What is hip dysplasia?

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Hip dysplasia is the abnormal development of the hip joint. The hip is a ball and socket joint that connects the femur, the bone at the top of a dog's leg, to the pelvis.

The head of the femur is the ball which fits snugly into the socket of the hip, connected by ligaments. In an affected joint the ball will not be tightly in place, or may be out of the socket altogether, causing the joint to be unstable.

If your dog has an abnormal hip it won't work as it was designed to, which can lead to excessive wear and tear. He may develop arthritis and the joint can degenerate much quicker. In some dogs the body will grow extra bone to try to stabilise the joint, known as remodelling.

What causes hip dysplasia?

Dogs can be passed a genetic tendency for hip dysplasia by their parents. This is why the BVA and the Kennel Club have a hip scoring scheme in place, so that with selective breeding the risks of hip dysplasia can be reduced. Your dog's lifestyle can also contribute to hip dysplasia. Being overweight or having intensive exercise can cause the disease to develop, particularly during puppyhood. Although symptoms can begin at any age, problems often begin in the first year as a dog's skeleton matures.

Ensuring that your dog's weight is kept under control, that he has all the vital nutrients, and that he gets the right amount of exercise reduces his risk of developing hip dysplasia. The condition can be seen in smaller breeds (Tibetan Terriers, Bulldogs, and Miniature Poodles), but it is more common in larger breeds (Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, and Mastiffs) as they undergo a big change in size and bodyweight during adolescence. 

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How do I know if my dog has hip dysplasia?

Dogs with hip dysplasia can show a range of symptoms, including:

  • Hind limb lameness and weakness.
  • Bunny-hopping when trying to run.
  • Stiffness.
  • Difficulty getting up.
  • A change in gait.
  • Exercise intolerance.
  • General hip pain.

A thorough examination by your vet, who will be able to assess mobility, muscle wastage, and joint pain, will give an idea of the condition, but hip dysplasia can only be confi rmed by an X-ray.

Treatment for hip dysplasia

With hip dysplasia, the extent of the malformation doesn't always correlate to the amount of pain it causes. A dog with mild hip dysplasia might be in a lot of pain, whereas a dog with a more abnormal hip might not suffer too much. Every dog is treated individually. Discussions with your vet will help you understand the options and what is best for your pet.

In many cases the condition can be managed through a careful lifestyle. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is vital, as extra weight puts added pressure on the joints. He will still need regular exercise to keep his weight down and maintain mobility in the joint, but the intensity should be restricted so he doesn't overdo it.

Many vets suggest hydrotherapy for dogs with hip dysplasia. This water-based therapy builds up the muscles around the hip, helping to stabilise the joint without putting any pressure on it.

Physiotherapy and alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, can also ease the condition. Always remember to find a specialist who is qualified to carry out any treatment on your pet.

Massage, quality bedding, and applied heat (such as heat lamps and hot water bottles) will also help to keep him comfortable. Your vet might recommend joint supplements or prescribe painkillers in addition to a managed lifestyle. For dogs who are seriously debilitated, partial or full hip replacement surgery might be needed.

Common breeds at risk of hip dysplasia and their BMS.

German Shepherd Dog: 18

Golden Retriever: 18

Labrador: 14

Springer Spaniel: 14

Newfoundland: 25

Bernese Mountain Dog: 15

Hip scoring

The BVA/KC hip scheme was set up to help select dogs for breeding. The test is recommended for breeds that are susceptible to the disease, but any dog can be tested. An X-ray of the hips is taken and sent to an independent panel to be scored. Each hip is scored out of 53, and the scores are added together to give a total out of 106. The higher the score, the more severe the case of hip dysplasia.

A mean average is then calculated for each breed. It is recommended breeders only use dogs with scores well below the breed mean score (BMS) and ideally also below the median, which is almost always lower than the BMS. You can find breed statistics on the BVA website (www.bva.co.uk).