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Understanding Hip Dysplasia and Why Your Puppy Might Need Hydrotherapy

By Willem van Wyk (BSC, BVSc)


Willem is an enthusiastic small animal vet in the outskirts of Melbourne. He lives under the tall mountain ash trees in the Dandenong ranges with his beautiful wife, son and a long-eared hound named MotorTreacle.



Hip dysplasia is a disease that is often misunderstood by clients. I often speak to owners who report that their beloved floof is developing hip dysplasia in their golden years. This perception that hip dysplasia is a geriatric disease, is not true. It is in fact a disease that develops during the adolescent years, and in severe cases can cause symptoms in dogs under six months old.


What is Canine hip dysplasia?


Hip dysplasia is a developmental disease of the hips, where the joint between the thigh bone and pelvis forms abnormally. The head of the thigh bone (femur) becomes flattened, instead of having the normal round shape. On the other side of the joint, the socket in the pelvis becomes shallow, and eventually, it can no longer hold onto the head of the thigh bone properly. The ball of the femur is supposed to fit snugly into the pelvis, but as the disease progresses, the hip can become completely separated from its socket entirely. Over time, the cartilage surface of the bones wears down, and the joint develop severe arthritis. In most cases, both hips are affected, but one is often worse than the other.







What Causes Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?


The normal processes involved in forming a normal ball and socket joint can go awry due to a number of reasons. There is a significant genetic component to the disease, which makes certain dogs predisposed to the disease from birth. Large breeds like Anatolian Shepherds, American Bulldogs and Belgian Shepherds are far more likely to develop hip dysplasia. This is in part due to the fact that the genes contributing to the disease are more prevalent in these breeds, but also due to the fact that owners often overfeed them as puppies in order to make them grow faster. This leads to the bones and the muscles growing at different rates, and as a result, the joints form abnormally. Weight control and a good quality puppy diet are by far the most effective ways of limiting the effects of hip dysplasia.



Signs and Symptoms of Hip Dysplasia in dogs.


In most cases, the symptoms are similar to many other joint diseases. Owners usually notice things like reluctance to get up or run, reduced endurance on walks and obvious stiffness in their gait. There are more subtle signs as well, like changes in posture and loss of muscle mass. One of the surprising symptoms is changes in demeanour. Dogs often become grumpy and some even become snappy and aggressive, especially when people touch them around the hindquarters. Unfortunately, the disease is often well developed by the time owners notice these signs.


Diagnosing hip dysplasia in dogs


Because hip dysplasia develops long before symptoms become visible, we have to resort to more sensitive diagnostic measures for early detection. This is usually done by taking special x-rays, but other imaging techniques, like CT scans and MRIs can also be used to diagnose the disease. It is critical to diagnose the disease as early as possible, and as such, it is vital to speak to your vet about doing hip x-rays when your dog is still young. Doing proper hip x-rays requires the patient to be sedated, which also affords your vet the opportunity to manipulate the hip without causing pain, and to examine it properly for other signs of dysplasia.


Breeds at risk of Hip Dysplasia


Large breed dogs dominate the list below, but the disease can develop in smaller breed or even in cats. Through selective breeding and x-ray grading of breeding dogs, some breeds have improved markedly over the past few decades. German shepherds for example, used to be at the top of the list, but through prudent breeding practices, now rank down at number 40. The top 20 breeds most at risk for being diagnosed with hip dysplasia are ranked as follows:



1. Bulldog 2. Pug 3. DoguedeBordeaux 4. Otterhound

5. NeapolitanMastiff 6. St.Bernard 7. ClumberSpaniel 8.BlackRussianTerrier 9. SussexSpaniel 10.Cane Corso 11. Argentine Dogo

12.Basset Hound

13.Boykin Spaniel

14.Norfolk Terrier 15.Perro de Presa Canario

16.American Bulldog

17.French Bulldog

18.Glen of Imaal Terrier

19. Fila Brasiliero 20. Bloodhound



Prognosis of Canine Hip Dysplasia.


So how bad is it really if your pup is diagnosed with hip dysplasia? Well, that depends on a number of factors. Not all dogs diagnosed with hip dysplasia will necessarily develop debilitating arthritis. Some dogs show signs of hip dysplasia at a young age, but live full happy lives without ever showing any sign of discomfort. Other dogs will deteriorate rapidly and become severely lame at an age as young as two years. Larger breeds suffer a lot more from clinical symptoms, and will most likely require more decisive intervention. They are often also overfed as pups, which exacerbates the degree to which the hips deteriorate. The severity of the disease varies quite a lot, and it is best to discuss the prognosis of any individual case with your vet.


Treatment for dogs with hip dysplasia.


There are a number of treatment modalities available these days, ranging from things as simple as weight control, to more complicated things like orthopaedic surgery. The choice of treatment will largely be determined by the severity and exact nature of the diagnosis, the age at which the diagnosis is made, and unfortunately your budget. It is vital to get a diagnosis early, as the more successful surgeries need to be performed at a young age to maximise their benefit. Surgical intervention is only one part of the solution. In the past few decades, physical rehabilitation and other adjunct therapies have developed to the point where their impact can as influential, if not more influential than surgery. Physiotherapy, acupuncture, dry needling, and hydrotherapy can be of immense value. A well-structured exercise plan, combined with professional hydrotherapy, can add years to the life of a dog with hip dysplasia, and more importantly, make those extra years far more enjoyable.



Supplements for your dog with hip dysplasia.


The number of supplements and nutritional therapies available these days outnumbers the diseases I ever learned about in vet school. The biggest target market for most of these supplements are the various conditions associated with arthritis. Consult with a knowledgeable rehabilitation expert, vet or nutritionist to help you navigate the quagmire of supplements on the shelves of the pet store. The single most important ingredient to look for in a supplement is high-quality omega 3 oil. The best omega 3 oils are sourced from cold-water marine animals, like fish or green-lipped mussels. Next, look for a supplement with a healthy helping of chondroitin and glucosamine. Be aware that cheaper formulations might contain a lot of these substances, but they may not necessarily be in a form that the intestines can absorb. The biochemistry involved in all of these supplements can be overwhelming, so I seriously urge clients to consider a well-formulated prescription food, rather than trying to patch up a bad diet with supplements.




How hydrotherapy can help your dog with hip dysplasia from Hydrotherapist Kirsty Skeates


Hydrotherapy is a wonderful way to encourage joint mobility and stabilise the joint through increase muscle mass quickly and safely. Consistent, regular, light exercise like swimming or walking in the Aquatic treadmill is the key to effective management of hip dysplasia in conjunction with regular medication and dietary supplements.


  • Increased joint range of movement

  • Increased muscle strength

  • Improved muscle patterning and recruitment

  • Slowing of progression of degenerative disease processes

  • Improved quality of life

  • Decreased pain and inflammation

  • Potentially earlier return to normal function

  • Prevention of secondary complications

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness

  • Relaxation of muscle tension and/or muscle spasm

  • Feeling of well-being due to release of endorphins


If you found this post helpful, you might like to read Why is my puppy limping? and Ways to help your puppy with growing pains.


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