Osteochondritis dissecans in Dogs (OCD or OD)

  • By: Mick Whitefield
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is an abnormal development of bone tissue from cartilage. The most commonly affected are the shoulder and elbow joints.

Within joints like the shoulder, knee, elbow, and ankle, a cartilage flap develops causing lameness. The cartilage flap can detach itself completely from the underlying bone structure and get lodged in the back of the animal’s joint pouch.

The loss of cartilage cells deep within the cartilage layers culminates in the formation of a defective junction between bone and cartilage. The development of Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is secondary to multiple factors that include genetics, trauma, diet, growth rate, joint architecture, and hormonal imbalance. 

Risk factors for Osteochondritis dissecans appearing in dogs can include:

  • Breeding genetics
  • Rapid growth
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Anatomic abnormalities
  • Nutrient excesses (particularly for puppies)
  • Trauma

Most Commonly Affected Dogs

Although the exact cause of Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is unknown, rapid growth possibly through excessive nutrition, trauma, and/or genetics are thought to be the primary contributing factors.

Due to irregular development and growth, the basal cartilage cells are weakened leading to flap formation, possible cartilage cracks, and fissures when subjected to normal pressure, or after minor joint trauma.

Osteochondritis dissecans affects rapidly growing medium and large breed dogs. The disorder is characterized by abnormal cartilage and bone development in the shoulder, stifle, elbow, and hock joints. 

In fast-growing dogs, the rapid cartilage growth outstrips its own blood supply thus starving it, leading to abnormal cartilage development. This can results in lameness, pain, and later osteoarthritis. 

The most commonly affected breeds are:

  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Chow Chows
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Great Danes
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Mastiffs
  • Newfoundland’s
  • Old English Sheepdogs
  • Rottweilers
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Standard Poodles.

In general, males are more affected than females especially in OCD cases of the shoulder.

OCD Signs and Symptoms

Clinical OCD signs often develop when a dog is between four and eight months old. Occasionally the symptoms may present when the dog is older particularly with shoulder OCD.

Usually, dogs begin limping on one forelimb. Although your dog may appear lame on only one limb, the condition might also be present in the other leg. Often, a gradual onset of lameness shows improvement after the animal has rested and worsens after some physical activity such as exercise.

Signs to look for include:

  • Lameness is the most common sign
  • Sudden or gradual onset of lameness involving one or more limbs
  • Lameness that gets worse after exercise
  • Inability to carry weight on the affected leg
  • Joints swelling
  • Limb pain especially on manipulation of affected joints
  • Muscle wasting with chronic lameness.

How is OCD Diagnosed in Dogs?

A lameness examination result may confirm the presence of OCD, especially if the affected area is the shoulder joint. In other joints like the knee (stifle), elbow, or hip, the vet may look at other bone conditions including elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, and patellar luxation. See our page on Health Concerns – Link at the Bottom.

To rule out the possibility of permanent lameness, your vet may recommend diagnostic testing particularly if the lameness has persisted for over 2 weeks. In many cases, the diagnostic testing will require a short-acting sedative or anaesthetic to achieve optimal positioning of the limb for x-rays. 

X-rays (radiographs) are usually performed to diagnose a reason for lameness. Several X-rays of each affected limb may be necessary to get a precise assessment of various joints and bones. Even if the dog is only showing lameness in one limb, X-rays of both shoulders are recommended since OCD may be present on both sides.

In puppies under 6-7 months, it can be challenging to correctly interpret the X-rays due to the presence of growth plates or physes (a cartilaginous disc). In some cases, it may be necessary to have a veterinary radiologist examine the X-rays to reach a diagnosis. In others, an arthroscopic examination may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Osteochondritis Dissecans Treatment

OCD commonly occurs in the shoulders of immature, giant, and large-breed dogs. Although there is no cure per se, the condition can be treated and managed through a variety of methods. The treatment approach will depend on the location and size of the lesion, the age, and the degree of symptoms shown by the dog.

The best treatment option can only be recommended by your vet following thorough radiographic, clinical, and arthroscopic assessment. Occasionally, non-surgical management is appropriate if a dog has minimal discomfort and small cartilage defects. Conservative management in such cases may consist of dietary changes, exercise restrictions, pain medications, and formal rehabilitation therapy.

Conservative management of an OCD lesion in dogs over six months of age is likely to be ineffective. Surgery is usually recommended to remove the cartilage flap and to also stimulate the formation of scar tissue (fibrocartilage) in the underlying bone bed. In cases with large lesions, it may be necessary to insert an artificial plug into the bone bed. 

Arthroscopic is a surgical procedure frequently used to remove the loose bone and cartilage tissue from the joint. For OCD treatment Arthroscopic surgery is the gold standard, the preferred method because of better visualization, minimally invasive nature, and quicker recovery. 

Brace For Shoulder After Surgery
Your dog may need a brace after treatment

Your orthopaedic pet clinician will advise you on the best treatment course for your dog.

Post-Operative Care and Prognosis

Following surgery, your dog should be restricted to minimal physical treatment, preferably under leash confinement, for at least four weeks. In the course of the four weeks, controlled activity may be increased gradually. Potential complications include infection and fluid formation (postoperative seroma) within the incision site.

Pain management will usually continue for 4-7 days after surgery with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Long-term OCD management, whether through surgery or not, will include controlled exercise, weight restriction, and pain management when necessary.

Body Brace For Support After Surgery
Your dog may need help walking initially, dependant upon the level of surgery required

The overall OCD prognosis largely depends on the extent of the problem and its location. In some cases, the recovery and subsequent life quality are excellent, while it may be restricted in others.

As genetics play a role in the development of Osteochondritis dissecans, any dog diagnosed with this condition should not be used for breeding. Remember that because of the genetic element of Osteochondritis dissecans, you need to have your pet spayed or neutered to prevent it from breeding, as the condition has a high chance of being passed on.

Parents, previous offspring, or siblings of an affected animal should also not be bred.

OCD is more frequent in large and giant breeds.

Male dogs are commonly affected more than females.

See our page on Health Concerns for more detail on various bone conditions.

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