Hip Dysplasia in Dogs - A Complete Guide

Hip dysplasia is a deformity of the hip that can develop in some dogs during their development. The deformity in the hip joint can eventually lead to other problems, such as arthritis. Hip dysplasia can cause pain and stiffness, and prevent your dog from walking, running, jumping, climbing stairs, and engaging in other activities.

The hip is a ball-and-socket joint. That is to say, the ball-shaped end of the dog’s back leg bone fits neatly into a socket-shaped curve in the dog’s pelvis to create a flexible joint. A smooth layer of connective tissue, known as cartilage, lines the bones of the ball-and-socket joint. This cartilage allows the ball to glide smoothly against the socket, and cushions the hip joint. Supportive tissue, such as muscles and ligaments, hold the hip joint in place; a fibrous capsule encloses the entire hip joint.

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Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

To create a healthy joint and cartilage that glides smoothly, a puppy’s ball, socket, and cartilage must grow at the same pace. In dogs with hip dysplasia, these tissues can grow at different speeds, which prevents the bones, cartilage and supportive tissue from developing properly. It also prevents the different parts of the hip joint from fitting together well. A poor fit causes the bones of the ball and socket joint to rub and grind against one another instead of gliding smoothly.

Abnormal development of the hip joint in young dogs with dysplasia can lead to laxity, or looseness, in the joint. This laxity stretches the supporting ligaments, joint capsule, and muscles around the hip joint, which makes the dog’s hip joint unstable. It also leads to pain and permanent damage of the hip joint. Left untreated, dogs with hip dysplasia usually develop osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease.

In time, the rubbing and grinding causes the joint to deteriorate, which causes pain and dysfunction. Eventually, the joint stops working.

Clinical Signs of Hip Dysplasia

Signs of hip dysplasia include:

  • Weakness and pain in the hind legs (most common signs of hip dysplasia)
  • Running with a “bunny hopping” gait
  • Reluctance to rise from a lying or sitting position
  • Appearing wobbly
  • Limping
  • Hesitancy to climb stairs
  • Inability to stand on hind legs

Many puppies with hip dysplasia will show these signs early in life, usually between the ages of 6 and 12 months, but some dogs do not show signs of hip dysplasia until they are older.

Causes of Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia can be the result of a variety of factors, including genetics. The condition is hereditary, passed down through generations. It is especially common in certain large dogs that generally weigh more than 50 pounds. Other factors, such as excessive growth rate, types of exercise, muscle mass, hormones and improper weight and nutrition can magnify a dog’s predisposition to hip dysplasia.

Because hip dysplasia tends to develop in large breeds, dog owners should keep puppies at a normal, lean weight during development rather than feed the puppies too much in hopes the dogs will get big quickly. Quick growth can allow the ball and socket to develop at different rates. Excessive growth can put pressure on the skeletal system to cause hip dysplasia and other skeletal or joint conditions, such as elbow dysplasia. Slowing down growth can allow joints to develop at a normal, even pace without putting too much strain on the bones and connective tissue.

Improper nutrition can also cause dysplasia. Obesity puts excess pressure on a dog’s joints, and this pressure can cause hip dysplasia or worsen pre-existing hip dysplasia. Research shows that feeding puppies as much as they want to eat can increase the risk of hip dysplasia in dogs. The type of food a dog eats is important too, as the research shows that puppies that eat bread-rich diets are more likely to develop hip dysplasia as adults than were those that eat all-meat diets.

Exercise plays a role in hip dysplasia – physical activity burns calories to help maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also strengthens the muscles around the hip joint, keeps connective tissue flexible, and improves the range of motion in the hip joint. While exercise is beneficial, it must be the right type of exercise in the right amounts. Too much exercise can cause pain, but too little exercise leads to weight gain and stiffness. Walks can loosen stiff joints, while running and jumping can worsen pain or damage the affected joints.

Dog Breeds Most Affected by Hip Dysplasia

The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) provides a list of the breeds most affected by hip dysplasia. These breeds include:

  • Bulldog
  • Great Dane
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Neapolitan Mastiff
  • Saint Bernard
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Rottweilers

While hip dysplasia more commonly affects giant and large breed dogs, it can affect smaller dogs too. In fact, pugs and shih tzus are high on OFA’s list of breeds most affected by hip dysplasia.

Diagnosis of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Diagnosis of hip dysplasia begins with a review of the dog’s health, symptoms, and any possible injuries or illnesses that could have contributed to the dog’s signs and symptoms. Diagnosis also includes physical exam, in which a veterinarian will manipulate the dog’s back legs to test the looseness of the hip joint. The veterinarian will check for grinding in the joint and signs of pain or limited mobility. The physical exam may include blood work, as tests can detect inflammation from joint disease.

Veterinarians also use x-rays to help diagnose hip dysplasia in dogs. The x-ray images help veterinarians determine if the hip joint looks healthy and that the ball of the joint fits neatly into the socket. Veterinarians use x-rays to look for telltale characteristics of hip dysplasia, such as a shallow socket or signs that the ball slips out of the socket, and for signs of arthritis.

Hip dysplasia can affect every dog differently, and x-rays do not always reveal the whole story. Some dogs whose x-rays show severe arthritis from hip dysplasia run, jump, and play as if nothing is wrong, for example, while other dogs with barely any x-ray evidence of arthritis are severely lame.

Treatment Options of Hip Dysplasia

Non-surgical and surgical care for hip dysplasia in dogs:

Treatment for hip dysplasia can include non-surgical and surgical care. The choice of treatment largely depends on the dog’s age, physical condition, and the degree of hip lameness and pain.

Non-surgical therapy treatment options: 

Medications help control some signs of hip dysplasia, including pain, lameness, and reluctance to walk or run. These conservative treatments include joint supplements (such as glucosamine), pain medication (anti-inflammatory / NSAIDs), low-calorie healthy diets to encourage weight loss, and rehabilitation or physical therapy. Websites, such as Chewy and Amazon, offer a wide variety of hip and joint supplements for dogs. Braces and hip support systems, also available online, support the hips in dogs that have hip dysplasia or are recovering from hip dysplasia surgery.

Conservative non-surgical treatments can make dogs more comfortable, but conservative therapy does not prevent or cure arthritis caused by hip dysplasia, so the pain and lameness tend to worsen over time. 

Veterinarians typically recommend surgical options at this point:

Young dogs between 6 and 12 months of age that show hip pain, but do not show any evidence of osteoarthritis on x-rays, may be a good candidate for a triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO) surgical procedures. This procedure corrects laxity within the hip joint to eliminate pain and lameness, although the dog will likely have an abnormal gain when walking or running. It involves selectively cutting the pelvic bone and rotating segments of the ball-and-socket joint. TPO allows the pet to keep its own hip joint.

Treatment for dogs older than 12 months that have osteoarthritis or dislocation of the hip joint due to severe hip dysplasia may involve a total hip replacement or a femoral head ostectomy (FHO). As its name implies, a total hip replacement involves replacing the entire hip joint with a prosthetic implant. The prosthetic implant is biomechanically similar to the original joint, which means it works just like the dog’s own ball-and-socket hip joint. Total hip replacements eliminate pain and lameness, and provide a normal range of motion and gait, so dogs can stand up, walk, run, and climb stairs normally for the rest of their lives.

FHO involves the removal of the head and neck, or “ball” part of the hip’s ball-and-socket joint. The surrounding muscle and developing scar tissue support the area to act as a false hip joint. Since it requires simple equipment and does not involve prosthetic implants, FHO surgery is simple and straightforward. The procedure does cause the treated leg to be slightly shorter than the untreated leg, but most dogs return to nearly normal activity after FHO.

TPO and FHO can cost $1,000 to $3,000 per hip, depending on the quality, experience, and location of the performing veterinarian. Total hip replacement can cost $3,500 to $7,000 per hip.

Preventing Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Not all cases of hip dysplasia can be prevented. However, dog owners can take steps to reduce the risk that their dogs will develop the joint problem. These steps include:

  • Keeping a dog’s skeletal system healthy throughout its life, starting when it is young
  • Feeding a puppy an appropriate diet to help it get a head start on healthy joint development and help prevent the excessive growth that leads to hip dysplasia
  • Providing appropriate levels of exercise and nutritious diet to prevent obesity
  • Finding a reputable breeder that does appropriate health screenings, such as x-rays for hip dysplasia

Dogs with hip dysplasia can live long and active lives, especially with treatment. If you think that your dog may have hip dysplasia, make an appointment with your veterinarian. The sooner you can get an accurate diagnosis, the more comfortable and active your dog can be well into old age.


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Author Lynn HetzlerAuthor: Lynn Hetzler 
About Sheena:
Lynn Hetzler was a Medical Assistant/CNA for 20 years, working in hospitals, universities and medical laboratories, and has been a leading writer in the medical field for another 20 years. She's written thousands of articles about pets over the years, and is also a life-long pet lover who has owned just about every type of animal companion. She specializes in creating informative and engaging medical content for readers of all levels, from patients to researchers and everyone in between. You can follow her on Twitter.


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