Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

A complete guide for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention in dogs


This article is written by Pet Circle's qualified veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski, BVSc (Hons)

Has your dog been diagnosed with hip dysplasia? Or perhaps you are a prospective puppy owner researching your favourite dog breed, but have discovered they are a breed prone to hip dysplasia and want to equip yourself with some knowledge? Our handy guide should provide you with everything you need to know about hip dysplasia in dogs.

What is hip dysplasia?

Which dog breeds are prone to hip dysplasia?

Symptoms of hip dysplasia

Treatment of hip dysplasia

What is Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?

Source: PDSA

Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD) is a congenital condition in which there is instability or a 'loose fit' of the hip joint. In a normal hip joint, the ball of the hip bone (femoral head) should sit neatly into the hip socket (acetabulum) like a ball and socket apparatus. The ball should fit so perfectly that it can glide smoothly around and turn in any direction without any 'clunky' movements. In hip dysplaisa, quite simply, the hip bone doesn't fit neatly into the hip socket like it should - usually due to the 'ball' having an abnormal shape, or the 'socket' being too shallow.

While this abnormal shape and laxity doesn't cause pain by itself, the continual abnormal movement of the femoral head against the bone of the acetabulum leads to a progressive loss of lubricating cartilage, development of scar tissue, and the formation of osteophytes (bone spurs) around the joint. This culmination of issues is a condition known as osteoarthritis, or arthritis. Thus, the painful symptoms of hip dysplasia are actually caused by the secondary arthritis (rather than the misshapen hip), which means that management of hip dysplasia is often aimed at simply treating the arthritis.

What causes Hip Dysplasia in dogs?

Hereditary (genetics) is the usual cause - the dog is born with the genes for developing abnormally shaped hip bones. This genetic trait is more common in certain breeds. However, rapid growth due to excessive nutritional intake can complicate the development of CHD. This is why it is so important to feed your large breed puppy a large breed puppy diet, rather than an all-breed diet, homemade or raw diet, which often aren't formulated with large breed puppies in mind.

Puppies with the genetic trait are usually born with normal hips, but changes begin within a few weeks of life. Sometimes, gait abnormalities begin as early as 3 months of age, but other times a dog may not show signs for years.

Dog breeds that are prone to hip dysplasia

Large breed dogs are particularly prone to hip dysplasia. Certain breeds that are prone to being born with hip dysplasia include:

Signs and Symptoms of Canine Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is divided into two forms based on the age of onset of clinical signs: juvenile and mature. The juvenile form, as the name implies, is seen in dogs under 18 months of age. The mature form is seen in older dogs over 18 months of age.

Clinical signs of juvenile hip dysplasia are usually associated with structural and mechanical difficulties, as painful arthritis has not had time to develop yet:
  • Bunny-hop gait
  • Hind leg lameness (may affect one or both legs)
  • Slow to rise from sitting or lying
  • Clicking sound from hips when moving
  • Reluctance to exercise for long periods
Clinical signs of mature hip dysplasia are usually associated with the secondary degenerative development of osteoarthritis:
  • Lameness or limping which worsens after strenuous exercise
  • Appearing stiff, especially after rest
  • Slow to rise from sitting or lying
  • Reluctance to use stairs or jump into the car
  • Avoiding sitting or lying on hard surfaces
  • Loss of muscle mass in the rear legs

Diagnosis of hip dysplasia in dogs

How to tell if your dog has hip dysplasia

Diagnosis of hip dysplasia requires a veterinary examination. Your veterinarian will be able to watch your dog walking and observe for any abnormalities in their gate, physically examine your dog, test the range of their hip extension, and complete radiographs (xrays).

Radiographs are an essential part of the diagnosis of of hip dysplasia in dogs. Hip xrays usually require sedation to allow your vet to fully extend your dog's hips in a quick and painless way, so many dog owners choose to have diagnostic xrays done at the time as desexing. This means your dog will only need to be sedated once. However, there is also some evidence to suggest that desexing later in life may help the hips develop properly, so it's important to weigh up all your options.

Based on the radiographs, your veterinarian will be able to assess the depth of the acetabulum and the shape of the femoral head, and will form a grade of your dog's hips.

Treatment of hip dysplasia in dogs

Even though hip dysplasia is a degenerative condition, there are many ways to treat and manage it. Depending on the severity of the condition, the grade of the hip dysplasia, the age of the dog, and the lifestyle of the owner, your veterinarian may recommend surgical or medical management.

In either case, weight management is one of the single most important factors for dogs with hip dysplasia - no matter their age, severity, or treatment route. All dogs with hip dysplasia should be kept very slim. It is the most effective - and least expensive! - method of keeping your dog pain-free.

1. Surgery for Hip Dysplasia

Surgery is usually recommended for severe cases of hip dysplasia, particularly juvenile hip dysplasia. Other factors may influence the need for surgery including your dog's age, lifestyle and activity level.

Surgical procedures to correct hip dysplasias may include Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis (JPS), Double or Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (DPO/TPO), Femoral Head Osteotomy (FHO), or a Total Hip Replacement (THR).
- A Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis (JPS) is a minimally invasive surgery that closes a growth plate at the bottom of the pelvis. It prevents the growth of the pubis and alters the shape of the pelvis, which increases the ball's coverage in the socket and reduces laxity. A JPS needs to be performed before the age of 18 weeks of age.
- Double or Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (DPO/TPO) involves cutting the pelvic bone in two or three places and rotating the segments to reduce hip laxity and increase coverage of the ball in the socket. These procedures are best performed in juvenile dogs less than 8-10 months of age.
- Femoral Head Osteotomy (FHO) is the surgical removal of the femoral head - aka, the cutting off of the 'ball'. By removing the ball, the cause of the dog's pain is removed and they will be less reliant on long term pain medication. Once the femoral head is removed, a false joint develops around the hip with the surrounding muscles and near-normal functionality eventually returns. A dog who has had an FHO must never be allowed to become overweight and will not be able to perform high level sporting activities. An FHO may be done at any age.
- Total Hip Replacement (THR) is the most expensive surgical option, and is usually the main treatment in humans with hip dysplasia. A THR involves the replacement of both the ball and socket with metal and plastic implants. These components are fixed in place with bone cement, metal, or bone ingrowth methods. A THR should be performed when the dog has finished growing - which is usually over one year of age.

2. Medical Management of Hip Dysplasia

Medical management of hip dysplasia may be required in some cases - particularly with mature hip dysplasia, mild cases of juvenile hip dysplasia, or when surgery is not possible. Non-surgical management of hip dysplasia is all about reducing the development of osteoarthritis, and reducing the pain associated with it.

While it's nice to think that a single 'wonder arthritis medication' is effective at controlling pain long-term, in reality we need to combine techniques to be most effective. This multimodal approach should ideally involve a combination of pain relief medication, weight management, physiotherapy, environmental changes (like a supportive bed or access ramps) and the use of therapeutic diets or arthritis supplements. These are outlined below:

A. Pain medication

Non-steroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDs) are the mainstay treatment for pain associated with arthritis and hip dysplasia. Common NSAIDs used for osteoarthritis pain include Meloxicam (Metacam), Carprofen (Rimadyl), Dericoxib (Deramaxx), or Firocoxib (Previcox). All of these medications need to be prescribed by your vet.

B. Chondroprotective / Disease-Modifying Drugs

Your vet may also prescribe a course of injections to help manage arthritis. The brand name of these injections can vary (Zydax, Cartrophen, Pentosan), however the the active ingredient, Pentosan Polysulfate, is the same. Pentosan polysulfate is of plant origin and acts within the joint to preserve joint health and provide pain relief. It is usually given as a series of injections, one injection per week for 4-6 weeks, followed by a booster injection at a time frame specificed by your vet.

C. Nutritional Supplements and Prescription Diets

The best supplements for hip dysplasia are arthritis supplements, because arthritis and hip dysplasia are so closely intertwined. Arthritis supplements in dogs most commonly contain one or more of the following nutrients:
- Omega fatty acids. The omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have been demonstrated to have anti inflammatory properties, and as far as supplements for arthritis go, they are backed by the most convincing evidence. Omega 3s can be obtained from lots of difference sources including fish oil, green lipped mussel powder, flaxseeds and nuts. Marine sources of omega fatty acids (such as fish, fish oil and green lipped mussel) are the most effective for dogs.
- Glucosamine and chondroitin. These are the building blocks of normal healthy cartilage and provide essential joint nutrients to help protect, nourish and repair cartilage. Products containing glucosamine and chondroitin are usually harvested from sea mollusks. Despite a lack of strong evidence in the veterinary literature, some veterinarians and owners have found supplementation to be helpful.

View our range of joint care supplements here.

Top supplements for dogs with hip dysplasia

Prescription Diets for joint care may also be recommended by your veterinarian - however take note that prescription joint care diets are only suitable for dogs over 12 months of age. These diets contain the same beneficial nutrients used in joint supplements, designed to be delivered in a perfect blend. Prescription and veterinary diets are simpler to use then supplements (no need to add anything to your pet's food or give tablets). Our top veterinary diets for joint care include Hills Prescription Diet j/d and Royal Canin Mobility CP2+.

D. Environmental Modifications

For a dog with hip dysplasia, the physical strain of getting out of bed, climbing stairs, or jumping on and off furniture can be quite challenging and painful. Making changes to your home can really help reduce discomfort for your pet. Our top recommendations include:

1. Ramps and stairs - these are essential for pets who sleep on the furniture, or jump in and out of the car a lot. Ramps and stairs help pets with hip dysplasia because it allows them to step rather than lift their knees, hips and shoulders. Shop all ramps and stairs for dogs

2. A raised bed - When looking for a bed, try to find a well-padded bed that is elevated slightly. Rising from ground level can be difficult with stiff joints and an elevated bed requires less movement to stand up. Avoid beds with a large lip as this can be hard to step over.

3. Carpeted, non-slip flooring is also advised around bedding and if possible, in all areas of the house your dog travels to.

4. A heating mat in winter - Cold weather can cause stiff joints, so a heating mat can help soothe sore joints and improve mobility when getting up.

E. Exercise Techniques and Physiotherapy

When it comes to exercising a dog with hip dysplasia, balance is key. We don't want to overdo it and lead to discomfort and accelerated cartilage destruction, however we do want to achieve a healthy weight which requires some degree of exercise. Most dogs are comfortable with light to moderate exercise regimes however every animal is different, so it's important to talk to your veterinarian about what's best for your dog.

Swimming or walking in water are excellent options, with minimal pressure placed on the joints and it is a gentle way to strengthen and rebuild muscles to prevent further injury. Many arthritic dogs also respond well to muscle massage and acupuncture.

F. Weight Management

Weight control is the single most important strategy in the management of arthritis in dogs. As well as adding extra load to sore joints, fat also releases inflammatory mediators which contribute to inflammation in many part's of your dog's body, including the joints.

While regular exercise is important, weight loss in pets is most consistently and reliably achieved through the use of a therapeutic diet. As well as controlled calorie levels, these diets also employ cutting edge nutritional science to help boost your pet's metabolism and prevent feelings of hunger during weight loss. Due to their specialised nature, therapeutic diets must only be used under your vet's recommendation and guidance, so check with them first before changing your dog's food.

Want to know more?

After more information about taking care of your dog with arthritis? Check out our video and additional articles below:

Arthritis in dogs: what causes it and how do I know if my dog is affected?

Obesity in pets: why it's a problem and what to do about it

How the right diet can make old dogs young again

Boredom busters for dogs

Your guide to fleas, ticks and worms

How to help your dog with arthritis

Dr. Carla discusses how to help your dog with arthritis. For more great pet videos from our vets, head over to our Youtube Channel.

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