Hip dysplasia is, unfortunately, one of the most common joint problems in dogs. It can be very painful and eventually makes dogs unwilling to participate in their favorite activities or even interact with their family.
Most affected dogs are born with the disease and it is genetic, so there are certain dog breeds prone to hip dysplasia. There is no way for pet parents to prevent the condition. However, there are many steps you can take to reduce its impact on your dog’s health, comfort, and longevity.
Hip Dysplasia: What Exactly Is It?
The hip is a ball and socket joint. The ball that makes the top of a dog’s femur bone sits within a cup formed by part of the pelvis bone to create the hip joint. In some dogs, due to abnormal bone development or trauma, the joint does not fit together properly. This is known as hip dysplasia.
The cup may not be shaped right or the ball of the femur may not sit within it. Damage to the joint cartilage, osteoarthritis, and eventually pain on movement can result. Despite a common misconception, dogs are usually born with hip dysplasia. What develops over time is pain from the osteoarthritis caused by a poorly fitted hip joint.
Severe injury—such as being hit by a car—can also damage the hip joint and cause hip dysplasia.
The severity of the joint abnormality does not always correlate with severity of pain. For some dogs the pain and mobility issues from hip dysplasia take many years to appear, while other affected dogs may show signs even before they are fully grown.
Dog Breeds Prone to Hip Dysplasia
A variety of dog breeds are at high risk of having hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is heritable, meaning there is a genetic basis in both likelihood and severity of the disease. Because of this, many breed clubs recommend or require X-ray evaluation of a dog’s hips before breeding. The goal is that by selectively breeding the dogs with good hips, we can reduce the risk of this painful disease in dogs.
Until we reach that goal, some dog breeds will continue to be more prone to hip dysplasia. Here are the dog breeds that most often develop this disease.
German Shepherd dogs have a high prevalence of hip dysplasia as well as a genetic problem with the nerves leading to their hindlimbs (degenerative myelopathy). This combination of hip problems is even more reason to keep your German Shepherd lean and well muscled to reduce the impact of these terrible conditions.
Corgis (Cardigan and Pembroke Welsh) are a chondrodysplastic breed, meaning that they have an abnormal body shape (long body and short legs). This body shape puts extra strain on all of the weight-bearing joints so that even mild hip dysplasia can lead to severe osteoarthritis and difficulty with normal daily activities.
Labrador and Golden Retrievers
Both Labrador and Golden Retrievers have strong genetic risks for hip dysplasia and are prone to weight gain. Studies show that being overweight worsens hip dysplasia symptoms including pain, reluctance to exercise, and difficulty getting up. In fact, a study of Labradors often cited by veterinarians found that “lean labs live longer” by almost two years! This difference was largely due to life-threatening mobility loss in the higher weight group.
English and French Bulldogs
Brachycephalic, or short-faced, dogs (like English Bulldogs and French Bulldogs) often have poorly fitting joints including the elbow, knee, and hip. Hip dysplasia may show up early in life with limping or may switch from side to side as the dog grows or one side hurts more than the other.
Giant Breed Dogs
Giant dogs have special needs during their growth and development stages in order to have healthy, strong bones and joints. Though known for being lazy as they age, large breed puppies need the right kinds of exercise at the right time and the right nutritional balance during growth. Many giant breeds—such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Mastiffs have a higher prevalence of hip dysplasia and joint issues.
Can You Prevent Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?
Hip dysplasia is not preventable. Affected dogs are born with poorly structured hips. Therefore, if you choose to purchase a puppy, you can reduce the risk to your dog by only buying puppies from breeding lines who have passed their joint tests. High risk breeds should have both the male and female dog tested for hip conformation before breeding. Reputable breeders will be happy to share this information with you.
Rarely, an injury to the hip will cause damage to the joint and cause hip dysplasia. Typically, these kinds of injuries are accidents and though pet parents do everything to keep their pets safe, accidents happen.
Tips for Protecting Your Dog’s Hips and Joints
While you cannot fully prevent hip dysplasia, you can take steps to promote joint health in dogs. Follow these guidelines and tips:
Keep your dog at a healthy weight. The best thing you can do to protect your dog’s hips and joints is to keep your dog lean and well muscled. This means making sure he gets plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight by feeding a balanced diet. Choose exercises that are appropriate for your dog’s body type and age to reduce the risk of injury. Low impact exercise such as leash walking and swimming are excellent options for most dogs.
Try incorporating hip and joint supplements. Even before the first sign of slowing down, talk to your veterinarian about hip and joint supplements that may help your dog. In most cases, once joint damage starts it can be slowed but not reversed. When used early, joint supplements—such as fish oils or supplements with glucosamine and chondroitin—can reduce inflammation and be helpful in slowing joint damage and reducing pain.
The key is that quality counts. Supplements are not well regulated, so it is important that you do your research and choose a brand that you trust. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations or look for products formulated by a veterinarian.
Consider physical therapy for your dog. Physical therapy is becoming more widely available for dogs and can really help maintain your dog’s activity and comfort. It comes in many forms, depending on your dog’s specific needs. The goal is to help your dog be mobile and comfortable for his whole life. Physical therapy sessions generally cost between $25 and $100 per session depending on your location and your dog’s needs.
Talk to your veterinarian about pain management. While pain management is an important part of keeping a dog with hip dysplasia comfortable, it is not a treatment. When used to allow your dog to exercise and maintain healthy muscles it is very useful but it is not an alternative to any of the other tools discussed here. Pain management is part of a comprehensive plan but on its own does not improve joint health. As joint damage gets worse over time, your dog may require higher doses or additional types of medications added to their treatment plan.
In severe cases, ask if surgery is an option. Surgical repair of abnormal and painful hips in dogs is only available in the most severe cases. Some dogs may benefit from a femoral head osteotomy where the bony junction of the joint is eliminated leaving only the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to act as the joint. This is more likely to be an option for small and medium-sized dogs.
Artificial hip replacement, similar to what is available in human medicine, is very expensive ($7,000 or more per hip) and typically only performed at large specialty centers and veterinary school hospitals. For more information, or to look at your dog’s breed risk for hip dysplasia and other joint problems, check out the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). This organization evaluates X-rays of joints and categorizes them based on their health. They also keep a large database about risks in almost every breed of dog found in the United States.