Most dogs slow down with age as they gradually develop arthritis in their joints, but what is happening when your puppy or young adult dog starts acting painful or limping on their hind legs? These are signs your dog could have hip dysplasia, a condition that can cause pain and chronic debilitation without proper treatment. Our Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital team shares with pet owners how to identify a hip joint problem, and how our team manages dogs with hip dysplasia. 

What is hip dysplasia in dogs?

A dysplastic joint does not form correctly during a dog’s growth and development. The hip is a ball-and-socket joint created by the “ball” at the end of the femur bone that sits snugly inside the “socket” on the pelvis. In a dog with hip dysplasia, their socket becomes shallow and the ball flattens, which creates a loose fit and abnormal motion. Over time, the abnormal joint mechanics damage the joint’s cartilage and other structures, causing inflammation and pain associated with arthritis. 

Large- and giant-breed dogs, most often Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds, are at highest risk, but any dog of any size can develop the condition. Genetics is considered the main cause—faulty genes cause abnormal joint development as a puppy grows. Poor or improper nutrition also can contribute to the condition’s severity, but is not considered a primary cause.

Diagnosing hip dysplasia in dogs

Hip dysplasia is often diagnosed in young adult or middle-aged dogs because they begin showing disease signs around this age. Although the disease has been present since puppyhood, they may not develop significant joint damage or pain until later in life. However, signs can be seen in severely affected puppies. Signs most often include:

  • Limping on the hind legs
  • Shifting weight forward to the front legs
  • Running with a bunny-hopping gait
  • Trouble with stairs or jumping
  • Unwillingness to play or exercise

A veterinarian can diagnose hip dysplasia with a complete orthopedic examination and special X-ray techniques. Most dogs need light sedation to produce the best X-ray views, because the positions required can be painful or uncomfortable. Some of these X-ray techniques can also be used to assess a breeding dog’s hip conformation, but cannot definitively guarantee the puppies’ hip health.

Early intervention treatment options

Puppies younger than 10 months who are diagnosed with hip dysplasia can undergo specialized surgical procedures that alter their bone growth patterns and correct the underlying problem so they have normal hip mobility as adults. Many dogs show no signs until they are older, so these surgeries are options only for puppies who undergo a screening process called the PennHip test. A responsible breeder may choose to screen puppies before they go to their new homes, or a concerned adopter may pre-test their puppy at their own cost. 

Late-stage treatment options

Fully grown dogs diagnosed with hip dysplasia still have options that will help them stay comfortable and mobile as they age. Surgery is indicated in many cases, but medical management is also helpful when pet owners cannot afford surgery or their dog is not a good surgical candidate. Treatment options include:

  • Total hip replacement — This surgery restores function by replacing faulty joint components with plastic or metal implants.
  • Femoral head ostectomy — This salvage procedure removes the femur “ball” to stop the damage cycle and creates a false joint that will stabilize with scar tissue over time. The surgery does not completely restore function.
  • Medications — Anti-inflammatory and pain medications reduce inflammation and improve comfort.
  • Supplements — Joint supplements may protect cartilage and joints from ongoing damage.
  • Physical therapy — Therapy helps strengthen muscles and improves overall mobility and function.
  • Laser therapy — Laser therapy’s light energy improves blood flow and speeds tissue healing.
  • Alternative and complementary therapies — Adjunct therapies, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, may help some pets.

Can dogs with hip dysplasia live normal lives?

Most dogs with hip dysplasia can still live happy, fulfilling lives, although their activity types and levels may be restricted. Owners should be cautious, while still allowing their dogs to be dogs. Rough play with other pets, dog sports, and off-leash running are high-risk activities that should be avoided, but leash walks and controlled play are encouraged to maintain muscle strength and overall joint health. Affected dogs should also stay slim, because excess weight can further stress their joints. Household changes, such as rugs on slick surfaces, also help reduce injury risk.

We encourage all dog owners to schedule regular wellness visits with our Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital team, so we can identify early joint disease signs in young or adult dogs. Call us to schedule a wellness visit, or if your furry pal shows any potential hip dysplasia signs.