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Joint Subluxations in Dogs

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Medical Conditions, Surgical Conditions, Pet Services

What is a joint subluxation?

A joint luxation is a dislocation or complete separation between the bones that normally articulate to form a joint. Subluxation is the term referring to a partial separation of the joint. The most commonly subluxated joints in dogs include the hip and elbow, although any joint can be affected.

"Trauma, such as an automobile accident, is the most common cause of sudden or acute joint subluxations."

Trauma, such as an automobile accident, is the most common cause of sudden or acute joint subluxations. Certain breeds of dogs may inherit a predisposition to a conformation or anatomical condition that makes them more likely to experience chronic joint subluxations. Certain breeds of dogs such as Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds have a higher incidence of hip dysplasia, making them more likely to have a subluxated hip joint.

What are the clinical signs of a joint subluxation?

The most common clinical signs associated with joint subluxations include:

  • sudden onset of limping or lameness
  • reluctance to walk or jump
  • pain when touching or moving the joint
  • swelling or warmth of the joint
  • persistent licking at the joint
  • decreased appetite
  • decreased activity

How is a joint subluxation diagnosed?

Often there is a history of trauma, injury, or recent intense activity or exertion. Your veterinarian may be suspicious of a joint subluxation based on the medical history and physical examination findings. A radiograph (X-ray) is necessary to definitively diagnose a joint subluxation. Other diagnostic tests may include computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

How is a joint subluxation treated?

In many cases, the joint can be reduced or replaced to its original orientation by a procedure called a closed reduction. General anesthesia is required for this procedure. After reducing the subluxated joint, an external bandage or supportive wrap is necessary to hold the joint in proper alignment as the joint capsule heals.

Some dogs will require an open reduction, a surgery in which the joint is opened in order to replace the partially dislocated joint bones. If this is necessary, your veterinarian will discuss the surgical procedure, its prognosis, and long-term care.

What is the prognosis for a joint subluxation?

The prognosis for recovery in most acute (sudden) or traumatic joint subluxations is good, provided the injury is treated immediately. Chronic subluxations, such as those associated with hip dysplasia, may be successfully managed medically or may require surgical treatment.

"With any joint injury, the patient has an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis in the future."

With any joint injury, the patient has an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis in the future. To delay the development of osteoarthritis, many patients will benefit from life-long supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin. Weight management is also critical to reduce future osteoarthritis after joint injuries.

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