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Ask the Vet: How Do I Know if a Puppy Has Hip Dysplasia?

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To know if a puppy has hip dysplasia, you would first need to know how early the signs for hip problems in puppies may appear and what signs you need to look for. Hip dysplasia is a condition that can be debilitating and can put a dent in your puppy's development. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana provides insights on how to know if a puppy has hip dysplasia and whether it's a genetic condition or acquired. She also provides details on how hip dysplasia is diagnosed and treated in dogs. 

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Hip displasia in dog, Joelmills, Wikipedia

The Occurrence of Hip Dysplasia in Puppies 

To better understand hip dysplasia in puppies, it's important learning more about a dog's anatomy. Your puppy's pelvis (hipbone) cradles the heads of the two femurs (thighbones) in deep, cartilage-lined, cuplike sockets. If the fit of a hip joint is not correct – for example, if there is a slight misalignment and the femoral head is lax or loose – the cartilage of the femoral head rubs against the socket.

Eventually, the cartilage wears through. This condition is called hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a common form of osteoarthritis. At first, hip dysplasia causes no clinical signs, but once sufficient wear and tear has occurred, there is pain and associated lameness.

Hip dysplasia is more common in large, fast-growing dog breeds such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundland Dogs, Rottweilers and Saint Bernard. Genetics, however, this is only one of the predisposing factors leading to hip dysplasia. Experts say that heredity accounts for about 25 percent of a dog’s chance of developing this condition.

Environmental factors such as joint laxity, diet, body weight and activity level are much more important for the development of hip dysplasia. In fact, joint laxity (loose joints) is the most important culprit. Joint laxity can occur as a result of: traumatic injuries, lack of muscle strength and overloading of the joint by weight.

How early can hip dysplasia appear in puppies? To a certain extent, it can be said that hip dysplasia is a hereditary condition. However, it is not a congenital issue. This indicates that all puppies are born with perfectly healthy hips. The changes responsible for hip dysplasia start occurring after birth – sometimes as early as few days after birth.

How Do I Know if a Puppy Has Hip Dysplasia?

Dogs with hip dysplasia have limited physical abilities. The most commonly reported disabilities include climbing stairs or furniture, getting up, jumping and running. Dogs with hip dysplasia are either lethargic in general or show decreased interest in physical activities.

Over time, as the condition progresses, they start practicing a narrow, so-called bunny hopping gait. If careful enough, you might be able to hear a distinctive grating or clicking sound in the hip area when the dog is physically active. Other frequently observed changes include joint looseness, lameness, pain and loss of muscle mass.

At the Vet's Office 

It goes without saying that if you suspect a puppy has hip dysplasia, you should take him to the vet. An initial diagnosis is made by breed history and feeling a hip joint for slackness (joint laxity). X-rays are used to grade the severity of the hip dysplasia, but often there is no direct correlation between how badly affected the hip looks on x-ray and how bad the dog feels.

How is hip dysplasia treated in puppies? In most affected dogs, the condition is kept under control by means of weight management, moderate exercise, and painkillers such as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – meloxicam and carprofen. Natural joint nutrients such as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine may also be beneficial. Let's take a closer look at each of these.

Weight Management

If a dog is overweight after the diet to bring its weight back to within the normal range, it is important to implement a weigh management plan. If your dog’s weight is normal, discuss with your vet whether there is any value in reducing the weight down to lean. If you cannot stop giving your dog treats, reduce the calories supplied by meals, either by limiting the amount of food or by using a special low-calorie brand of prepared food.

Control Exercises 

Rest is vital, but so is controlled, sensible exercise to maintain good muscle tone. Avoid running and retrieving games, because these activities put too much pressure on the joints. In addition, avoid doing anything that encourages your dog to jump up. Forget about the dog going with you on a five-mile jog, instead, take your dog for a short to moderate walk several times a day, every day. Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise because it tones muscles while relieving pressure on the joints. Exercise in hydrotherapy pools is ideal.

The Role of Diet 

A variety of dietary nutrients are available that may reduce joint pain or even enhance joint health. There is good evidence that some essential fatty acids (EFAs) are pro-inflammatory while others are anti-inflammatory. Translating this fact into therapy should, at least in theory, be possible.

The natural EFAs found in marine fish oil and linseed oil are high in anti-inflammatory EFAs, particularly two substances called EPA and DHA. Adding these oils to your dog’s diet may reduce joint inflammation and help to alleviate pain. The question that still remains is how much EPA and DHA is necessary for a significant improvement. As of yet, no one has found an answer.

Surgical Intervention 

When pain and lack of function are severe, there is a range of surgical interventions that may be used. For dogs weighing less than 44 Ib (20 kg), the femoral head may be removed. A false joint consisting of fibrous scar tissue forms in the space left by the femoral head.

Heavy individuals more often have total hip replacement. The surgeon removes the socket portion of the pelvis and using screws and special bonding material, replaces it with a plastic cup. The ball at the top of the femur is removed and a titanium ball on a stem is inserted into the widened opening. New prostheses last the dog’s lifetime.

An Ounce of Prevention...

The best prevention is selective breeding. Before breeding, reputable breeders have their dogs’ hips x-rayed. Then based on the image, the hips are scored or graded. An individual’s score or grade can be compared to the breed’s average score.

In general, the lower the score, the better the individual’s position. The vet takes x-rays according to the requirements of the hip-scoring body. The x-rays are also read by independent experts.

At first, having your puppy diagnosed with hip dysplasia is a frightening experience. However, it is important to note that, by taking several simple steps, your beloved furry baby can live a long, healthy, happy and pain-free life. All you need to do is educate yourself, consult with trusted vets and implement certain lifestyle changes. If this is not enough, surgical correction can always be performed.

Photo credits: Hip displasia in dog, Joelmills, Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

ivana crnec

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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