip dog boots for the winter months.


Can a dog walk after elbow dysplasia surgery?

Walking should be restricted for the first few weeks, then short walks are recommended for around six weeks. Your dog may never return to their previous exercise level, but after 12 weeks, they can usually return to off-leash exercise, although jumping should be avoided.

Is elbow dysplasia curable?

Unfortunately, there is no cure, although your vet may prescribe medication to reduce pain and suggest some gentle stretching exercises or swimming as the supportive medium also provides pain relief. After x-rays, surgery may be a consideration and afterwards, most dogs see an improvement.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, your dog doesn’t get elbow dysplasia. Still, if they do, it’s good to know how much exercise does a dog need everyday with this condition and that there are things you can do to make them more comfortable and prevent the condition from worsening.

Most primary lesions will occur in a young dog that is still growing and large breeds are much more likely to suffer from this condition; some may even require surgery.

The good news is that pet owners can continue conservative management after surgical intervention at home. Use raised bowls, feed joint supplements, avoid slippy surfaces and get a ramp so they don’t need to jump out of the car or onto the sofa.

Low impact land-based exercises, stretching and swimming are all ways to build muscle mass, strengthen joints and improve mobility along with a healthy diet.

It is essential to develop an exercise routine and the perfect environment that will help keep your best friend comfortable with a great quality of life.

John Devlin

Hi, my name is John, and I am the founder of Dogsbarn – a UK-based website dedicated to helping the owners of furry friends enjoy life with their four-legged companion. We currently own two golden retrievers, George and Henry, who love running around in the park together. We are thinking about adding a third – called Frank! Our mission is to provide excellent guides and introduce great products we’ve bought or come across online.