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What Is Hip Dysplasia and How Do I Know If My Dog Has It?

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Hip Dysplasia is a condition that can limit a dog's ability to run and walk without pain.

Hip Dysplasia is a condition that can limit a dog's ability to run and walk without pain.

What Is Hip Dysplasia?

Hips dysplasia (HD) is a scary phrase and one no dog owner wants to hear. It conjures fears of surgery, a dog being in chronic pain and a beloved pet not being able to live a normal life. The causes of HD are also often misunderstood, with a lot of false information being shared about what can and can't cause it.

When we talk about hip dysplasia, what we are actually referring to is an abnormality in the hip joint. The term dysplasia means 'abnormality of development'.

The hip joint is known as a ball and socket joint. In healthy animals, the head of the leg bone (femur) is shaped like a ball and slots into a circular depression in the hip bone. This is often described as a cup-like depression. Ligaments hold the head of the femur securely in the socket of the hip, allowing it to move smoothly and in multiple directions.

In a dog with hip dysplasia, the cup-like socket deteriorates and becomes shallow and smooth. The hip is no longer stable and the ball at the head of the femur becomes worn and flattened. This results in pain, progressing to arthritis in later life.

The severity of hip dysplasia varies significantly from dog to dog. Some individuals may show no signs of the condition until they are older and have arthritis in the joint. Others show signs before they are mature, with an abnormal gait, lameness, stiffness, or a reluctance to engage in activity.

Puppies can be born predisposed to HD.

Puppies can be born predisposed to HD.

What Causes Hip Dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is a complicated genetic condition. This means it is passed down through a dog's family line. However, dogs are not born with bad hips. The actual cause of HD is a genetic tendency for the ligaments and soft tissue that should support the hip joint to be too loose. They allow the joint to be unstable and the hip to move too freely as the puppy is growing.

This abnormal movement damages the growing hip joint, resulting in the socket becoming shallow and the ball of the femur becoming flattened. The severity of the damage is dependent on a number of factors, including the genetics of the puppy and their environment growing up. Obese puppies that are genetically predisposed to HD are more likely to have severe problems, for instance.

There is a myth that circulates regularly that excessive exercise causes HD in a puppy that would otherwise mature to have normal hips. There is absolutely no evidence to support this. A dog that develops HD was born with a predisposition to the condition.

While environmental factors, such as heavy exercise, cannot cause HD in a puppy with normal hips, it is important to realise that in dogs with the genetics for the condition, too much exercise can worsen the problem. It is therefore advisable to limit puppy exercise to an age-appropriate length of time, until the dog has matured.

Dogs are very good at masking pain. Only when it becomes severe will they start showing signs.

Dogs are very good at masking pain. Only when it becomes severe will they start showing signs.

Does It Cause Pain?

All dogs with hip dysplasia are going to suffer a degree of joint pain without appropriate treatment. The initial pain is caused when the head of the femur slips in the socket and causes strain injuries. The abnormal movement also causes microfractures of the bone and the cartilage of the joint (cartilage is a tough flexible tissue that protects the inside of a joint and stops bone from rubbing against bone).

As the cartilage is continually damaged, it wears away allowing the bone of the femur head to rub against the bone of the hip socket. This is painful and results in arthritis forming in the joint.

Because dogs are stoic and naturally mask pain, the condition has to reach a stage where they are very sore before obvious signs show. Many dogs show little evidence of discomfort at home, but when examined by a vet there is noticeable pain in the joints when they are moved.

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Dog's with HD may be reluctant to move or get up from resting.

Dog's with HD may be reluctant to move or get up from resting.

How Do I Know If My Dog Has Hip Dysplasia?

Because hip dysplasia comes in various degrees of severity, its early symptoms can be subtle. Most cases of severe hip dysplasia are diagnosed between the ages of 6 and 12 months, but many mild cases are not recognised until the dog is older and has developed arthritis.

One of the first symptoms many people notice is what is termed a 'bunny hop' gait. This is where instead of the dog running with the hind feet working independently, they keep their feet together to limit the pain caused by the movement. A normal dog when running should have one hind foot touch the ground before the other, also known as a split-stride. Dogs that bunch their legs together, so both hind feet hit the ground at the same time, are bunny hopping.

It should be noted that some breeds can appear to bunny hop at fast speeds when they are actually running normally. The best way to view a bunny hop is from the side when the dog is in a canter, not a full gallop.

As the condition worsens, symptoms will become plainer and can include:

  • Stiffness
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Difficulty when rising, sitting, or lying down
  • Difficulty climbing stairs or getting on the sofa or in and out of the car
  • Lameness
  • Sensitivity to being touched around the hip area, such as when being groomed
  • Some dogs will exhibit obvious pain in the hips
  • Excessive licking around the hip area to self-soothe

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is best to get them checked sooner rather than later as early treatment can prevent the condition from worsening.

This dog has HD and bunches her hind feet together when running.

This dog has HD and bunches her hind feet together when running.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Initial suspicion of HD can be noticed through a veterinary examination, where the vet will extend the hip in different directions. Not all dogs will show pain, even at this stage, but the vet will be looking for subtle signs, such as the joint movement being restricted, clicking sounds, and the general feel of the way the hip moves.

If HD is suspected the next stage is X-rays to confirm the diagnosis and determine how severe the condition is. X-rays for mild HD can sometimes be difficult to interpret, but severe HD is usually obvious as the hip socket is badly deformed.

Depending on the severity of the condition and any other symptoms your dog is showing, your vet may be able to treat them without further testing. However, if the condition is severe enough to warrant surgical treatment (a hip replacement) you will usually be referred to a specialist who will examine the dog further to establish an appropriate treatment plan.

German Shepherds are a breed prone to HD.

German Shepherds are a breed prone to HD.

Treating Hip Dysplasia

There are multiple ways that HD is treated, depending on the severity of the condition.

Mild HD may respond well to physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, where the muscle around the joint is built up to support the joint and prevent excessive movement. Monitoring the amount and type of exercise a dog does may also be advised.

For dogs suffering from arthritis in the hips, pain relief and anti-inflammatories may be prescribed. Joint supplements and turmeric-based pet medicines are also good for helping relieve pain and reducing further damage to the joint when used with the physical treatments mentioned above.

In dogs with severe HD, no amount of pain relief will enable them to have a normal life and surgery must be contemplated. The two most common types of surgery are a total hip replacement or a Femoral Head Ostectomy.

In a total hip replacement, the head of the femur and the socket of the hip are removed and replaced with artificial components. This is similar to the operation in humans. The goal of the operation is to completely replace the damaged bone and give the dog a normal joint, enabling them to be pain-free and lead a normal life.

While the surgery is considered generally very successful, it can in rare cases cause further problems, with the new hip joint not being properly in place, or the components deteriorating and needing to be replaced.

In Femoral Head Ostectomy, the head of the femur is removed completely but not replaced. The joint is held in place by the ligaments around it. This used to be the standard method for treating HD, but it does mean the hip is no longer a normal joint and the recovery time is longer.

The priority with HD is reducing or eliminating pain so a dog can enjoy an active, happy life. All treatments are designed with this goal in mind and your vet is best placed to determine the best option for your dog.

HD is life-limiting and it is important to seek veterinary advice if you think your dog has it.

HD is life-limiting and it is important to seek veterinary advice if you think your dog has it.

Can I Prevent It?

If your dog has the genetic predisposition for HD it is very unlikely you can prevent him from developing the condition, but you may be able to moderate how severe it becomes.

One of the main environmental factors for HD is obesity in puppies. A puppy that is overweight, especially if they are a large breed or one that is fast-growing, is significantly more likely to develop HD at a younger age and to a greater severity.

One study compared puppies that were fed on a control diet and those on a restricted diet. The dogs on the control diet tended to be overweight and 50% had developed HD by the time they were 6. Of those dogs on the restricted diet, the progress of the condition was significantly less. At the age of 4, only 10% of the dogs on the restricted diet had HD and it was only when they reached the age of 12 that 50% of the restricted group had HD. It was also apparent that the dogs kept to a healthy weight lived longer.

This is obviously hugely significant. By avoiding overfeeding puppies and adult dogs even those predisposed to HD are far less likely to develop it at a young age, and if they do develop it, the condition will be less severe.

Other factors that can contribute to the development of HD include puppies being raised on slippery floors that allow their hips to move inappropriately, and being allowed to climb up and down stairs before they are three months old.

Exercise is not inherently bad for puppies if it is appropriate. That means sticking to soft surfaces (such as grass), avoiding jumping about on concrete and slippery floors, and not playing vigorous games involving chasing balls or throwing sticks. Too little exercise can be detrimental, as sensible exercise builds muscle and strengthens bones.

Basically, puppies should be allowed to freely roam about on grass surfaces (this includes lots of time in the garden just wandering about), but be prevented from climbing stairs or jumping onto hard surfaces. Lead walks on pavements should be limited, as these are hard on the joints and the puppy has to go at your pace. Ball throwing and excessive rough play with other dogs should also be avoided.

Of course, the best prevention is having a dog that does not carry the genetic trait for Hip Dysplasia. This is harder than it sounds. With 100 genes known to contribute to HD, it is not currently possible to develop a DNA test to determine if breeding dogs can pass on HD to their offspring. The only solution is for potential breeding dogs to be x-rayed to determine the quality of their hips. If both parents have good hips, there is a greater chance of their puppies also having good hips.

However, genetics is complicated and bad genes can skip generations. If a dog in your pup's lineage has bad hips, even if this is a couple of generations back or not a direct relation, then there is the possibility for those genes to be passed to your dog. This is why responsible breeders have the hips checked of all their dogs generation after generation, to try and eliminate HD in their puppies.

This does not mean checking the hips of the parents of a pup is pointless. If they both have good hips it lessens the odds of a puppy developing problems, even if it does not completely prevent it. Equally, the more dogs that are tested the better understanding a breeder has of the quality of their dogs. Ultimately, if a dog's hips are not checked then you have no way to know if they have good hips or bad. You could be buying a puppy from parent dogs with poor hips that makes the likelihood of your puppy developing HD far greater.

Basset Hounds are a smaller breed that is prone to HD.

Basset Hounds are a smaller breed that is prone to HD.

Breeds at High Risk of Hip Dysplasia

While any dog of any breed or mix of breeds can develop hip dysplasia, certain breeds and their crosses are more prone to the condition.

The following list gives examples of breeds where HD is very common. If you are looking at getting a puppy of this breed, or if it is a cross mixed with any of these breeds in its parentage, you need to be aware that your pup is at higher risk of hip dysplasia.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Sophie Jackson

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