Help for Hip Dysplasia in dogs

Hip dysplasia is common in large and giant breed dogs. Learn what you can do to protect yours from debilitation.

If you’ve ever had a dog with hip dysplasia, then you know how incapacitating it can be. Characterized by laxity (looseness) of the hip joint, canine hip dysplasia (CHD, or simply HD), means “badly grown hip”. The word “dysplasia” comes from the Greek words “dys” meaning bad or abnormal, and “plasia”, meaning growth. Hip laxity leads to the degeneration of articular cartilage, the smooth white tissue that covers the ends of bones in joints, and ultimately results in the development of osteoarthritis.

The incidence of canine hip dysplasia has increased over the last 50 years. According to current estimates, between 3% and 4% of dogs have the condition. Large breed dogs are more prone to CHD than others, and include the Newfoundland, Saint Bernard, old English sheepdog, Rottweiler, German shepherd, golden retriever, Alaskan Malamute, Labrador retriever and Samoyed.

How does it happen?

In dogs with hip dysplasia, the ball and socket (acetabulum) hip joint is malformed, causing a subluxation or separation of the two bones of the joint. In most instances, the socket isn’t deep enough to fully seat the ball (the round head of the femur).

In a dog with normal hips, the head of the femur at the top of the leg bone fits perfectly into the socket. In dogs with CHD, an imperfect fit causes the bones to separate. The abnormal joint construction is coupled with weakness in the muscles, ligaments and connective tissues that support the joint, so instead of gliding smoothly, the joint chafes and grinds during movement. Often, the dog’s body works to stabilize the malformed joint by producing hard bony material in and around it. But this alteration can have the opposite effect, creating an even more unnatural fit over time. Eventually, wear and tear on the joint results in degenerative joint disease (DJD), which is painful for the dog and restricts his ability to move normally.


The hip is the biggest joint in a dog’s body and bears the majority of his weight during any kind of movement. That’s why hip dysplasia can be such a painful, debilitating disease, especially as it is predominantly seen in large and giant breeds with heavy body mass. Smaller breed dogs and even cats can also develop hip dysplasia, but it’s much more common in larger canines.

What causes it? Canine hip dysplasia is a polygenetic multi-factorial disease. This means it is an inherited condition, more than one gene is involved, and it is caused by a number of factors, some of which have yet to be identified. Dogs without the genes for the condition will not acquire the disease. Dogs with the genes may or may not develop hip dysplasia. Currently, no test exists to identify gene carriers.

A dog may never develop CHD and still carry the genes for the disease. This means future generations of puppies could develop CHD even if prior generations show no signs of it. Historically, only dogs with x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis (OA) were prevented from breeding. However, studies show that if dogs with hip joint laxity and dogs with established OA are prevented from breeding, there is a larger decrease in the incidence of hip dysplasia.

What are the markers and symptoms?

Several markers may predispose a dog to hip dysplasia:

• A body that is longer than it is tall

• A high BMI (body mass index) ratio

• Spaying or neutering

• The dog is under a year old and has been diagnosed with hip joint damage and microfractures of the hip socket

• The dog is young to middle-aged with pain and lameness linked to osteoarthritis CHD can be severe or mild. According to the Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP), affected dogs may have one or a combination of symptoms.

How is CHD diagnosed?

Diagnosis is typically made either because the dog is showing symptoms, or as the result of a standard hip exam. Symptomatic dogs will have clinical signs of mobility problems and pain. During the physical examination, the veterinarian may feel looseness in the hip joint, and note pain when a rear leg is flexed or extended. Problems with joints are also often easily seen on x-rays.

In non-symptomatic dogs, CHD is often diagnosed during the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) or PennHIP certification process, intended to establish the health of an animal’s hips.

What if my dog already has hip dysplasia?

• Surgery to repair early hip laxity or replace all or part of a hip is an option for some dogs. But not every dog is a good candidate for surgery, and not everyone can afford it, nor is it always the best option.

• Conventional medical management involves the use of NSAIDs, buffered aspirin and corticosteroids, all of which have side effects, and should be avoided until all side effect-free options have been explored. Most dogs with hip dysplasia are good candidates for alternative therapies that may reduce or replace the need for potentially toxic drugs.

• The most important part of managing CHD is building and maintaining excellent muscle, tendon and ligament health. Physical therapies including chiropractic, massage, stretching, laser treatment, acupuncture and aquatic therapy can be extremely benefi cial. Performing daily therapeutic exercises can strengthen weak muscles and dramatically improve range of motion, pain and rear limb stability.

• Feeding a species-appropriate, naturally anti-inflammatory diet is very important. This means avoiding proinfl ammatory grain-based diets, as well as potato-based diets. Potatoes are members of the nightshade family, which is known to exacerbate infl ammatory conditions.

• A number of excellent natural supplements can provide the raw materials for cartilage repair and maintenance, as well as infl ammation management. These include: Glucosamine sulfate with MSM Eggshell membrane, Green-lipped mussel, Homeopathic remedies such as Rhus Tox, Arnica and Bryonia (based on the dog’s unique disease pattern), Ubiquinol and other antioxidants such as astaxanthin, Super green foods like spirulina, Natural anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric, Proteolytic enzymes, Chondroprotective injections

Canine hip dysplasia is a real problem in many dogs, but by educating yourself about it, and taking steps to help prevent it or minimize its effects, you can go a long way to ensuring your companion stays mobile and pain-free.

Are there ways to prevent CHD, or reduce its severity?

1. If you’re adopting a large or giant breed puppy or dog, ask your veterinarian about PennHIP or OFA testing. OFA certification is the established standard, but PennHIP is a more comprehensive indicator of hip health. PennHIP testing is more expensive and not as widely done as OFA, but it should be considered the gold standard. The procedure can be done on dogs as young as 16 weeks.

2. The number of calories a dog consumes, especially from three to ten months of age, has a significant impact on whether a puppy with CHD genes will go on to develop the disease. High calorie, high carbohydrate diets can cause frame growth that is too fast for the cartilage to keep up with, especially in large breeds. A portion-controlled, speciesappropriate, balanced diet will provide the right nutrition in the right amounts.

3. Obesity can increase the severity of hip dysplasia. Extra weight can accelerate the degeneration of joints. Dogs born with genes that make them prone to hip dysplasia, if allowed to grow overweight, will be at much higher risk of developing CHD, and subsequently, arthritis as well.

4. There is evidence that over-exercising large breed dogs at a young age may be a risk factor for hip dysplasia. Exercise should be focused on activities like running and swimming. The goal is to help the dog maintain good muscle mass, which can decrease the incidence and severity of CHD. Activities that require jumping or sudden stops or changes in direction should be avoided, as should slippery surfaces in and outside the home.