Diagnosing Hip Dysplasia in Dogs and Next Steps

Updated January 19, 2022
woman looking after her elderly, disabled german shepherd

Receiving a diagnosis of hip dysplasia in your dog or learning that your new puppy may be at risk for it can be alarming. Canine hip dysplasia is a genetic skeletal condition that develops in young dogs and often leads to joint pain, limping, or even loss of mobility. Understanding more about this painful condition as well as available treatments can help owners create a comfortable, more fulfilling life for their pets.

What Is Canine Hip Dysplasia?

Canine hip dysplasia (dys- meaning "abnormal," and -plasia meaning "growth") is a hip development issue that arises during a puppy's growth stage. It's also the most common musculoskeletal disorder seen in medium and large breed dogs.

In dogs without dysplasia, the hip joint grows uniformly, then fits together snugly and smoothly. However, in dogs with hip dysplasia, the structures grow at different rates, so the head of the femur fits loosely into the pelvis, causing excessive rubbing. Eventually, the cartilage that cushions the joint is worn through because of this misalignment, and the dog experiences pain and associated lameness. Severe cases of hip dysplasia can lead to complete loss of mobility in the hind legs.

Signs and Symptoms

The first symptoms of canine hip dysplasia may appear during a puppy's rapid growth, as early as 4 to 9 months old. However, some dogs may not show signs until they're much older. While there may be no initial clinical symptoms, the following are common signs of the condition seen in puppies and dogs.

  • Reluctance to go on walks or play
  • Limping (progressive or after exercise)
  • Slow to rise from a sitting or sedentary position
  • Sitting in unusual positions
  • Weakness in the hind limbs
  • Wavering or "bunny hop" gait
  • Difficulty running or jumping
  • Atrophy of the hind muscles
  • Clicking joint sounds
  • Painful hips

Causes of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Although genetics play a significant role in why a dog might develop hip dysplasia, there are several other contributing factors. These include diet, growth rate, activity level, injury, muscle mass, and weight.

Overweight puppies reportedly have double the risk of developing hip dysplasia compared to those at a healthy weight. Over-exercising can also lead to problems. Owners should address these environmental factors as early as possible, since the growing period is a critical time.

Commonly Affected Breeds

Canine hip dysplasia can affect a dog of any size, but it's particularly prevalent in large, fast-growing breeds. The following breeds, as well as mixed-breed dogs with these pedigrees, are some of the most commonly affected.

Full Body Shot of 3 Year Old Male Bernese Mountain Dog

While larger dog breeds have a greater risk of developing hip dysplasia, even small dog breeds can become afflicted with the disease, particularly if they are overweight or lead extremely active lives. The following smaller dogs may also be prone to hip dysplasia:

Getting a Diagnosis

If you're concerned that your dog may be suffering from hip dysplasia, it's important to have them examined by a veterinarian. Your vet can diagnose the condition through manual palpation of the joints (feeling for looseness in the hips) and observing them walk. X-rays are also necessary to determine the severity of the joint degeneration.

Dog x-ray

OFA Screening

It's also possible to perform X-ray screenings on dogs without symptoms to see if they have any evidence of dysplasia. Owners may elect to do this for larger breed puppies who might be prone to the condition, and breeders are encouraged to perform these before breeding dogs to prevent passing it on.

Most testing is done through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). Your vet will send the X-rays to these specialists who will grade the hips based on a scoring system. There are seven categories the hips can fall into, from "Excellent" to "Severe."

Treatment for Hip Dysplasia

There are several ways to manage discomfort from hip dysplasia depending on the dog's age, health, and the severity of the disease. Usually, your veterinarian will chose from a combination of different methods to make your dog as comfortable as possible.

  • Weight control: The dog's weight should be carefully managed, as even a few extra pounds can add stress onto deteriorated joints, causing greater pain and inflammation. Confirm with your doctor that your dog is on an appropriate diet.
  • Limited activity: While all dogs need exercise, strenuous games such as chasing balls, jumping, and tricks standing on the hind legs should be avoided to alleviate joint stress. Low-impact exercises as directed by your vet can help carefully strengthen the muscles.
  • Medication: To help relieve pain, many veterinarians prescribe dog-safe anti-inflammatory drugs. Supplements such as glucosamine or omega fatty acids can also help improve joint health.
  • Heat therapy: Cold can aggravate the condition, so affected dogs may benefit from warm compresses or heated beds.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is used with dogs to help alleviate pain from numerous ailments, and it can be beneficial for dysplastic dogs.
  • Hip brace: An orthopedic support brace can help some dogs suffering from hip dysplasia symptoms.
 physiotherapist training Malinois Belgian Shepherd Dog on fitness ball at center

Surgical Options

If the condition is severe, surgery may be recommended.

  • Juvenile Pubis Symphysiodesis (JPS): Puppies between the ages of 10 and 16 weeks old with hip dysplasia can have this minimally invasive procedure performed to help close the growth plate.
  • Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (TPO): This procedure is done in puppies between the ages of 5 and 12 months old to help correct the hip conformation.
  • Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO): For smaller dog breeds, removing the femoral head (the upper part of the femur that rides in the pelvic joint) is an option, and the dog will eventually generate a false joint of scar tissue as a replacement.
  • Total Hip Replacement (THR): In heavier dogs, a total hip replacement surgery may be necessary, where the hip joint is replaced with a metal or plastic implant.

Preventing Canine Hip Dysplasia

Because it is primarily a genetic condition, canine hip dysplasia cannot be truly cured or prevented. However, if you have a puppy who may be prone to the condition, you can help support their growth and minimize dysplastic development.

  • Keep your puppy at a healthy weight and avoid letting them become overweight.
  • Feed large breed puppies a balanced diet formulated for large breed puppies. Avoid switching them to an adult diet too early (most large breed pups should stay on puppy food until 12 to 18 months).
  • Ask your vet about starting a supplement to support their joint health.
  • Avoid letting puppies walk on stairs before the age of 3 months, as a study suggests that this can increase their risk of hip dysplasia.
  • Avoid running with puppies until they're fully developed (between 9 and 24 months of age, depending on the size and breed).
  • Avoid allowing growing puppies to play on slippery floors or hard surfaces where they could injure themselves.
  • If you are choosing a purebred puppy, ask the breeder about their family history to ensure they do not have an increased risk of the disease. Request OFA certificates or other health screening results based on the breed.

Helping Your Dog With Hip Dysplasia

Canine hip dysplasia is a deterioration of the hip joints, most predominantly found in larger dogs. Though the condition can be painful, it can be managed through careful weight control, joint supplements, anti-inflammatory drugs, moderate exercise, and surgery if necessary, allowing affected animals to live full and happy lives.

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Diagnosing Hip Dysplasia in Dogs and Next Steps