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Hip Dysplasia In Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment Options & Prevention

Hip dysplasia is a disease that is partly passed from parents to puppies (inherited) and partly depends on a puppy’s early life. Most dogs with the disease have it in both hips. Veterinarian Joanna Woodnutt explains the symptoms to look for and how to manage your dog's comfort should he have this genetic condition.

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Last Updated: March 7, 2022 | 7 min read

Black dog getting therapy done on hip

This article was written by a veterinarian, but it should not serve as a substitute for a visit with a local vet.

Hip dysplasia is a common condition that can cause dogs to have weakness or pain in their hips. You may have heard that certain breeds of dogs have bad hips. Commonly this is said about breeds that are likely to have this condition, but what does this mean? Are only some breeds affected?

There are different reasons dogs may have bad hips – hip dysplasia is the most common. It develops during puppyhood but may not be obvious to an owner until the dog is older. However, it helps if the disease is discovered early in a dog’s life (with the help of a veterinarian) because you can make changes to give your dog a more comfortable life.

So, how do you know if your dog has hip dysplasia? Can you tell if a puppy is at risk of developing it before bringing it home? If your dog is diagnosed with the disease, what can be done to treat it?

What Is Hip Dysplasia In Dogs?

All dogs with dysplasia of the hip develop osteoarthritis (or ‘arthritis’). Arthritis is painful and can prevent a dog from getting about in a normal way. Managing it correctly in the early stages can help slow the onset of arthritis.

What Is Wrong With A Dog’s Hip If He Has Dysplasia?

Hip Dysplasia chart
In dogs with hip dysplasia, the ball is not properly rounded, and the cup is shallow – more like a saucer.

A dog’s hips are normal at birth, but puppies can develop a weakness around the joints in early life. As the hips develop, they don’t fit together as they should. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint. The ball is at the top of the bone in the leg. It should fit neatly into a smooth cup or socket on the dog’s pelvis.

These changes can affect the way the dog walks. A normal ball and socket joint moves freely all around – hips should have a large ‘range of movement’ (as us veterinarians would say). A hip with dysplasia has a reduced range of movement.

What Happens To Dogs With Dysplasia In Their Hips?

Hip dysplasia leads to arthritis. This causes pain and stiffness, making it harder for dogs to get around. Young dogs with dysplasia in their hips may not limp because they don’t have arthritis yet. However, they may still be living with discomfort. Sadly, the disease is progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. Knowing about the condition when a dog is young can help the owner and veterinarian make changes to the dog’s lifestyle to help slow progression.

It’s important to see your veterinarian regularly when your dog is young, even if they seem well. Veterinarians are trained to notice things on a physical examination that give clues to disease. Examining your dog’s hips can tell your vet whether your dog has hip problems. If your vet is concerned, they might recommend further tests.

What Are Signs Of Hip Dysplasia?

Cream dog walking with limp
There are some signs you might see from looking for in your dog at home.

Your dog might:

  • Get up and move away if you stroke his hips but enjoy being stroked elsewhere
  • Be slow to get up, especially on a slippery floor
  • Have an unusual walk or run, this can be hard to spot, but your dog might:
    • ‘Bunny hop’ – move both back legs forward together, instead of alternating one leg and then the other
    • Swing or swagger his hips
    • Look stiff in his back legs
  • Struggle with jumping into the car
  • Be slow to climb stairs and on walks
  • Move less around the home
  • Have slim hips – where the muscle has gone from around the joints because they are not being used as much

Which Breeds Most Commonly Get Hip Dysplasia?

While this condition is more common in large dogs, it can affect any. As the disease is hereditary (passed on in the genes), dogs with parents or other relatives with hip dysplasia are more likely to have it themselves. Breeds that are more likely to develop joint issues include German Shepherd Dogs, Great Danes, Burmese Mountain Dogs, Saint Bernards, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Bulldogs.

How Is Hip Dysplasia In Dogs Diagnosed?

The first clues usually come from your veterinarian feeling your dog’s hips on physical examination. You may also have spotted some signs at home. If they suspect your dog has joint issues, your veterinarian will recommend further tests, starting with an x-ray. Hip x-rays are taken under sedation or anesthetic in dogs because your dog needs to lie very still in a strange position.

Your dog might also need blood tests, a CT scan, or an examination by a veterinarian specializing in bone and joint diseases (an orthopedic veterinarian). Your primary care veterinarian might refer your dog to a specialist clinic.

Pet Insurance For Proactive Support

Once your dog has been diagnosed with a hip condition or any health concern, it is too late to get it covered by pet insurance. However, by finding the right insurance for your dog at a young age, before they have a pre-existing condition, you can properly manage your finances in times of pet emergencies like this one. And even if your dog has already been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, who’s to say what health emergency you may face next. Now is the time to consider pet insurance, so you never have to choose between your beloved furry friend and your wallet.

How Is Hip Dysplasia Treated?

Border Collie on a hydrotherapy treadmill
No treatment can cure, but — good news — dogs can live with hip dysplasia and still have fun!

Managing Hip Dysplasia

Although it can’t be cured, it is possible to make a hip dysplasia dog’s life more comfortable by making changes that help manage the condition. These changes can involve diet and exercise adjustments, medication, food, supplements, and therapies like physiotherapy or acupuncture.

Studies have shown that being overweight makes the symptoms worse. If your dog is overweight, your vet can help you plan your doggy’s diet.

Correct exercise is important for managing the condition. Your veterinarian might recommend fewer, shorter walks or sticking to soft ground. Doing appropriate exercise in the early stages of the disease helps keep muscles strong, which reduces joint pressure. In later stages, exercise helps to keep arthritic joints moving – which is important in relieving stiffness.

Puppies with it are likely to have worse symptoms if they grow too quickly. Your veterinarian can help advise you on how best to feed a growing dog.

Medication For Hip Dysplasia

Many dogs need pain relief medication. There are many different options – tablets, syrups, or injections. Every dog responds differently to medication, so you and your veterinarian can discuss an appropriate regime for your dog. Pain relief can also be achieved by therapies like physiotherapy, hydrotherapy (exercising in water), and acupuncture.

Hip Dysplasia Surgery

Operations available include surgeries to correct incorrect positioning of the hips. These are for young dogs or dogs in earlier stages of the disease. Your veterinarian can discuss with you whether these options are appropriate for your dog. More often, surgery is done to replace arthritic hips in later stages of the disease. Your veterinarian can discuss medical and surgical options with you if your dog has hip dysplasia. They may refer you to a specialist vet to decide which option is best.

A Total Hip Replacement (THR) is quite a common choice. Dogs need lots of special care while they recover, which takes several weeks, but most dogs that have a THR have a good result from the surgery. If money is tight or a hip replacement is not going to work in a particular dog, then a more affordable operation to remove the ball part of the hip is possible. This is good for pain relief, but the hip joint is not as stable as it would be with a hip replacement. This is called a Femoral Head and Neck Excision (FHNE).

How Do I Know If A Puppy Could Have Hip Dysplasia?

It’s not straightforward. There are lots of genes that can lead to developing the condition. Signs of the disease can be subtle, so just because a parent dog seems healthy doesn’t mean puppies are free from developing the condition. It is advisable to check dogs of certain large breeds for signs of hip dysplasia before breeding from them.

This involves the dog having x-rays and their x-rays being graded by a specially trained veterinarian. The hips are graded from excellent to severe. When buying a puppy that is a large breed, ask the breeder if the parents have had their hips tested and to see the results. Looking at hip scores for any previous litters from the pairing or from siblings of the parents may also give an idea of the genes your puppy could be inheriting.

Frequently Asked Questions

How expensive is having a dog with hip dysplasia?

It can be expensive, as pain relief, therapies, and operations are costly. Get a young dog a pet insurance policy as soon as possible, before any diseases are diagnosed. This should make your dog eligible for coverage, should this or other health conditions arise during their lifetime.

Can a dog with hip dysplasia be happy?

Yes, they can be happy and pain-free. There are many effective management options, including surgery and holistic treatments, that may help.

Can hip dysplasia be cured?

Sadly no, it cannot be cured. However, it can be managed so that a dog has a good quality of life.

How can I tell if my dog has bad hips?

Your veterinarian is best placed to assess your dog’s hips by performing a physical examination and possibly further tests. You may also notice symptoms such as stiffness in the hips, limping, or a reluctance to exercise.

Which breeds have bad hips?

Any dog can have ‘bad hips’ — but it is more common in large breeds. Instead of just looking at the dog breed, try to investigate whether the parents have good hips by looking at pre-breeding testing results.

Final Thoughts

Hip dysplasia is a common condition that’s becoming more recurrent over time. It’s thought to be primarily genetic, although a puppy’s early life can play a part in whether they suffer from the diseases. Choosing dogs from good breeders with the correct health tests may reduce the risk of buying a puppy with bad hips.

It cannot be cured and gets worse over time, but dogs with hip dysplasia have many management options that can help to keep them pain-free. If you suspect your dog has mobility issues, you should contact your veterinarian for advice.

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