Osteochondritis Dissecans in Dogs


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There are many illnesses and disorders that dogs can develop throughout their lifetimes. Some are easy to take care of, such as a basic cold or fleas. But others are a little more mysterious to owners. If your dog was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, you may hear it referred to as “OCD”. But it doesn’t mean that your dog has obsessive compulsive tendencies. Instead, canine OCD is a condition that affects your dog’s joints.

In this guide, we will explain exactly what osteochondritis dissecans is, and cover topics including:

  • Causes of osteochondritis dissecans
  • Symptoms of osteochondritis dissecans
  • Diagnosis of osteochondritis dissecans
  • Treatment of osteochondritis dissecans
  • Preventing osteochondritis dissecans
  • Dog breeds prone to osteochondritis dissecans

Even if you haven’t heard of a canine disorder before, don’t lose hope. There are definitely things that can be done about this disorder, and it doesn’t mean that your dog is doomed. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Osteochondritis Dissecans?

Osteochondritis dissecans is a disease that affects a dog’s joints – at the shoulders, the elbows, the hips, the knees, and the ankles. When a dog has this condition, the cartilage of the joints gets inflamed and separates from the bone of the joints. The inflamed cartilage then continues growing, unattached from the bone, which causes a big buildup of thick, inflexible cartilage in the joint.

This buildup of inflamed, unattached cartilage makes it very hard for the joint to move properly. At times, the cartilage can break apart and simply be floating around in the body cavity, which can cause other complications.

Causes of Osteochondritis Dissecans

There are five main causes of osteochondritis dissecans in dogs:

  • Genetics
  • Rapid growth as a puppy
  • Trauma suffered to the joint
  • Nutritional issues
  • Hormonal imbalances

There are certain breeds that are more prone to the condition, especially large breeds like Great Danes and Saint Bernards. If a puppy’s parents have osteochondritis dissecans, it is very likely that the puppy will also develop the condition. The condition can be caused by puppies that grow so fast that their joints don’t keep up with the rate of the growth in their bones. Another issue could be rapid weight gain. If a puppy or a very small dog gains too much weight too quickly, their joints may not be able to handle the strain.

Trauma that causes the cartilage to separate can be a cause of osteochondritis dissecans in dogs. In this case, the disease isn’t caused by cartilage that separates on its own, but the same set of results can happen after the trauma occurs.

In some cases, if a dog is getting too much calcium in their diet, it could cause their bones to grow faster than their joints can handle. This may lead to osteochondritis dissecans as well.

Finally, hormonal imbalances that affect growth can also lead to the development of osteochondritis dissecans. What it all boils down to is that a dog’s joints either get injured, or can’t keep up with some kind of recent growth.

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Symptoms of Osteochondritis Dissecans

While diagnosing osteochondritis dissecans is fairly easy, the symptoms of this condition are easy to mistake for other things. It is most common to see osteochondritis dissecans in the shoulder, and the main symptoms of this condition include:

  • Lameness in the leg that is affected by the joint in question
  • Reluctance to extend or flex a leg
  • Reluctance to move at all, especially in cases where more than one limb is affected
  • Crying or whimpering in pain
  • Swollen joints that are warm to the touch
  • Loss in muscle tone around the affected joint

If any of these symptoms start to show up in a puppy, particularly if they are not willing to put weight on a particular limb for an extended period of time, it is a very good idea to head to the vet.

Osteochondritis Dissecans in Dogs

Diagnosis of Osteochondritis Dissecans

When you first go to the vet, they will do a physical examination of your dog, and ask you about the dog’s medical history. If you know anything about the dog’s parents, this medical history will also be considered.

Then the dog will have a blood sample drawn, and a urine sample collected. These are tested for other diseases and conditions that could be causing the same issues, to ensure that anything else is eliminated.

Then the vet will likely perform x-rays of all the joints and bone structure, to get an idea of what the cartilage looks like. In some very specific cases, the vet may also do what is called an arthroscopy, which is where they put a camera into the dog’s body through a small incision near the joint, and check out the joint up close and personal on a video feed.

It is extremely important to get this condition diagnosed as early as possible, before the cartilage has a chance to build up and break apart. Early osteochondritis dissecans cases can be treated and even cured easily. But in later stages, a dog may simply be living with the condition for the rest of their life.

Treatment of Osteochondritis Dissecans

There are two main ways that vets tackle osteochondritis dissecans. The first is through surgery. This is the most common option and it has the best results. Surgery is performed to remove cartilage buildup and any loose cartilage, and then the vet will repair the cartilage flap of the joint. Most dogs who have this surgery recover 100% and rarely ever relapse.

There is a non-surgical option as well. For young dogs that can’t safely be put under for surgery, the vet may prescribe a very restrictive bed rest routine for about two months. The dog will have to be kept still, with no movement except to go to the bathroom. This is pretty hard to do with an energetic puppy, but if you can make it happen, there’s a good chance the cartilage will heal on its own in most cases. Because this is only recommended for very young puppies, the osteochondritis dissecans will still be in the early stages, which explains the success rate of this option.

With either option, your vet may prescribe some medications and supplements to keep your dog healthy. For example, NSAID pain relievers may be prescribed to help reduce the inflammation in the joints, while glucosamine may be recommended to help your dog’s joints get a boost. Additionally, the vet will likely recommend that your dog’s weight be watched carefully and that their exercise be restricted until they heal.

Recovery and Management After Osteochondritis Dissecans Treatment

Whether you choose the surgical treatment or not, your dog will need to rest for several weeks. It is best to use a crate and keep your dog very calm and still for anywhere from four to ten weeks, depending on what your vet recommends. Other than going to the bathroom, a dog shouldn’t move much at all during this time. After this time, you can start to introduce walks and playtime again, but it’s best to start slow and keep sessions short.

Some dogs may even need physical therapy after their treatment to help them regain full motion in their limbs. Your veterinary surgeon may be able to show you how to provide physical therapy to your dog at home as well.

Preventing Osteochondritis Dissecans

There is no way to prevent a genetic disorder from occurring, but there are things you can do to reduce your dog’s chance of developing the condition.

For example, large breed puppies need a very carefully balanced diet to ensure that their joints are getting plenty of support, and that their bones aren’t getting too much calcium. Choose a dog food brand that offers a large-breed specific puppy food to get the right balance of nutrients for their growth patterns.

Another thing you can do for your dog is to make sure that they aren’t gaining too much weight over their lifetime. Additionally, you can watch their activity and do your best to keep them safe from injury. Don’t allow a puppy to jump from high places and try to block stairs or other areas where he could fall.

One other thing that you can do is to ensure that your dog doesn’t spend most of their time on areas with hard surfaces. For example, if your dog’s outdoor area is hard concrete, this could be harder on the joints than grass or dirt. Be sure to offer your dog a variety of surfaces to play and walk on. If you only take walks on paved trails, consider changing your routine to including walking through fields or in grassy parks instead, until your dog gets past the 10-month stage when it is most common to see osteochondritis dissecans.

Finally, if your dog develops osteochondritis dissecans, it is a very good idea to have them spayed or neutered. Chances are very high that the dog would pass the condition on to any puppies they may have or sire. Then those puppies could pass it on as well, and the cycle continues. But if you spay or neuter your dog with osteochondritis dissecans, and other dog owners do the same, the instances of this disease could be radically decreased. Eventually, the disease could become very rare.

Breeds Prone to Osteochondritis Dissecans

The breeds that are most likely to develop osteochondritis dissecans include many dogs that are very large and tend to grow at a fast rate as a puppy. Breeds like this include:

  • Great Danes
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Newfoundlands
  • Rottweilers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Old English Sheepdogs
  • English Setters
  • Saint Bernards

However, some large breed dogs, like Huskies, Collies, and Doberman Pinschers, are not prone to this disease at all. There are a few smaller breeds that can develop osteochondritis dissecans, but it is uncommon. And while osteochondritis dissecansis usually diagnosed in puppies under 10 months of age, the disease can develop later in life in rare occasions. It is most likely to affect male dogs of the breeds listed above, simply because male dogs tend to be larger than female dogs.

Some dogs are more likely than others to develop osteochondritis dissecans in specific areas of the body. For example, Rottweilers, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers are more likely to develop osteochondritis dissecans in the ankles, while German Shepherds and Boxers frequently develop the condition in the lumbosacral joint of the spine. And when it comes to the knee, Great Danes and Newfoundlands are more likely to develop the condition in this area.

The Bottom Line

Here’s a brief overview of what you learned about osteochondritis dissecans in this guide:

  • Osteochondritis dissecans is a genetic disease that causes a dog’s joints to not keep up with rapid growth.
  • Large breed puppies are more prone to developing this condition.
  • If not treated early, this condition could lead to long-term lameness. However, early treatment through surgery and bed rest usually results in a total recover.
  • Relapse after successful treatment is rare.

If you see your dog showing any signs of pain in the limbs, or being unwilling to move a specific joint or limb – especially if that dog is a large-breed puppy – be sure to get to the vet as soon as you can. Early treatment offers the best prognosis overall. Be sure to also feed your large-breed puppy a food specifically formulated for them, to ensure that they are getting the right balance of nutrients to help prevent this disease from occurring.

Overall, if your dog has been diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, don’t worry too much – the treatment options are very successful, and chances of relapse are rare. Your vet will be able to walk you through how to keep your dog calm while they are on bed rest. Stock up on some chew toys and get ready for a few weeks of a very whiny dog. But at the end of the whole ordeal, your dog will be able to run, jump, and play like normal again.

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