Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
Written by Shula Berg BVSc CertAVP(GSAS) GPAdvCert(SASTS) MRCVS
Clinically reviewed by Elizabeth McLennan-Green BVM&S CertAVP(SAM) MRCVS
Table of Contents
Hip dysplasia is a developmental condition in dogs. The hip is essentially a ball and socket joint – when a hip is described as dysplastic it means the bones are malformed, so the ball (femoral head) is not sitting properly in the socket (acetabulum). In dogs, this is usually due to genetic predisposition and the dysplasia develops or worsens as the dog grows.
Hip dysplasia can occur in any breed of dog. It is typically associated with large breeds such as Labradors, German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Saint Bernards, but is increasingly being diagnosed in smaller breeds such as French Bulldogs. There is no clear single risk factor for developing hip dysplasia, however, puppies and dogs kept in lean body condition through growth have been shown to have a reduced incidence of hip dysplasia compared to littermates that carry excess weight.
In young dogs the hip joint is often loose and unstable which causes discomfort as the dog walks. Hip dysplasia commonly affects both hips; because it is present from a very young age some dogs don’t limp as they have never known any different. Instead, they may show signs such as being slow or reluctant to exercise, unwilling to jump or climb stairs, and reluctant to lift one leg to urinate. Rarely, the hip joint is so loose that minor trauma can lead to dislocation.
As the dog grows, the instability and excess movement in the joint causes the body to make new bone to try and hold the hip stable. This new, irregular bone is what we call arthritis, which leads to pain and lameness in older dogs. Typically, dogs with arthritis demonstrate stiffness rather than overt limping, and this is often worse after rest. Affected dogs often lose muscle over their back end and thighs.
Often, we have a high index of suspicion of hip dysplasia due to the dog’s breed, age and history. Examination alone cannot definitively diagnose hip dysplasia but is important to identify other causes of lameness, some of which may occur at the same time.
Radiography (x-ray) is essential to confirm the diagnosis. This allows assessment of the position of the femoral head in relation to the acetabulum, as well as detecting the presence of secondary changes such as arthritis. Examination under anaesthesia allows proper assessment of the degree of laxity (looseness) present.
Conservative (non-surgical) management is recommended for most newly diagnosed cases of hip dysplasia. Conservative management consists of factors which reduce the impact of dysplastic hips, along with medication to improve comfort. Not all dogs will need all components.
- Weight management
Obesity is not only known to worsen joint disease but is proven to be a factor in the development of hip dysplasia. Excess weight puts increased strain on the joints, and weight loss can be as effective as pain relief. Dogs with hip dysplasia should be kept in lean body condition.
- Exercise modification
The amount of exercise a patient with hip dysplasia can manage varies dog to dog, but generally exercise should be kept regular (no extra-long walks at weekends). Generally multiple shorter walks are tolerated better than one long walk. Young dogs with hip dysplasia may be advised to stay on lead and avoid chasing balls.
These are used to strengthen the muscles around the hip joint, helping to stabilise the joint and thus reduce discomfort. Some practices may offer these services in-house, while others may refer you externally. It is important that therapists are suitably trained; look for those who are members of IRVAP (for physiotherapy) or NARCH (for hydrotherapy).
- Joint supplements
There is little firm evidence to confirm the positive benefits of joint supplementation, however, glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly used in canine and human medicine to help support the natural health of the joints. Omega 3 supplementation has been shown to reduce the inflammatory reaction within joints so looking for supplements that contain this may be advisable.
Anti-inflammatory medication may be used for short courses to treat acute flair-ups of discomfort, or as long-term management for chronic pain. There are many different medications available and, if needed, your vet will help decide which is best suited to you and your pet.
In general, the prognosis for dogs with hip dysplasia is reasonable. It is a progressive condition and all patients affected will develop arthritis eventually, however, many dogs live long active lives, only requiring pain relief in their later years. The prognosis for patients with hip dysplasia can vary quite considerably for individuals, and your vet will be able to advise you about what you should expect for your dog.
Hip dysplasia requires lifelong management. While many dogs cope their entire lives with conservative management, patients who are severely affected, or who cannot be successfully controlled, may benefit from surgery. Surgical management is generally considered a salvage procedure; in other words, it is used when hip dysplasia or subsequent arthritis becomes unmanageable with conservative techniques. Some dogs will never reach this point, while others may need surgical intervention at a very young age. Two procedures are available:
- Total Hip Replacement (THR)
A total hip replacement in dogs is like that in people; the ball and socket joint are replaced by a metal cup and stem which implants into the femur. THR is a very complicated surgery only performed by specialists, however, the prognosis for function is excellent. Due to the complexity of the surgery THR is often very expensive.
- Femoral Head and Neck Excision (FHNE)
A femoral head and neck excision procedure involves removing the ball part of the ball and socket joint. The joint is then left supported only by muscle. This is an inferior procedure compared to a THR, however, less technically demanding to perform and therefore cheaper. Dogs often need physiotherapy after surgery to build up muscle mass. FHNE is only suitable in smaller dogs, but the outcome is usually clinically good.
If you feel your dog is not managing well with conservative treatment, your vet will be able to advise whether surgical treatment is a good option.
Please note that the content made available on this webpage is for general information purposes only. Whilst we try to ensure that at the time of writing all material is up to date and reflects industry standards, we make no representation, warranties or guarantees that the information made available is up to date, accurate or complete. Any reliance placed by yourselves is done so at your own risk.
Page last reviewed: 16th January 2024
Next review due: 16th January 2026