What About Elbows?

Is Elbow Dysplasia a concern in the Ryman-type setter? Although Hip Dysplasia (HD) is the most well known inherited health problem in English setters, it certainly is not the only serious disease we need to guard against, and Elbow Dysplasia is a prime example. Much of what we will discuss in our continuing series of articles on HD will also apply to Elbow Dysplasia (ED), so lets take a look at elbows before going on.

The OFA reports an incidence of about 15% Elbow Dysplasia in English setters. We don’t know exactly how Ryman-type setters compare to the breed as a whole, but we know that ED does occur.

What is Elbow Dysplasia?

A dog diagnosed with Elbow Dysplasia will have one or more of three abnormalities within the elbow joint:

  • FCP-Fragmented medial coronoid of the ulna
  • OCD-Osteochondritis of the medial condyle of the humerus
  • UAP-Ununited anconeal process of the ulna

These defects cause secondary arthritis and/or instability in the elbow joint. They are polygenic traits that are inherited independently from each other. RymanSetters.com member Walt Cottrell, DVM, wrote a summary of the conditions here:
English Setter Health Testing
You can also read more in-depth info provided by the OFA:
Elbow Dysplasia
Read more about Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow Dysplasia tends to be a more serious disease for the dog, and for the owner, than Hip Dysplasia typically is.

Compared to HD, Elbow Dysplasia:
  • is more likely to have an early onset of signs; most clinically effected dogs are diagnosed by 18 months.
  • is more likely to cause debilitating, intractable arthritis and pain, and is expensive to try to manage. In its milder forms it can also remain undetected.
  • is more difficult to diagnose.
  • has a somewhat higher heritability estimate in most populations studied.

The higher heritability estimate is an important consideration.

Do not misconstrue this to mean that the disease is more “inherited”. Both Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia are inherited diseases. We will go over heritability estimates and how they are used in a separate post. For now here is the main thing to understand regarding this discussion:

When selecting for or against polygenic traits like HD and ED, heritability estimates tell a breeder how much importance must be placed on the status of a potential breeding dog’s relatives. The lower the heritability estimate is, the more important the relatives become. Counterintuitively, if a trait has a low heritability estimate the status of a dog’s relatives can be an even better window into the genes a dog is carrying than the dog’s own status is. With higher heritability however, the relatives are less important.

Because heritability estimates are higher for ED, selecting an individual dog with normal elbows may help reduce the incidence more effectively than it does with HD. On the flip side, if a breeder uses a dog that has ED, its offspring are more likely to be affected by the disease. As with HD, breeding a dog with an unknown case has the potential to cause significant damage by spreading the genes before the problem is recognized. Plus, studies show that as the incidence increases, the severity of the cases goes up as well1,2. Using dogs that have ED, or have never been evaluated, is a significant risk to any breeding program.

Elbow Dysplasia in Real Life

To illustrate the impact ED can have, we asked RymanSetters.com breeder members Legh and Jenn Higgins of Twombly Setters to share their personal experiences with Elbow Dysplasia. Their story should give pause to anyone who is considering breeding, or buying a puppy out of, a dog that hasn’t had its elbows evaluated as normal by the OFA.

“Personal Experience with ED

30 years ago, we trained and trialed Labradors. Our dogs trialed and were hunted hard, 50+ days of hunting alone for several years. Back then hips were x-rayed and rated by the OFA, but not elbows. We purchased a male pup from a “responsible breeder” and at 7 months he was crippled with what we learned was Elbow Dysplasia. He had very expensive surgery and had a recovery time of at least 6 months, in a crate and not training, learning working or hunting. His joint problems never got better, only worse, and he lived with us in pain all his life, never realizing his potential as a hunting companion.

Recent Experience as Breeders

This litter would be different – sired by a dog outside our bloodlines. The male dog’s owner wanted a puppy to replace the aging dogs in his string of 4 English Setters. This gentleman had cancer and wanted to carry on his bloodlines to give to his grandchildren as a reminder of him: a noble mission, so we agreed to proceed. We drove 800 miles to see and evaluate the potential sire. First off, no OFA documentation for hips or elbows; the owner agreed to have X-rays done and evaluated by the OFA – we had plenty of time to get the results before our female would be ready for breeding.

The owner passed away, and transferred ownership of the dog to his caregiver. The time came for our female to be bred, we were told the X-rays were “all good”. I asked to see the paperwork from the OFA which was locked inside the estate home, and it became an issue to retrieve during the “Will being settled”. After looking at the OFA website and finding the hips were “Good” but there was no information about the elbows, I called the OFA and spoke with Dr. Keller. They couldn’t disclose the results of the elbows as the owner had not authorized the OFA to release the results…end of discussion. At this point we had bred the pair and really wanted to get to the bottom of this, and demanded the papers from the new owner/caretaker. Finally he retrieved them and brought the documents to us.

  • Hips: Good.
  • Elbows: Elbow Dysplasia Grade III (worst grade) Left and Right.
    Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) Left and Right.

The air left the room. This is not what we had anticipated. At this point we realized how grave a mistake it was to assume and take someone’s word that the X-rays were “all good”. We had all the upcoming pups spoken for, but after exploring all our options, we only had one course. The pregnancy was terminated and our female can no longer have pups, since the safest way to end a canine pregnancy is with a OVH, or complete hysterectomy. Telling many committed potential owners that there weren’t pups for them was difficult, but far worse for us was the loss of our best hunting female in our breeding program. We were and still are devastated.

We would like to see the OFA publish ALL results of submissions and not withhold information from people who need accurate information to make the best/most responsible choices they can. Hopefully our terrible misadventure will help someone else down the road.”

Legh and Jenn Higgins

In addition to driving home the importance of screening for ED, there are a couple more takeaways from this wrenching story:

  1. When a dog passes its final OFA evaluations the results will always be made available to the public. They can be verified by searching the OFA’s online database or by calling the OFA directly. If a dog’s results are not in the public database it was either never submitted, or it failed.
  2. Trust only OFA results that you have personally verified. From simple lies to forged OFA certificates, dishonesty regarding OFAs is all too common. It is an unfortunate fact that you must confirm OFA results via the OFA.

Obviously ED should be taken seriously and the Higgins’ experience is a wake up call for everyone interested in English setters. On the surface the fact that ED is relatively uncommon may sound like a reason to ignore the issue. However, in reality this makes an even stronger argument for screening in order to prevent Elbow Dysplasia from becoming a more significant health problem for our dogs. Our members agree that every breeding English setter should have its elbows evaluated by the OFA.


1JAVMA, 1997; 210: 215 – 221. Prevalence and inheritance of and selection for elbow arthrosis in Bernese Mountain Dogs and Rottweilers in Sweden and benefit: cost analysis of a screening and control program. Swenson L, Audell L, Hedhammar A.
2Elbow Dysplasia FAQS

One thought on “What About Elbows?”

  1. I was pleased to read the article on elbow dysplasia. Owners should know that the practical approach to dealing with this problem is to xray both hips and elbows at the same time. Most vets charge less when both procedures are done at the same appointment. The OFA fee is $40 when hips and elbows are submitted together. The fees for separate submissions of hips and elbows is $35 for each.

    In 40 years with bench English Setters I owned one with Moderate hip dysplasia and one with Grade 1 unilateral elbow dysplasia. I felt that the dog with elbow dysplasia was more severely impacted by the condition than the dog with HD. This is a problem to take seriously.

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