I well remember the day my canine yellow 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 really 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

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.

The Story

The story I have just told 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, manage his environment to ensure that he places as little stress on the elbows as possible – and consider a therapy that will significantly strengthen muscles and increase flexion in the joints, such as 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

Arthritis is incredibly common, and incredibly under-diagnosed in canines. 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 maneuvering, 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 hydrotherapy?

There are many things we can do to control and manage the progression of arthritis and 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 favorable.

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

1. Your dog is not bearing weight, which means the 60% of 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 elbows! 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 under water, 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 motion 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 great 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 than 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 loves to 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, life-long 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 to them, have a consult, and allow them to help you establish swimming as a normal part of your lives. You’ll see; it’s going to be fun and make a huge difference to the wellbeing of your family’s best friend.

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