Hip Dysplasia. It’s a term that lots of people have heard, but not everyone knows what it means. Unfortunately there are many owners of large breed dogs out there that have learned what hip dysplasia is the hard way.
The medical term "dysplasia" means developed or formed incorrectly. Dogs with hip dysplasia inherited genes that caused them to be born with hip joints that do not fit together functionally. A normal hip joint looks a little like the head of a hammer fitting into a teacup. In dogs with hip dysplasia the teacup that would be the socket is formed more like a saucer instead, which doesn’t do much to cradle the hammer end of the joint and results in excessive motion in the joint during normal activity. When the dog is young all that extra movement in the hip joint may not cause noticeable problems, but over the course of time the grinding of the bones against each other results in osteoarthritis, which does cause pain and difficulty walking.
In severe cases dogs as young as five months of age may start showing the characteristic signs of difficulty using the hind end to get up after resting and bunny-hopping with both hind legs together when running or going up the stairs. Early on in the course of the disease, after some initial stiffness they will warm up as they move around and act quite normal. As the arthritis worsens the pain becomes more continual. Dogs may start losing muscle mass in the hind legs as they throw their weight to their front end to avoid using their hind end as much as possible. They will often sit at the bottom of the stairs and look longingly up them as if they fully intend to be up there scarfing the cat’s food and sleeping on your bed as soon as you install the escalator, since it hurts too much to walk up there now. These symptoms often start around 5 or 6 years of age, but the time of onset can vary greatly depending on how severe the dysplasia is.
Because dogs with significant hip dysplasia often do not show any clinical signs until they reach middle age, and because dogs with poorly formed hips will pass on that tendency to their offspring, it is absolutely essential that anyone intending to breed a large breed dog have that dog’s hips evaluated beforehand by the only diagnostic measure that can say whether or not a dog has hip dysplasia --an x-ray. Your veterinarian can do a survey film and give you a general idea as a bare minimum, but a better assessment can be gotten by taking the x-ray under heavy sedation or general anesthesia to ensure exact positioning and sending it to the Orthopedic Foundation of America, or the Penn Hip Society for formal review by a radiologist. The hips will be given an official rating somewhere on the scale of poor to excellent, and your puppies will be much more valuable if they come from parents with certified hips. By the way, it doesn’t do much good to breed a dog with excellent rated hips to a dog that has not been evaluated. If any of this information comes as news to you then you may want to rethink your qualifications as a breeder.
Unfortunately not everyone is conscientious about screening at-risk dogs before breeding them, so there are still tremendous numbers of dogs out there living with the daily pain of arthritis in their hips as a result of dysplasia. For those dogs we have many good therapies available to help mitigate or even correct the problem. In overweight dogs weight loss will often do more to reduce the pain than any medication does. There are a number of anti-inflammatory and joint protective medications available that are very safe and effective for dogs. Do not use over-the-counter anti-inflammatory products designed for people on your dog because dogs do not metabolize these medications the same way people do and their use can lead to severe health problems. When weight loss and pain control isn’t working there are some surgical procedures that can help. The most effective of these is total hip replacement, which is not cheap, but barring surgical complications is essentially curative.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to watch our four-legged friends suffer as a result of hip dysplasia, but the fact is that this problem is here to stay. At least there are options to improve the quality of life for the unlucky ones who have do deal with it.