Canine hip dysplasia — 5 common misconceptions

Is it true that small breeds never get hip dysplasia? What does it mean if your dog lies with his back legs stretched out behind him? Get to the root of the most common misconceptions about hip dysplasia.

If you have a dog with hip dysplasia, you know it can be a frustrating and challenging condition to deal with. But by understanding more about the problem, and some of the misconceptions surrounding it, you’ll be in a better position to help your dog stay mobile and pain-free for as long as possible.

What causes hip dysplasia?

Canine hip dysplasia is a developmental problem of the canine coxofemoral joint. Subluxation of the femoral head leads to abnormal wear and eventual degenerative joint disease. Clinical signs vary tremendously from slight discomfort to severe disabling disease. A hip radiograph under general anesthetic is the preferred method for diagnosis.

Any vet will tell you that hip dysplasia is a complicated disease. There are two primary causes — genetics and diet/nutrition. The genes involved have not been conclusively identified, although the condition is believed to involve many genes. Advances in nutritional research have shown that diet also plays an important role in the development of hip dysplasia. For example, overfeeding and/or too much dietary calcium during puppyhood has been linked to the condition.

Hip dysplasia is mostly seen in large breeds (German shepherds, mastiffs, golden retrievers, Newfoundlands, Rottweilers and Labrador retrievers) although any breed can develop it (more on this later).

Whether your dog has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, or is at risk of developing it, understanding some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding the condition can help you move forward on treatment decisions.

5 misconceptions about canine hip dysplasia

1. “Smaller breeds aren’t at risk”

You might assume that if you have a small or medium-sized dog you don’t have to worry about hip dysplasia. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, even though the disease is more common in large breeds.

“Owners of small dogs are not off the hook…. Small and medium breed dogs can also develop hip dysplasia, although it is less common,” says the American Kennel Club. According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, affected small and medium breeds include pugs, Norfolk terriers, English bulldogs, Shih tzus and Affenpinschers.

2. “Dogs that ‘sploot’ must have great hips!”

Dogs that lie down with their back legs stretched out behind them might look cute, but it’s not a normal position. Sometimes, dogs who “sploot” their legs do so because they’re in pain. If your dog frequently lies this way, and his breed (or mix of breeds) is predisposed to hip dysplasia, visit the vet to rule out the condition, along with any associated secondary arthritis.

3. “Obesity doesn’t play a role”

Extra weight puts a lot of strain on a dog’s joints, so if your canine has hip dysplasia, weight management is vitally important.

“I can’t stress enough the impact of weight on joint disease,” says integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby. “The goal is to keep the dog lean and fit to compensate for and actually slow the progress of osteoarthritis secondary to hip dysplasia. Studies have shown that by keeping a dog trim, manifestation of clinical signs of the condition can be delayed by up to two years.”

If you live with a breed that is predisposed to this condition but hasn’t been diagnosed (yet), weight management helps you get a head start on the problem by preventing the joint stress associated with obesity.

“For these dogs, weight management is super critical,” advises Dr. Buzby. “Strive to keep the dog on the lean end of normal throughout his life. Carrying around excess pounds significantly increases wear and tear on the dog’s musculoskeletal system, increases risk of injury, and decreases his activity level.”

4. “Supplements aren’t helpful once a dog has been diagnosed”

A scientific debate has arisen about whether oral glucosamine and chondroitin, the two most common ingredients found in joint supplements, are absorbed by the body or improve joint mechanics.

“I believe these compounds promote the health of the cartilage that lines joint surfaces,” says Dr. Buzby. “These supplements also likely have some anti-inflammatory effects. While glucosamine and chondroitin aren’t necessarily a ‘magic bullet’, they are an important component in the management of degenerative joint disease in my own patients.”

Additional supplements that may help reduce pain and inflammation in hip dysplasia patients include Omega 3 essential fatty acids from fish oils. There is also evidence that CBD oil can be helpful – just be sure to talk to your veterinarian before going this route.

5. “Alternative therapies don’t do anything for this condition”

On the contrary, alternative treatments have been found to be very successful in treating hip dysplasia. Dr. Buzby says she has acupunctured hundreds of canine hip dysplasia patients over the past two decades, often using electro-acupuncture to potentiate the effect, with very positive results. Chiropractic care and massage can also be helpful in some cases.

Physical therapy is another useful modality. A certified canine rehabilitation therapist or practitioner can design a home fitness and stretching program for your dog to help protect and preserve his joint health.

Last but far from least, swimming is a wonderful form of exercise for hip dysplasia cases since muscle tone is increased while the hip joints are in a non-weight-bearing position.

How is it treated?

When young dogs are diagnosed with hip dysplasia, one of the most common questions their families ask is if surgery is the appropriate course of action.

“For a young dog with hip dysplasia, I recommend making an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon,” says Dr. Buzby. “Certain procedures/interventions can be done early and in a specific window of time to dramatically change the course of the dog’s life with respect to long-term management of pain and mobility.

“Going to see a specialist doesn’t mean you’re committing to the surgical route,” she adds. “You’re getting a second opinion from an experienced specialist in dog bones and joints. Just having someone examine your dog, explain the prognosis, and collaborate on medical treatment is well worth the money you’ll spend on a consultation.

Whether or not surgery should be considered depends on how the diagnosis was arrived at – i.e. was the condition an incidental finding in a dog with no symptoms, or was it diagnosed in a dog with signs of pain? If the dog is in discomfort, pain management takes priority, and surgery may be necessary. If the dog isn’t in pain, then steps can be taken to help prevent the problem from progressing, without resorting to surgery.

There’s no real cure for hip dysplasia, but by being informed and proactive, you can effectively slow the progression of the condition, and keep your dog mobile and pain-free a lot longer.


Christine Caplan is a Certified Vet Tech, and a long-time PR veteran and content marketing expert who brings her unique understanding of social and digital media to connect dog lovers to brands both on and offline. She lives with three hounds – two “doxies” and a beagle/basset hound mix – who constantly teach her about life and companionship (