Hip dysplasia in dogs

two Bernese Mountain Dogs sat next to each other in a forest
Hip dysplasia is a common inherited disease in dogs. It can be very painful and can cause other conditions, such as arthritis. In this article, you can find out how dogs get hip dysplasia, the symptoms to watch out for, how you can lower the risk of your dog getting it and what you can do if your dog already has it?

What is hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is the term that’s used when one or both of a dog’s hip joints don’t fit together correctly. Often, the hip joint (also known as the ‘ball and socket’ joint) doesn’t develop as it should during growth, which means the thigh bone (femur) doesn’t sit correctly with the hip. This results in a loosening or laxity within the hip. Over time, this causes wear and tear to the cartilage and even the bone itself. Hip dysplasia can be painful and can put affected dogs at risk of developing other conditions.

Talk to your vet about hip dysplasia.

What causes hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is a complex inherited condition. This means that a dog’s genetics often play a part in causing the condition, as well as other factors, like diet and exercise. Since a dog’s genes can influence hip dysplasia, it’s possible to reduce the risk to future generations by only breeding from dogs with a low genetic risk (we’ll talk about this later).

Other known risk factors include:
  • Being overweight or obese - Increased weight is a huge risk factor for many diseases. Extra weight puts increased stress on the muscles and bones and increases levels of inflammation. Keeping your dog lean and fit, particularly as they grow, helps lower their risk and protects them against hip dysplasia, as well as a long list of other health problems.
  • Injury or high impact during development - When a puppy grows, its bones are quite soft and any large impacts or injuries may affect the way the bones develop. Injuries, such as falling down the stairs or jumping from too high, could have long-term complications. It’s very important that you always supervise/help your puppy to go up and down the stairs, get down from the sofa or get out of the boot of the car. When your puppy is very young, they shouldn’t be allowed to do these activities, but should gradually be taught how to do them as they grow older.
  • Incorrect exercise - Exercising a puppy too strenuously in certain ways (e.g. repeatedly chasing a thrown ball, jumping or running down the stairs etc.) while they’re growing may increase their risk of developing hip dysplasia. However, it’s important to remember that not enough exercise and excessive weight can also create risk. You should balance the amount and type of exercise your puppy gets, keeping them at a healthy and lean body weight. Encouraging natural play with other dogs or in the garden or park is a great way to keep your dog fit, stimulated and socialised. For dogs that enjoy swimming, this is also a great way to exercise without putting too much strain on their joints. If you’re unsure about how much exercise your puppy needs, talk to your vet, Breed Health Co-ordinator or breed clubs, as these are the experts for your breed.
  • Poor diet - Diet may have a role to play in hip dysplasia, so it’s very important that you feed your dog a breed and age-appropriate diet. This can help them grow properly when they’re a puppy and gives them the best nutrients to support their developing skeleton. If you’re unsure about the right diet for your dog, talk to your vet, breeder or contact your Breed Health Co-ordinator or breed clubs.

Although hip dysplasia is more common in larger breeds and breeds that grow very quickly, it can affect any dog. It’s important that, whatever your breed, you keep an eye on your dog and try to lower their risk of hip dysplasia as much as possible.

How can I tell if my dog has hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia can get worse with age, due to wear and tear of joints over time. Some dogs may not initially show any symptoms but hip dysplasia can be painful, causing a range of different signs that can occur early on, progressing as the disease becomes more severe.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Not wanting to be active or exercise
  • Difficulty standing up or getting up and down sofas or stairs
  • Walking in an unusual way, such as a swaying gait
  • Limping or lameness
  • Showing pain, such as whining or licking/biting at their hip area
  • Loss of muscle mass or tone around their hips
  • A reduced range of movement of the hip
  • Stiffness

How is hip dysplasia diagnosed?

If your dog shows any of the symptoms above, your vet may suggest an x-ray to check how their hips are positioned. They will also examine your dog and see how they react to having their back legs moved around. Your vet may also suggest a referral to a specialist orthopaedic vet for further investigation.

What age does hip dysplasia show?

Hip dysplasia often begins early on in a dog’s life, and can start as early as a few weeks from birth. As a dog develops, the problems with their hip joints can become worse. Some dogs may start to show symptoms from six to 12 months of age, but these could come about at any time in a dog’s life. Owners may notice their dog gradually showing symptoms as their condition worsens but some dogs are very good at hiding discomfort and pain.

Can hip dysplasia cause other problems?

As hip dysplasia impacts their hip joint and thigh bone, affected dogs may be more at risk of arthritis or degenerative joint disease (the bone itself can become worn and damaged from the joint moving incorrectly).

Is hip dysplasia a genetic condition?

Hip dysplasia is controlled by a number of different genes but is also influenced by several environmental factors (e.g. diet, exercise or factors in the womb before birth etc.). Each of the genes that help to make a dog’s hips may have different possible versions. Some versions may increase the risk of hip dysplasia, while others reduce the risk.

Each dog has a mix of these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of genes, making it difficult to predict whether a dog will be affected. The impact one version of a gene has may only be slight, but lots of genes having a small influence have a combined additive effect.

How common is hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia is, unfortunately, quite a common condition across dogs, and appears to affect dogs that grow larger and more quickly than others. Breeds known to be affected by hip dysplasia include:

This list doesn’t include every breed that’s affected, as other breeds, such as Bulldogs and Pugs, have also been suggested to be affected by this condition. Hip dysplasia isn’t limited to purebred dogs and can affect crossbreeds too.

How do I test for hip dysplasia?

Because a dog’s risk of hip dysplasia is influenced by a mixture of genetics and environmental factors, like diet or exercise, there is no simple DNA test that tells you if your dog may be affected.

At the moment, the best way to find out more about the health of your dog’s hips is by having your dog X-rayed and assessed by a specialist as part of the BVA/KC Hip Dysplasia scheme. If you would like your dog screened for hip dysplasia, talk to your vet who can take the required X-ray of your dog's hips. The X-ray will be taken under anaesthesia or heavy sedation.

What treatment options are available for hip dysplasia?

The treatment options available to your dog vary depending on how mild or severe their hip dysplasia is, ranging from minor lifestyle tweaks to surgery.

If your dog’s hip dysplasia is mild, your vet may suggest any of the following to help manage the condition without surgery:

  • Exercise - It’s important that your dog still gets regular exercise, but your vet may suggest tailoring your dog’s exercise, perhaps looking at lower impact exercise, such as swimming or hydrotherapy, or changing the length and frequency of their walks
  • Weight loss - If your dog is carrying excess weight, they may suggest a weight reduction plan
  • Medication - Anti-inflammatories can reduce inflammation in the hip and may help with pain
  • Joint supplementation

More severe dysplasia may require surgery – there are several different options available depending on you and your dog’s circumstances. These are:

Juvenile pubic symphysiodesis (JPS)

This surgery fuses parts of the hip joint together so that when the dog is fully grown the function of the whole joint is improved. As the name suggests, this surgery is used on young dogs and is sometimes described as a type of preventative or prophylactic surgery, as it’s undertaken before the age when symptoms usually first appear.

Double or triple pelvic osteotomy (DPO/TPO)

This surgery is commonly used in dogs that are still growing and is used to correct the shape of the ball and socket joint by cutting (two cuts for a double osteotomy, three for a triple), rotating and fixing the bone with plates and screws so that the ball and socket fit together better.

Femoral head ostectomy (FHO)

This type of surgery, also called a femoral head and neck excision (FHNE) surgery, is used in both young and older dogs, and involves cutting away the ball part of the hip joint, and allowing a ‘false joint’ to form. Dogs that have this surgery will have limited hip function as the ball and socket system has not been replaced, and the outcome may be more varied than other options.

Total hip replacement (THR)

This method involves taking away all of the affected bone from the hip and replacing it with a metal and/or plastic replacement, which creates an artificial but functional joint.

How expensive is hip surgery?

The cost of your dog’s surgery depends on a number of things, such as your dog’s size, age, severity of the disease, type of surgery required, and whether they also have any other conditions that need to be taken into account. You will also need to factor in how long it may take for your dog to recover from their surgery and whether they’ll need any further treatment, such as physiotherapy. 

Can hip dysplasia be cured?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for hip dysplasia. If your dog has the disease, it’s a case of managing it instead of treating it. However, there are many ways to make your dog more comfortable so that they can live with this condition. Many dogs go on to live a full life despite having this disease. While hip dysplasia on its own doesn’t cause death, you’ll need to discuss your dog’s well-being and possible outcomes with your vet. Sadly, in some cases, if your dog’s condition is very severe, has caused another disease to develop, or cannot be treated due to financial or personal reasons, you may need to discuss euthanasia as the kindest option for your dog.

What can I do to prevent hip dysplasia?

As hip dysplasia is partly controlled by genetics, there is no one factor that can be adapted to completely prevent hip dysplasia, but there are a number of things you can do to lower your dog’s risk.

Most importantly, you should try to keep your dog fit and lean, and make sure they get plenty of the right type of exercise to maintain muscle mass. Keeping your dog’s weight down and stopping them from becoming overweight will hugely help to reduce strain on their hip joints. During puppyhood, you should take extra care to support your dog’s developing bones and joints. You can do this by feeding them a breed and age-appropriate diet and making sure they get plenty of low-impact and ‘natural’ exercise. Avoiding any high impacts, such as repeatedly throwing the ball, or jumping from heights (e.g. off the sofa or down the stairs) will also help prevent any stress injuries impacting the bones and joints while they are still forming and growing.

Can I test my dog for hip dysplasia?

Having your dog scored under the BVA/KC Hip Dysplasia Scheme allows you to find out more about their risk of developing dysplasia. This scheme asks that your dog is X-rayed and their scan is analysed for factors that are linked to hip dysplasia. Your dog is scored on a scale from 0-53 for each hip. The scores for each hip are then totalled up to give you a final score (minimum 0, maximum 106). The lower the score, the lower your dog’s risk of developing hip dysplasia. For some breeds, these results are then added to your dog’s record and, in turn, feed into your breed’s Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). A dog’s EBV helps you assess your dog’s genetic risk of disease. If you’re thinking of breeding, using EBVs and your dog’s score together is the best way to lower future puppy’s risk of hip dysplasia.

Can I breed from my dog if they have hip dysplasia?

As hip dysplasia is known to be inherited, we don’t recommend that you breed from a dog that has severe hip dysplasia, as this means any puppies produced will also have a higher risk of developing the disease. Thankfully, because we can screen our dogs using the BVA/KC Hip Dysplasia scheme, you can get an idea of whether your dog is affected by any degree of dysplasia, and make an informed decision based on these scores and available estimated breeding values.

We recommend that you breed from dogs that have a hip score at, or below, the current breed average, however, it’s important to take into account all other important breeding factors, such as temperament, other health tests, conformation and type. You can find your breed’s median hip score by clicking here.

Where can I find further support and resources?

Your vet is the best initial point of call for further support and advice on this condition. You may also find it useful to seek advice from owners who have had similar experiences. We also recommend contacting your breed club or Breed Health Co-ordinator, as they may be able to share their knowledge with you and put you in touch with other owners who have had dogs affected by the condition.

Can I contribute to any research?

It is worth checking our research page here to see current research projects that apply to your breed.

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We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information

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