Hip dysplasia; as a veterinarian and lover of large breed dogs, these words send shivers down my spine.  Many seasoned large breed or giant breed dog owners are also well aware of this term and its connotations.  However, many dog owners hear this term for the first time when their own beloved pet is diagnosed with this chronic and painful condition.  

Perhaps you are a new owner of a large or giant breed puppy, have a dog who has recently been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, or maybe you are diligently doing your research before adding a new furry family member to the home. In any circumstance, this article will help you understand hip dysplasia, learn what causes hip dysplasia, how to identify hip dysplasia in your pet, and what you can expect if your dog is diagnosed with hip dysplasia. 

What is Canine Hip Dysplasia?

hip dysplasia diagnosis in dogs

Canine hip dysplasia is a skeletal abnormality affecting the hip joint.  Dysplasia is a term for abnormal development; thus, dogs with hip dysplasia have abnormal growth or development of the hips.  This orthopedic condition mostly plagues large breed or giant breed dogs but can occur in any size or breed of dog. 

The hip joint is a ball and socket joint, in which the head of the femur (the thigh bone) is a smooth, round ball that fits nicely inside the concave acetabulum of the pelvis (hip socket).  This particular fit, along with the fibrous joint capsule, lubricating fluid, and smooth cartilage that covers the ends of the bones, provides for nearly frictionless movement.  The bones glide smoothly across each other's surface as muscles are engaged to move the hind leg.

In cases of hip dysplasia, the hip joint develops with a poor fit between the ball and socket (or head of the femur and acetabulum) during a puppy's growing phase.  The poor fit results in a loose, grinding joint, as opposed to a normally tightly fitted, gliding joint.  This looseness, referred to as joint laxity, leads to stretching of the supporting ligaments, joint capsule, and muscles around the hip joint, resulting in joint instability, pain, and permanent damage to the hip joint.  The body attempts to stabilize the joint, and consequently, pets develop degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis.

Causes of Hip Dysplasia

hip dysplasia in canines

There is not a solitary cause of hip dysplasia.  Instead, the condition results from a multitude of factors, including genetics, nutrition, environment, exercise, growth rate, muscle mass, and hormones.  

Hip dysplasia is a hereditary condition, meaning that it can be passed to future generations from affected parents. Breeds most commonly affected by hip dysplasia include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Old English Sheepdogs, and Bulldogs.  Although any dog, including mixed breed dogs, can develop hip dysplasia. 

Inappropriate nutrition is a major cause of hip dysplasia.  Large breed puppies who grow too quickly are likely to experience incongruous hip development.  A common misconception is that large breed puppies should be nutritionally pushed to grow faster and larger.  Subsequently, owners provide excess calories and/or supplement their diet with additional protein and calcium.  Unfortunately, these practices are detrimental to the developing orthopedic system of puppies, and it leads to bones and muscles growing at different rates.  This results in numerous deleterious orthopedic concerns, including hip dysplasia. 

In adult dogs, overfeeding leads to excess body weight or obesity, linked with hip dysplasia.  Oftentimes, these dogs actually developed hip dysplasia during growth but are unaffected by the condition prior to becoming overweight or obese.  The extra stress and strain put on their hips by their portliness exacerbates the condition and results in the accelerated development of painful osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.

Too much exercise early in puppyhood (before three months of age) has been linked to an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia.  On the other hand, too little exercise in adulthood has been shown to increase the orthopedic disorder, likely due to the development of obesity and/or the loss of lean muscle mass, which supports and cushions joints.

Another component believed to contribute to hip dysplasia is the early spay and neuter of large breed puppies, particularly those already genetically predisposed.  This factor is still being studied and debated, and at this time, it is unclear just how much hormones influence hip development.  Additionally, studies have shown that delaying the spaying of female dogs can lead to other issues, such as mammary cancer. 

Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

The characteristic symptoms of hip dysplasia include, but are not limited to:

  • A hip-swinging (hula-hooping) gait in the rear legs
  • Bunny hopping with the back legs, particularly when going upstairs
  • Reluctance or difficulty rising
  • Weakness or loss of muscle mass in the back legs
  • Decreased range of motion in the hips
  • Lameness in the rear legs
  • Shifting the weight to the front legs while standing
  • Reduced activity or playfulness

Symptoms of hip dysplasia may begin as early as four months of age in puppies with significantly loose hips. In contrast, other dogs show no signs until the condition results in painful osteoarthritis.

It’s also important to note that dogs in pain do not always whine or cry, as all of the symptoms listed here are evidence of hip pain and discomfort. 

See our article on dog joint pain to learn about other joint problems as well as related symptoms and relief.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian may be suspicious of hip dysplasia based on your dog’s history and physical exam.  However, a radiograph (x-ray) of the hips is needed for a definitive diagnosis.  Many dogs with hip dysplasia are painful upon manipulation of their hips, making positioning for the images uncomfortable for them.  This causes them to struggle or tense their muscles.  Therefore, in order to obtain adequate images and prevent unnecessary discomfort, dogs typically need to be anesthetized to some degree for this procedure.  

Treatment

Multiple treatment options exist for hip dysplasia and vary greatly depending on the age and size of the affected dog, the severity of the orthopedic disorder, the degree of pain, whether or not there are any other medical concerns, and finances available.  

Many cases will benefit from surgical intervention, and there are several surgical procedures available through board-certified veterinary surgeons.  Both hips may or may not need surgery, depending on the specific case.  Although hip surgery is an extensive and expensive procedure, most dogs who undergo hip surgery experience a significant improvement in quality of life and are able to resume a high level of activity and functionality. 

Treatment for Young Dogs Suffering From Hip Dysplasia

Young dogs between 10-18 weeks old suspected of having hip laxity can undergo a Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis (JPS).  A JPS is a minimally invasive surgery in which the growth plate at the bottom of the pelvis is mechanically closed.  By stopping the growth of the lower hip bones, the further growth and shape of the hips are altered to provide better coverage of the femoral head and prevent laxity in the joint.  This procedure consistently results in pain-free, normal hip function, but early diagnosis and imaging are critical.

Another surgical option available for dogs younger than twelve months is a Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (TPO).  During this surgery, the bones of the pelvis are cut and repositioned in such a way that the function of the joint is improved and laxity is reduced or eliminated.  This procedure must be performed before dogs have evidence of osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, as these changes are not reversible, and the surgery may not be effective.  

The best surgical treatment option available for treating hip dysplasia in dogs older than one year is a Total Hip Replacement (THR).  This procedure replaces the entire dysplastic and arthritic joint with manufactured implants.  Afterward, the hip has improved function, and pain associated with hip dysplasia is eliminated.  

For patients who are deemed ineligible for a THR, or in cases in which funds are not available, a Femoral Head Osteotomy (FHO) is an alternative.  During this surgery, the head of the femur is removed and not replaced, thereby eliminating the grinding and bone-on-bone contact that triggers pain.  Over time, scar tissue forms a “false joint” to provide stability in the hips.  Although the false joint is not as functional as a real joint, the source of pain is eliminated, and the quality of the dog’s life will improve. 

In more mild cases of hip dysplasia, or cases in which surgery is not an option, many less invasive treatment protocols exist for hip dysplasia.  These protocols will be continued life-long, as non-surgical treatment is not a cure but rather a technique to manage and reduce pain and discomfort.  Non-surgical treatment is typically a combination of one or more of the following:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include pain medications such as carprofen, galliprant, etc.
  • Achieving and maintaining a lean physique to reduce strain on hips
  • Physical therapy and exercise modifications
  • Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation like Native Pet’s Omega Oil
  • Veterinary approved joint supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin
  • Polysulfated glycosaminoglycan injections 
  • Laser therapy

Native Pet’s Relief Chews are designed to support dogs with mobility issues and to help adult dogs stave off joint pain or other inflammatory issues before they take hold. These chews offer green-lipped mussel and turmeric to help regulate the inflammatory response around your dog’s body.

Prevention

While it is impossible to prevent hip dysplasia completely, there are several steps dog owners can take to help reduce their pet’s risks of developing the disorder.

Prospective dog owners who prefer to purchase a puppy should search for responsible breeders who screen their animals for medical issues, such as hip dysplasia.  When purchasing a large or giant breed puppy, look for breeders who have had their dogs certified by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).  At two years of age, radiographs are taken of the parent’s hips and sent to the OFA.  If a dog’s hips are rated as “good” or “excellent,” they receive a registration number.  A similar program exists exclusively through the University of Pennsylvania, known as PennHip.  Puppies from OFA or PennHip certified parents are less likely to develop hip dysplasia. 

Equally as important in the prevention of hip dysplasia is appropriate nutrition.  Large or giant breed puppies should be fed a diet specifically formulated for large or giant breed puppies.  This diet should make up 90% or greater of their daily caloric intake, as adding too many treats can lead to a nutritional imbalance and excess calories.  Keeping puppies lean and allowing them to grow slowly is ideal for the proper development of the skeletal system. 

As dogs grow, providing appropriate levels of exercise will prevent obesity and lead to increased skeletal muscle mass to protect joints.  Preventing obesity is critical as it is closely linked to the development of hip dysplasia, not to mention a slew of other medical concerns. 

Prognosis

Hip dysplasia carries a good prognosis, and dogs affected by dysplastic hips are expected to live long, happy lives.  If your dog has been diagnosed with the condition, working with your veterinarian and consistently adhering to treatment recommendations is the best way to keep your dog living comfortably well into their senior years. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the initial signs of hip dysplasia in canines?

The first and important sign of hip dysplasia in dogs is the decreased activity. The dog avoids motion. Your dog might face difficulty in jumping or running. Climbing becomes difficult and even rising might be a challenge for a dog suffering with dysplasia.

Can a dog with hip dysplasia live longer?

Your dog can live a full life if the treatment is given on time and the health is taken care of properly. Your dog can lead a normal life if treated well.

Is hip dysplasia recoverable?

No. Your dog may not recover fully if it is suffering from hip dysplasia. Anyhow, if you maintain a healthy diet and routine exercise schedule, your dog can stay healthy for long. There might be no cure for hip dysplasia in dogs but there are many treatments that can give full relief in pain and stop the progress of damage further.

What will happen if I do not treat my dog suffering from hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is painful and can effect the mobility of your dog if left untreated. The dog might develop osteoarthritis that can further increase the pain and disable your dogs motion completely. Without movements your dog might start losing muscles.


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