How Hydrotherapy Can Help your Dog with Elbow Dysplasia

Feb 1, 2024 | Hydrotherapy for Animals

Canine Elbow Dysplasia is a degenerative condition affecting the elbow joints in dogs. It can start in a few different forms, each leading to pain and incongruency in the elbow joint. No matter how it presents initially, elbow dysplasia will eventually develop into arthritis in the joint. 


Canine Elbow Dysplasia is a common degenerative condition affecting dogs of all ages, with the first signs often seen in puppies between six months and a year of age. Canine Hydrotherapy, especially swimming, is a valuable tool in managing this condition throughout the stages of progression. 


The Familiar Story

‘I well remember the day my canine ball of fluff licked me in the face for the first time! So much energy and love in such a tiny, wriggly body. I remember week after week as he grew bigger, more boisterous and playful, how excited he would get when I arrived home, or we went for a walk – or just for any reason!


‘I also remember that when he was around six months old, I thought I saw a little limp in the front leg when we went for walks. The right leg. No, the left leg. It was odd; after some time he seemed fine again. And then a few weeks later, there it was again! Convinced it was not my imagination, off we went to the vet.


The diagnosis of elbow dysplasia

‘I do love my Vet – she listens to me, hears my fears and, most importantly, loves my dogs. After a full set of X-rays, the news comes back that my perfect boy has elbow dysplasia. I am in a flat spin – how did this happen? What does it mean? Can we treat it? How much pain is he in?

And right then and there, my Vet gave me the best advice I could have hoped for – she referred me to a Hydrotherapist.’


Elbow Dysplasia can be managed

This story is a common one for many of us. Perhaps it’s a story you are living now. You might have just received the diagnosis, or you might have known about it for years. Either way, what matters is that elbow dysplasia is a life-long condition that needs to be managed. You will need to address your dog’s diet, make sure he remains at an ideal weight, monitor and manage pain, and manage his environment to ensure that he places as little stress on the elbows as possible. In addition, you might consider a therapy that will significantly strengthen muscles and improve the health of the joints  hydrotherapy.

Elbow dysplasia comes in many forms, all lumped together under one name. For a few forms, surgical intervention is necessary, although only really helpful if it is performed as soon after the onset of the condition as possible. For other forms, there are no viable surgical options.

But no matter what you do at the beginning stages of the disease, elbow dysplasia will progress to arthritis in your dog’s elbows.


What to expect

Canine arthritis is incredibly common, and incredibly under-diagnosed. Even so, it is as painful and debilitating for them as it is for us. We have the ability to do something about our pain, while our beloveds do not – they rely on us to be perceptive enough to know when they need a little extra help to manage the pain.

Elbow dysplasia can be particularly debilitating in dogs because of the joint affected. Dogs carry 60% of their weight on their forelimbs, and they use their forelimbs for manoeuvring, slowing down, and much more. The elbow plays a vital role in allowing the limb to function at its best, and it needs a really good range of motion to be able to do so.

When arthritis develops in the elbow, we see the joint lose its ability to flex, and then its ability to fully extend. For your dog to stand upright and walk forwards, he needs full extension, and for him to lie down or play, he needs a good amount of flexion. 


Why Canine Hydrotherapy?

There are many things we can do to control and manage the progression of elbow arthritis and joint pain, and any good vet and rehab therapist will advise you to take a multi-modal approach to management. No one thing is going to help on its own, but put a well-thought-out and tested combination of tools together, and the outcome is likely to be favourable.

One of these tools is canine hydrotherapy. When it comes to treating dogs with elbow dysplasia, swimming shines, for a few reasons:

  1. Your dog is not bearing weight, which means 60% of the weight is not a factor and they can move their joints and muscles without that constant stress.
  2. To swim, your dog needs to flex those elbow joints! Swimming has been shown to significantly increase the amount of flexion available in the elbow during walking. This means that after a good swim, your dog will immediately be more comfortable and more able to move freely.
  3. With flexion comes extension. When underwater, as hard as your dog flexes, he needs to extend. There is no other exercise that will take the elbow through such a great range of movement in such a kind and non-stressful way.
  4. To move a joint, we need muscle. Swimming adds extra resistance, and to travel through such a large range of motion, the muscles need to work extra hard. This means more strengthening in less time, without any stress on the elbow joint. Fantastic.
  5. Weight management. There are few things as effective at keeping off the extra pounds as a good swim, and a healthy weight is imperative for your dog to stay pain-free.
  6. Fun. Come now, your boisterous pup is still a fun-loving, crazy maniac of a dog who lovesto play! Adding water to the equation not only has all the amazing benefits mentioned above but also adds a huge element of fun for your dog.


And so, you see, there is no question about it – when it comes to elbow dysplasia you need to add a regular, lifelong swimming routine to your multi-modal management plan. If that seems daunting to you right now, take a deep breath … I understand and know the feeling well. I have been there. Just know that you and your dog are going to be OK, with some help. Find your closest hydrotherapist with a swimming facility, and go and chat with them, have a consult, and allow them to help you establish swimming as a normal part of your life. You’ll see; it’s going to be fun and make a huge difference to the well-being of your family’s best friend.


If you want to learn more about elbow dysplasia and how you can support your dog with this condition, download our free Canine Elbow Dysplasia poster and information leaflet here, and learn more about the signs of the condition.


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  1. This was great info and i will be sharing with coworkers.!

    • Thank you so much Laura, we really appreciate that!

  2. We swim several dogs with ED all with superb results. Thanks also focusing my photo with one of my fitness clients.

    • Hi Clare, thank you so much for sharing your image with us, we love to be able to feature and highlight the Vetrehabbers who are making an impact in our industry 💚

  3. My boy Oz (age7) has been at hydrotherapy with the amazing lady in the photo, for over a year now.
    A few years ago he had surgery on both elbows for dysplasia and subsequently developed severe osteoarthritis in both legs, the only solution was for elbow replacements in both legs, a huge undertaking and recovery.
    We were lucky enough to be referred for hydrotherapy and it’s been a game changer. We have not had to put Oz through surgery, although he can’t run about like a mad thing, it has given him a great quality of life, which we are truly grateful for.

    • Hi Jill, thank you so much for sharing your and Oz’s story! I am so glad to hear that you are managing his pain and symptoms effectively through Hydrotherapy, well done!!


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