Hip Dysplasia

Two out of the three dogs that I have owned in my adulthood has had hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a condition that is very close to my heart because it will always make me think of my two girls, Popcorn and Kaylee. Items discussed in this blog will be: what it is, ages and breeds that hip dysplasia can be seen in, early signs, how it is diagnosed, preventatives/maintenance care, and surgical options.


Hip dysplasia… many people have heard the term but may not fully understand what exactly that means. First, we can break down the words “Hip dysplasia” into two words. Hip refers to the “ball and socket” joint located where the pelvis and hind legs meet. Dysplasia is a medical term that means abnormal growth. When those two words are used in combination with one another, hip dysplasia is an abnormal development (or growth) at the joint of the hind legs and pelvis. In normal, healthy hips, the femoral head or “ball” sits perfectly inside the acetabulum or “socket”. Both are coated with smooth cartilage so that motion (walking, running, sitting, laying, etc.) is nearly frictionless and the bones smoothly glide across one another.


Hip dysplasia can vary depending on the severity of the condition. They can be classified as mild, moderate and severe.


Mild –  The femoral head doesn’t fit snugly inside the acetabulum. This most often happens due to the “socket” being shallow or improperly formed and doesn’t cover the “ball”.

Moderate – The femoral head is barely seated inside of the acetabulum making an unstable joint. Arthritic changes can be seen. Deformities to both the “ball and socket” might be seen.

Severe – The femoral head is partially or completely out of the acetabulum. Deformities to the “ball and socket” are clearly seen. Arthritic changes are seen.


Most often hip dysplasia has a genetic component. It can be passed down from the parents to their young. Although, non-dysplastic parents can produce dysplastic offspring because it can skip generations. That is why it is important if you plan on breeding your dog to look back through its pedigree to make sure you are not passing on any bad health conditions. Hip dysplasia can also develop from poor care. At my previous job (in an animal shelter), I met an 8-10 month old puppy that was kept in a crate that was too small for her and was kept in there for too many hours at a time. Since there was little space and no exercise as the puppy grew, the bone structures became deformed.  Aside from other issues, she had severe hip dysplasia as well. Like we have already established early in this blog, hip dysplasia is an abnormality in the hip joint, so trauma to the hips can also cause hip dysplasia.


Both dogs and cats can suffer from hip dysplasia. It is more prevalent in “heavy boned” breeds, meaning, the larger, stockier breeds such as all of the large breed dogs: Great Danes, Mastiffs, Newfies, Golden Retrievers, Labs, Shepherds, Rottis, etc are all prone to dysplasia. However, Bassets, French Bulldogs and Pugs make it on the top 20 breeds prone to dysplasia. In the cat world, Maine Coons, Persians, and Selkirk Rex are considered a “heavy boned” breed prone to dysplasia. Although, I read an article that said females are more often afflicted with hip dysplasia; there was no research to back up this claim and either gender can develop hip dysplasia.


When a puppy is born the structures of the hip joint are made of cartilage, as they grow, minerals are deposited that form bone. That is why puppies under 3 months of age don’t really show symptoms of dysplasia. Puppies ages 3-6 months with moderate to severe hip dysplasia can show signs of hip dysplasia to an observer with a keen eye. Typically, the earliest that radiographs can be used to confirm hip dysplasia is 6 months of age. There are two age times that owners will notice hip issues: Adolescents (6-18 months of age) and seniors (6+ years of age). Large breed pups go through some major growth spurts during their adolescence and these growth spurts can exacerbate hip dysplasia and the pain involved. Muscle mass is greater in a younger dog thus helping to support the joint and reduces the stress directly on the bones. Seniors that have had hip dysplasia all their life but now also have a boney build-up of arthritis, cartilage wear and inflammatory changes; can create an overpowering pain response that they can no longer hide.


Early signs of hip dysplasia may be hard to spot if you are unfamiliar with what to look for.  Don’t expect a pet with a chronic painful condition to cry or whine in pain. Remember, pets tend to hide their pain because it is a sign of weakness in the wild. Usually discomfort is shown with reduced activity.  A pet having difficulty rising or lying down, jumping or having trouble going up and down stairs could potentially be signs of hip dysplasia. When they run, they will keep both hind legs together and appear to have a “bunny hop”. When they walk they will have more of a swivel or sway with their back hips. On Kaylee’s bad days, she looks like she is doing her best John Wayne gait as she walks. They will also stand or sit in a slightly odd way. Here is a great youtube video that shows you many of the symptoms of hip dysplasia.


If you are concerned that your pet is displaying signs of hip dysplasia don’t ignore it or think that they just “slept wrong” on their leg or will grow out of it. Get your fuzzy friend to the vet! After discussing your concerns with the veterinarian, they will perform an examination. The vet’s exam will include moving the joints of the hind legs around to watch for subtle reactions of pain. They will check the hips, knees and “ankles” for any luxation (abnormal movement of a joint) because some symptoms of hip dysplasia can mirror a luxating patella. Then to get a confirmed diagnosis and to see the severity of the dysplasia, your pet will require radiographs. If your pet is young when hip dysplasia is confirmed, it is a good idea to have radiographs taken every few years to monitor the changes in the hip bones. Over time, bone spurs can develop causing more pain and damage. Below are Kaylee’s hip radiographs from the time she was 10 months old, 5 years old and 6 years old. When she was younger, her only sign was bunny hopping when she ran. I’ve kept her at her ideal weight around 95 pounds and now that she is considered a senior, she is having more difficulty standing up after laying down for a while, she walks with more of a limp and even has trouble staying in a squatting position when she is going to the bathroom.


There is no medical way to reverse or prevent hip dysplasia. However, there are certain steps that can be taken to help lessen the pain and progression of hip dysplasia.

  • Weight: Keeping your pet with a lighter weight can more easily tolerate an abnormal hip.  My dog Popcorn had severe hip dysplasia in both of her hips, she had to have FHO surgery on her one side and I had to keep her under 50 pounds to manage the dysplasia. Throughout your pet’s life, the body tries to stabilize the luxating joint and in doing so creates arthritis in the joint. Also, there have been studies that have shown two thirds of puppies that were allowed to free feed went on to develop hip dysplasia compared to only one third who were fed measured out meals.  These studies have led to creating specific diets for puppies and even large versus small breed puppy formulas.
  • Appropriate exercise: Getting the proper amount of exercise not only helps maintain an ideal weight, it helps keep the muscles and bones in good working order. But too much or not enough exercise can cause more problems.
  • Physical therapy: Just like appropriate exercise, physical therapy can help keep the muscle and bones in good working order, but physical therapy may have special or low impact exercises that will not cause as much trauma to the dysplastic hip. I’ve been taking Kaylee to a facility for physical therapy and a water treadmill and she absolutely loves it. I was surprised to see how much muscle mass she had lost in her hindquarters before starting and how much she has gained back.
  • Cold Laser and massage therapy: I have seen firsthand how cold laser therapy has worked in helping to improve a pet’s life. Hip dysplasia causes inflammation and stiffness in the muscles surrounding the hip joint. Massages can help loosen those stiff muscles.
  • Supplements: glucosamine and chondroitin are a natural substance found in cartilage. As the body ages, it doesn’t produce as much as it used to. By supplementing your pet’s diet with a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement, you will help your pet maintain the therapeutic level that they need to keep their joint moving. Not only does Omega 3&6’s (fish oils) help with skin health, it can help “lubricate” the joints.


I’ll be honest with you, when Kaylee was diagnosed with slight hip dysplasia at 10 months old, I started her on a glucosamine joint supplement. When she was 3 ½ to 4 years old, I started her on an Omega 3&6 supplement. About 7 months ago, I stopped the Omega 3&6 because it was a liquid that was kind of messy and I wasn’t sure that it was really helping her. About 5 weeks ago, she really started showing a lot of discomfort with her hips. I’m now kicking myself because I should have never stopped giving her that supplement and it is going to take a few more weeks for the product to work effectively again. And TRUST ME! the supplement is a lot cheaper than the pain medication she is on. Also, the pain medication is harder on her kidneys and liver than the supplements are.

  • Pain medications: As your pet ages, arthritis will become more of a pain in their joints. Check with your veterinarian to make sure your pet is getting the proper medication. Certain pain meds will require annual bloodwork to monitor how they are affecting your pet’s kidneys. A quick side note: it is not a good idea to give your pet human pain medications, like aspirin or ibuprofen. Human medications can cause liver/kidney failure and death.


There are a few surgical procedures out there to assist with moderate to severe cases. Typically, these surgeries are sent to a referral clinic to have an orthopedic surgeon perform such detailed, specialized surgeries. By going to a referral clinic, the surgeon will be able to assess the condition of the animal and discuss with you the best option for your pet.


Femoral Head Ostectomy (or FHO) – this surgery is usually performed on dogs 50 pounds or less or dogs that are very active. Basically, the femoral head is removed to create a false joint and remove the bone to bone contact.


Triple Pelvic Osteotomy – this surgery has a very tiny window for when it can be performed. The puppy must be 8-18 months old with no degenerative arthritic changes. In this surgery, the acetabulum is sawed free from the pelvis and repositioned for a better fit on the femoral head and then plated into place.


Total Hip Replacement – It is exactly what it sounds like and the same type of procedure that humans can get.  The Veterinary Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Group website has a great radiograph of what a total hip replacement looks like.


Even though hip dysplasia can be a debilitating condition, with proper care and supportive medications, you dysplastic pet can still lead a happy, fun life.


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