Did you know that hip dysplasia in dogs is one of the most common musculoskeletal problems they experience?
But this fact is pretty much the only straightforward thing about hip dysplasia in dogs — there are no rules.
For example, some dogs have terrible hips on X-ray but never limp, while others have crippling hip pain and yet their radiographs aren’t too bad.
For most people, a horrible sinking sensation goes with a diagnosis of hip dysplasia in their dog. Yet the future may not be as bad as you first fear.
In this expert guide from Petful, you’ll find answers to:
- What is hip dysplasia in dogs?
- What causes it?
- Which are the at-risk hip dysplasia dog breeds?
- What are the signs of hip dysplasia?
- How to tell if your dog has hip dysplasia
- Is it curable?
- What is the best treatment?
- How much does it cost to fix hip dysplasia in dogs?
- What are the options for at-home treatment?
- How long can a dog live with hip dysplasia?
1. What Is Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?
Hip dysplasia basically means clunky hip joints.
Instead of a joint that rolls smoothly like oiled ball-bearings, the joint knocks, clunks, catches and pops out of place. This causes rubbing, which leads to inflammation, which causes pain.
This comes down to the shape of the hip joint. A great hip shape consists of:
- A smooth round ball (the femoral head)
- And a matching cup in the pelvis (the acetabulum), which fits it to perfection
A dysplastic hip doesn’t form properly. Instead of being round, the femoral head is flat or has corners.
It’s the wrong shape to fit snugly in the acetabulum and knocks around the edges. Back to that word inflammation … which equals pain and therefore lameness.
After a while, complications develop. The body tries to remodel the hip to protect it, but instead makes things worse. This is seen on X-ray as arthritic change in the hip joint.
Then there are other consequences of hip dysplasia, such as lax ligaments, stretched joint capsules and chipped joint lining — which all add up to hind leg lameness in dogs.
From here, it’s a downhill jog to the misery many people associate with hip dysplasia.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of X-rays from Orthopedic Foundation for Animals:
2. What Causes Canine Hip Dysplasia?
What does the word “multifactorial” mean to you?
Think of it terms of watching a football game. You love watching your team, and it takes a lot to spoil the occasion. However, if your seat has an obstructed view, it’s pouring down rain and the hotdogs make you sick, this would spoil things.
Likewise, hip dysplasia is multifactorial. This means it takes a combination of factors to cause hip dysplasia to develop. These include:
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- Genetic factors
For example, the single-biggest risk factor is inheriting hip dysplasia genes from the parent dogs. But even then the dog may be fine if they have a good diet, remain slim and don’t overexercise in early life.
In other words, the perfect storm for developing hip dysplasia includes being an at-risk breed, overly rapid bone growth, being overweight and being too energetic while those vulnerable joints are still developing.
Of course, things are more complex than this, but the message is that some factors you can’t control while others you can.
3. Which Are the At-Risk Hip Dysplasia Dog Breeds?
Any dog can develop hip dysplasia due to trauma or poor diet, but some dog breeds are more at risk than others. The dogs are genetically predisposed to the condition, and include:
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherd Dogs
- Labrador Retrievers
- Border Collies
- Saint Bernards
You can reduce the risk of buying a puppy with bad hips by carefully screening breeders. Look for a responsible breeder who takes care to screen the parents for hip dysplasia.
If all breeders used only dogs with good hips, the incidence of hip dysplasia would be greatly reduced.
4. What Are the Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?
Not all cases present the same way.
A young dog with hip dysplasia won’t necessarily be in pain but can’t run and jump very well because of mechanical changes in the hip joints, while an older dog who has developed chronic arthritis is more likely to suffer from discomfort.
Clues to hip discomfort include:
- Difficulty jumping into the car or going upstairs
- Bunny hopping (moving both back legs together)
- A swaying hind leg gait
- Poor muscle bulk over the hips and thighs
- Shifting weight onto the front legs
- Hind leg lameness
- Reluctance or difficulty getting up
- Change in character, such as unusual grumpiness
Of course, bear in mind that hind limb lameness is not specific to hip joints. A dog with a thorn in a back paw will also be lame, and it’s nothing to do with their hip.
So don’t assume lameness is due to hip dysplasia — to reach a diagnosis requires tests.
5. How to Tell If Your Dog Has Hip Dysplasia
If you suspect there’s a problem, please see your veterinarian.
Your vet can tell a lot by watching the dog move and feeling the hips. But to know for sure requires radiography and feeling the legs with the dog anesthetized or deeply sedated.
Now here’s a thing: Not all dogs who have badly shaped hips on X-ray have problems. Some cope just fine, and those gronky hips come to light only because radiographs were taken for some other reason.
This is where feeling the hips becomes important:
- Certain movement will cause the hips to pop in and out of joint, which means that taking normal steps is tricky.
- The vet can mimic these movements with the dog asleep to see if the hips are stable or not.
But here’s another thing: Young dogs, typically under 2 years of age, have “lax” joints anyway to allow for growth. So it can be tricky to reach a firm diagnosis in young dogs.
6. Is Hip Dysplasia Curable in Dogs?
No. There is no cure for hip dysplasia.
However, you can surely make a difference.
Remember the old “multifactorial” thing? Well, if you have a German Shepherd and feed them a puppy food for a Yorkie and allow them to get overweight, it pushes the dog toward hip dysplasia.
This is because one-size-fits-all puppy foods are geared to the nutritional needs of those dogs who have the most growing to do quickly — small breeds. Feed these foods to large- or giant-breed pups and it pushes their bones to grow too quickly, leading to poor joint health.
Also, overfeeding a puppy means those tender joints carry too much weight. Again, this leads to overstraining them and an increased risk of damage.
So although you cannot cure hip dysplasia, if you feed a puppy food designed for large-breed growth and keep the puppy slim, it does the dog a big favor.
Likewise, avoid overstressing the joints with too much exercise:
- If the muscles get tired, the dog will move sloppily; there will be a greater chance of damaging the joint lining.
- So make sure the pup always keeps a spring in their step, and you won’t go wrong.
7. What Is the Best Hip Dysplasia Treatment?
The answer to this question depends on the individual dog:
Mild to Moderate
- Mild hip dysplasia requires only judicious use of rest and pain relief as needed. Nutraceuticals also play a part (see No. 9 below).
- The cornerstone of mild to moderate hip dysplasia is using anti-inflammatories and pain relief. These are combined in the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Reducing inflammation lowers the risk of arthritis developing, while the pain relief keeps the dog comfortable.
- Some dogs need only occasional pain relief while others need it all the time. Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all.
- For severe cases or where pain relief doesn’t help, several options are available for hip dysplasia surgery.
- The type of operation varies, depending on the age of the dog and complications such as arthritis. For example, a young pup without arthritis may benefit from changing the angulation of the pelvis, while an older dog with fused hips needs a total hip replacement.
- These are specialist surgeries that will be carefully assessed by a veterinary orthopedic surgeon.
8. How Much Does It Cost to Fix Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?
Hip dysplasia surgery is expensive.
A dog I recently referred for a total hip replacement was given an estimate of more than $8,400 for a medium-sized dog.
This is where having the pet insured from a young age can save a lot of heartache.
In the video below, Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, discusses treatment alternatives for those who cannot afford hip dysplasia surgery for their dog:
9. What Are the Options for At-Home Treatment?
While no single thing is going to make a big difference, add up lots of little things and this makes a big improvement to your dog’s quality of life. For example:
- Nutraceuticals: A good-quality supplement containing chondroitin and glucosamine helps to nourish the joints. It promotes a slick, slippery joint fluid, providing better joint lubrication, and it promotes smooth movement.
- Diet: Feed those big-breed pups a food designed for large-breed growth.
- Weight: Learn to body-score your dog, and aim for a score of 4–5 out of 9.
- Exercise: Keep the dog moving so as to strengthen the muscles that support the hips. However, don’t overtire the dog. Activities such as swimming or hydrotherapy are great because they are non–weight bearing.
- Physiotherapy: A consult with a veterinary physiotherapist is worth its weight in gold. They can teach you home exercises to strengthen those vital hip muscles and keep the dog active.
- Heat Therapy: Never underestimate the benefit of providing a warm bed to keep the heat in round sore joints. And for those times when the hips are especially sore, warm wheat bags can provide relief.
- Alternative Therapies: Consider using a TENS machine on the dog’s hips, or using a veterinary acupuncturist.
- Investigate Laser Therapy: Use of infrared heat or laser therapy can help reduce pain and discomfort.
Also, keep an eye on the research into stem cell therapy. This is a developing field of veterinary medicine that seems to hold promise.
10. How Long Can a Dog Live With Hip Dysplasia?
Here’s that word “multifactorial” once again.
The answer to how long can a dog live with hip dysplasia depends on lots of factors, such as
- Your budget
If you can afford hip replacement surgery, even the most severe cases can lead to a normal and full life.
And if a pup is diagnosed with hip dysplasia, if you feed them right, exercise sensibly and give pain relief when necessary, their disease may not progress.
So don’t get that sinking feeling. Instead, take control of those factors you can influence, and it could keep your dog on their paws for an active, happy life.
- Ward, Ernest, DVM. “Hip Dysplasia in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals. 2015. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/hip-dysplasia-in-dogs.
- Harari, Joseph, DVM, DACVS. “Hip Dysplasia in Small Animals.” Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/musculoskeletal-system/arthropathies-and-related-disorders-in-small-animals/hip-dysplasia-in-small-animals.
- “Hip Dysplasia.” Fitzpatrick Referrals. https://www.fitzpatrickreferrals.co.uk/orthopaedic/hip-dysplasia/.