Puppy Advice

Button the Bernese: Living with elbow dysplasia

Bernese Mountain Dog Button was diagnosed at seven months old with Elbow Dysplasia, a painful and debilitating hereditary disease, which required lengthy and painful surgery. Here’s her story, as told by her owner Annie Wilson.

Button the Bernese Mountain Dog laying on floor with front leg in cast and elizabethan collar

At the time of her diagnosis, Button was training to work with me as an emotional therapy dog to support people suffering from complex PTSD.  And of course, everyone loved her!

Most people have heard of Hip Dysplasia but not many are aware of Elbow Dysplasia and how prevalent it is in certain breeds. I certainly had no idea what a devastating effect it can have on a puppy’s life.

In essence, at the age of eight months, my beautiful puppy had to have part of her leg bone cut away, a pin inserted, both elbows scraped out, and be stitched and put in a bandage.

The first signs

Button had never really wanted to go for walks since she was very young, but the vet had put it down to her being stubborn!  At the age of six months she developed a limp and despite rest it continued to get worse.  We took her to our normal vet and they took X rays. Then they referred us to a specialist orthopaedic vet who was wonderful and really kind to Button.  He took CT scans and diagnosed her with Elbow Dysplasia and recommended the surgery.  We were devastated that our young dog would have to go through not only surgery but severe exercise restrictions possibly for life.

Major surgery

Button underwent an arthroscopy in both elbows and an ulna osteotomy to shorten the ulna in her right leg. In essence, at the age of eight months, my beautiful puppy had to have part of her leg bone cut away, a pin inserted, both elbows scraped out, and be stitched and put in a bandage. 

In total, she has had to be sedated and anaesthetised five times. This was for x-rays, an MRI, the operation, bandage removal and further x-rays to ensure healing. Luckily we were insured as this, and her continued pain medication, runs into thousands of pounds.


…you can imagine what it was like for her as a young puppy when she started to feel better and wanted to run and zoom about!

To see my beautiful puppy going through this was awful.  She was really uncomfortable which was heart wrenching to watch.  Initially she had to be caged which she hated.  I would sit for hours in the cage with her playing quiet games. I also gave her Reiki healing and massaged her back. It was sore from having to take the strain off of her front legs.  She was only allowed 5 mins in the garden for a wee every so often. We then let her have the lounge to roam in. But you can imagine what it was like for her as a young puppy when she started to feel better and wanted to run and zoom about! We had child gates on all the doorways and carpeted any slippy floors to protect her joints.

Lengthy rehabilitation

The eight months of rehabilitation were probably one of the most stressful periods of my life. I constantly worried she would hurt herself if she was left on her own. I was also angry that we, as humans, had caused this, due to the way we breed dogs. And I was sad that she wasn’t allowed to socialise with other dogs. This is because she would get over excited and bounce and potentially hurt herself before the bone had healed. For the same reason she wasn’t able to meet other people. We had no visitors for six months as anytime anyone came to the door she got over excited. She missed out on so much of her puppyhood – no dog should have to go through that.

Behavioural issues

One of the worst side effects from the surgery and visits to the vet is that she has become quite reactive to people approaching her. We are doing a lot of training to help address this and she is getting much better and less frightened. The other problem is that as she never learnt how to play nicely with other dogs when she was a puppy, so she had a tendency to be a bit of bulldozer when she first met them!  So two years on we are still attending training to overcome this. Thankfully it’s working, which is wonderful for her as it means she can play with other dogs safely.

  • Button the Bernese Mountain Dog sitting in sunshine smiling at camera
  • Button the Bernese Mountain Dog puppy sitting in snow
  • Button the Bernese Mountain Dog laying on floor with front leg in cast and elizabethan collar

Button’s recovery

It took at least eight months of restricted exercise and medication before Button was well enough to socialise and play, for short periods, with other dogs. 

She has missed out on much of her socialisation but now attends ‘Adolescent Training’ with three young Labradors!  She loves her new friends and is able to play with them for short periods. 

Sadly one of the Labradors also has Elbow Dysplasia. But they seem to know how to play gently with each other, which is lovely to watch.

Being unable to socialise for so long means she has been totally spoilt with toys to keep her occupied. She recently enjoyed going to see her brother and sister who both also have Elbow Dysplasia, but that didn’t stop them being happy to see each other and playing.

We don’t know what the future will hold for Button and how long her joints will last. With daily pain medications and supplements she is at the moment able to have a ‘dogs’ life, playing and walking, but only in moderation. Due to the Elbow Dysplasia she will develop arthritis and will be in more pain as she gets older. But we will deal with it when it happens and if it becomes too bad we will have to have her put to sleep.

What causes Canine Elbow Dysplasia?

Button’s mother had Elbow Dysplasia, one of many hereditary diseases which can be passed on from parent dogs to their puppies. 

Environmental factors such as diet, weight, and type/amount of exercise can contribute to the severity of the disease. However, without the hereditary gene(s) it would not manifest into Elbow Dysplasia.

Breeding from a dog which has the disease can double the risk of the puppies having it too. The only way that breeders know if their dog has it, is if they screen for it. This is strongly recommended by the British Veterinary Association and dog welfare groups. 

Elbow dysplasia can affect many breeds and crossbreeds. This includes:

  • Basset Hounds
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Dogue de Bordeaux 
  • German Shepherd Dogs
  • Great Danes
  • Irish Water Spaniels
  • Newfoundlands 
  • Goldendoodles
  • Labradoodles
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Rottweilers

The Kennel Club’s website has a complete list of dog breeds and the tests they should have for genetic diseases and inherited disorders.  Please always check that the parents of your puppy have had the relevant health tests and the results have been heeded. Don’t let your puppy suffer like poor Button.

Calling for change

Despite it being strongly recommended by veterinary bodies and animal welfare organisations that dogs should be routinely tested for inherited diseases, this is not mandatory. 

Responsible breeders will test both parents for Elbow Dysplasia, and other known inherited diseases before they breed from them. However, thousands of puppies are still being born to parents which have not had the health checks. This can cause a puppy a lifetime of unnecessary pain and suffering and owners’ considerable heartache and huge financial costs. 

Having discovered how widespread this problem is and the need for better awareness we launched the Paws Against Elbow Dysplasia campaign, which has been gaining a lot of interest. We’ve just launched a petition to help address dog health and welfare issues. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram

Related content

  • Get advice about puppy buying, including questions to ask a breeder about tests for genetic disorders, in our guide to buying a puppy
  • The Elbow Dysplasia Scheme has been established by the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club to reduce the incidences and severity of the condition. Find out more about the Elbow Dysplasia Scheme
  • Find out how to protect yourself when buying a puppy by using The Puppy Contract


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