Dog Hip Dysplasia

Quick Facts from a Veterinarian

Jennifer Hawkins, DVM

In more than 10 years of clinical practice, I've seen many dogs, in all shapes and sizes, come in for an examination because of "slowing down" or "trouble jumping".

Often, pet owners attribute these symptoms to old age, but they can be an indication of something quite treatable, such as orthopedic changes associated with canine hip dysplasia.

What is Hip Dysplasia?

The word “dysplasia” literally means abnormal growth. Thus hip dysplasia refers to abnormal growth, or development, of the hip joint. This abnormal development is hereditary and can lead to discomfort, inflammation, lameness and arthritis in dogs.

How Hip Dysplasia Occurs in Dogs

X-ray of a dog's hipsThe hip joint is a classic "ball and socket" joint in which the head of the femur is the "ball" and the cup-shaped acetabulum bone of the pelvis is the "socket". In a normal hip joint, the socket should cover approximately 60% of the head of the femur. Thus, as the femur moves forward and back, as well as in and out, it is always kept in its appropriate position by the acetabular cup.

In dogs with hip dysplasia, this cup is shallow, leaving the head of the femur poorly covered. The femoral head thus will have freedom to move more than it should. As a result, the head of the femur will slowly change its shape in order to adapt to the abnormal forces being placed on it. Eventually, the femoral head may become knobby and flattened. Over time, pain and arthritis set in. Symptoms include intermittent lameness, difficulty rising and exercise intolerance. These symptoms may be very mild to severe depending on each patient.

How is Hip Dysplasia Diagnosed in Dogs?

Dogs afflicted with hip dysplasia typically show symptoms either prior to 2 years of age or in their senior years. Often, signs are undetectable prior to becoming seniors when arthritis develops and owners note challenges with rising after rest, jumping and vigorous exercise.

Diagnosis of hip dysplasia can be performed by your veterinarian as early as 6 months of age. This is done by taking an X-ray of the hip joints. Often, veterinarians will administer a mild sedative to allow the dog to relax and be pain free for the positioning needed to take these diagnostic X-rays. Evaluation of the degree of coverage of the femoral head (ball) by the acetabulum (socket) is used to determine the presence of hip dysplasia.

How is Hip Dysplasia Treated in Dogs?

After a diagnosis of hip dysplasia is made, your veterinarian may wish to start your dog on medications to decrease inflammation and pain. In dogs with severe hip dysplasia, surgery may be recommended. In young dogs, a surgery to change the angle and coverage of the femoral head by the acetabular cup may be done. In older dogs with severely arthritic hips, total hip replacement surgery may be an appropriate option.

Dogs mask pain symptoms until they reach a threshold beyond which they can’t hide it anymore, therefore, it is recommended to use pain control medications when advised by your veterinarian.

Veterinarian examines a yellow Labrador retrieverWhich Dogs Are Affected by Hip Dysplasia?

We used to think this was a problem of large and giant dog breeds only. While these dog breeds are indeed at increased risk of orthopedic problems, small and medium sized dogs are also commonly affected with hip dysplasia.

If you notice your dog is moving more slowly or having difficulty rising, these may be early signs of an orthopedic disorder such as hip dysplasia and warrant an evaluation by your veterinarian.


Dr. Jennifer Hawkins and Ernie

Dr. Hawkins received her veterinary degree from the University of California, Davis and practices in Orange County, Calif., where she also works at local animal shelters. In addition, she is an advisory faculty member for aspiring veterinary technologists at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. Dr. Hawkins is an active member of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association where she served on the Board of Trustees.