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Hip dysplasia- what is it and why it matters.

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Hip dysplasia can be a painful condition where one or both of the hip joints develop abnormally. It can cause pain, swelling and eventually leads to arthritis. It is often an inherited condition affection mostly medium to large breeds such as the German shepherd, though I have seen an increasing number of smaller dogs affected in recent years due to inbreeding.

Beautiful German Shepherd Dog

What exactly is hip dysplasia?

The hip joints are known as ball and socket joints. The top of the femur forms the ball and the pelvis bones form the socket. In normal hip joints the bones fit perfectly and movement of the joint is easy. Hip dysplasia occurs when the ball and socket joint is abnormal and the bones no longer move normally and freely causing friction. The unstable joint leads to the pain, swelling and arthritis.

Hip dysplasia x-ray in dog
Hip Dysplasia X-ray

This X-ray is a great example. The X-ray on the left shows normal ball and socket joints where you can see a large portion of the 'ball' is covered securely by the 'socket'. On the right we can see the joints look very different particularly the circled joint on the left. The 'ball' is out with the socket and appears to be floating with very little 'socket' coverage.

Signs of hip dysplasia often start around 5-6 months of age, most commonly large breed dogs, that have perhaps become overweight or over exercised or had an excessive growth rate.

Signs of hip dysplasia

There are a number of symptoms I see in practice, here are the most common:

  • Limping or lame on hind limbs

  • Stiffness particularly after rest

  • Bunny hopping where the dog uses both hind limbs together.

  • Reluctant to get out of bed

  • Hip sways as walks

  • Pain when hips touched

  • Pain or difficulty jumping and reluctance to use stairs

  • Poor muscle development at hips

  • decreased activity

What happens if your dog has hip dysplasia?

Working yellow Labrador on moors

If your canine companion is showing any signs of hip dysplasia or you have concerns that a close family members of your dog has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia then contact your vet.

Initially I will do a full clinical exam checking each joint for signs of pain or reduced movement. If I am suspicious the dog is showing signs of hip pain and has been showing clinical signs I will suggest an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

To carry out hip X-rays your pet will require a deep sedation/ general anaesthetic. Some patients I see have underlying health conditions or are very elderly and at higher risk when sedated. These patient may be given a diagnosis based on examination alone.

Once a diagnosis is confirmed a treatment/ management plan can be initiated.

I would say most dogs I diagnose around 6-12 months of age.

Treatment options can vary depending on severity, age of dog and budget. Hip dysplasia usually requires life long treatment. If your dog responds well to treatment there is no reason why they can't lead a long, happy life. Most will develop arthritis as they age due to the constant abnormal wear and tear. See my blog on arthritis for more info.

Weight control is incredibly important, the heavier the dog the more pressure and wear and tear is put on the hip joints. If your dog is overweight discuss with your vet or vet nurse about diets and feeding regimes.

Anti inflammatory pain relief is very useful and will reduce inflammation in the hip joint as well as provide pain relief. This is a common treatment for mild to moderate cases. It can be used long term but careful monitoring should take place as over time side effects may occur. It may not be suitable for use in dogs with certain other health conditions and alternative medications may be used.

Controlled exercise Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be over exercised as excessive jumping and racing about can put increased pressure on the hip joints causing an increase in inflammation.

Joint supplements

Such as glucosamine and green lipped muscle help to protect joints, these do not require a prescription from your vet. I personally have found Yumove (click for link) to be great. They are safe for long term use and worked wonders with my wee cocker spaniel (click for review)

total hip replacement in dog X-ray

Surgery In severe cases surgery may be the best option. In younger dogs that are struggling or

dogs not responding to medical treatment this may be the best option. Hip surgery will likely require referral to a specialist vet. This Xray shows the results of total hip replacements.

Physio and hydrotherapy can both help build up the hip muscles and help support the hip joints. Hydrotherapy is a non weight bearing exercise which is excellent for minimal trauma to the joint while keeping weight down and the dog fit.

Prevention and hip dysplasia screening

Not all hip dysplasia can be prevented. However hip dysplasia is a genetic condition so the way to help prevent it is by not breeding dogs that have the condition. The BVA in the UK has a screening program called a hip score where you can have X-rays taken and checked by specialists to determine if there are any signs of dysplasia. The animal should be over 1 year old for this so their hips are fully formed and this is done prior to breeding. When looking for a puppy more at risk of hip dysplasia always check with the breeder the parents have been hip scored and that they have good scores appropriate for breeding.

Breeds more at risk of hip dysplasia are:

Rottweiler with hip dysplasia
  • Labradors

  • German Shepherds

  • Golden Retriever

  • Rottweiler

  • Bernese Mountain dog

  • Newfoundland

  • Great Dane

  • St Bernard

Large breed puppies can be fed specialist foods that help prevent excessive growth and reduce the development of disorders such as hip dysplasia. Slower growth rates allows the joints to develop properly with our excessive strain on them.

So if you are concerned your dog is showing signs of this condition see your vet for an appointment. If you have decided to get a large breed puppy.... in fact any sized puppy..... its is a great idea to get pet insurance. These life long medical treatments and specialist surgery can be eye wateringly expensive.

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