Q I have a golden Retriever who is now 13 months old. She was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at 8 months of age and had bilateral FHO’s performed. She is doing very well on those, but now she is limping on her front legs.

Our vet thinks she has elbow dysplasia. I called the breeder and she claims that these problems are the result of how I fed her, and that I let her exercise too much as a puppy. She said she has never had any problems in her line before.

Is it possible that I caused these problems as she has said? Could you please tell me what elbow dysplasia is and what can be done about it?

A: For our reader’s edification, an FHO is a surgical procedure used to treat hip disorders. The hip is a ball-and-socket joint and, if the hip is diseased, the “ball” portion of the joint can be removed and replacement is not necessary. Contrary to popular belief, this is an excellent procedure, when performed correctly, even in very large dogs such as your golden Retriever.

Dysplasia is a nonspecific term that means something did not develop normally. With respect to the dogs elbow, the term usually encompasses one or more of four common conditions.

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) is a disease of cartilage development, which results in a defect in the bone and cartilage.

Fragmented coronoid process (FCP) is similar to OCD and results in one edge of the elbow joint breaking away.

Ununited anconeal process (UAP) describes another area of the joint surface which breaks away from the joint surface.

These conditions are likely the result of an over-arching condition known as elbow incongruity.

The elbow is a complex joint, made up of three bones. These must all line up perfectly for the joint to function normally and wear evenly. Opinions vary on this, but it is likely that incongruity is the cause of at least two of the aforementioned conditions, UAP and FCP. The incongruity leads to uneven pressure application and likely leads to the development of arthritis and fragmentation of the joint.

So your breeder wants to blame you. Well, here are the facts. It has been widely researched and is a well-accepted conclusion that diet may increase the odds of developmental joint disease. The theory is that when we load large-breed puppies up with high-energy, nutrient-rich foods, we accelerate the growth of the long bones. It may be that this growth outstrips the ability of tendons and ligaments to adapt and support this rapidly enlarging frame. This lack of coordination in the development of various tissue types may lead to instability and cartilage problems.

It is interesting to note that OCD, a disease in which the cartilage does not transition normally to bone, is most common in the chicken and the pig. These are two of the fastest growing animals on earth. A chicken goes from the egg to your plate in about 6 weeks. Pigs are usually slaughtered between 3 and 6 months of age. Pushing their growth has resulted in painful orthopedic conditions, and it can do the same to your fast-growing puppy.

The best recommendation is to slow the puppy’s growth by feeding an appropriate amount of a large-breed growth formula, or bypassing puppy food altogether, and providing a well-balanced adult food. Fed properly, the puppy will attain its genetically predetermined size, and it will do so in a slower, more coordinated, way. This type of feeding will minimize the likelihood of abnormal joint development.

I (Dr. Henri Bianucci) don’t know what, or how much, you fed your puppy, nor do I know what the exercise program was. So, I don’t know how likely it was that either of these elements played a role in your dog’s issues.

The link between exercise and developmental joint disease is not well established, so the breeder cannot confidently use that to excuse the genetics in her line. Diet does play a role, and if you did over-feed your growing pup, you may have increased the odds, and severity, of joint problems.

However, hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia ARE genetic problems. Diet may influence whether, and to what extent, these genetic traits are expressed, but they are genetic and they are in the line. Unless you flagrantly overfed your dog, it would not be possible to pin all the blame on you.

In my career, I have seen this situation many times. It is rare, in my experience, for a breeder to accept responsibility and, almost every time, they make the claim that this is the first time that it has been seen in their line.

To make it worse, its often at this time that the owner is informed that the “guarantee” they were given means they can exchange the puppy for another one. It’s a guarantee that only the coldest of characters would exercise. Before anyone shells out cash for a fancy bloodline, insist that genetic problems constitute a refund to be applied to a treatment plan. You may not end up with quite the dog you wanted, but you’ll keep the dog you love.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com or veterinaryspecialtycare.com.