By Ann Hohenhaus, DVM
Today, I received a call from a pet owner whose dog I had taken care of several years ago. I remember how heartbroken she was when I euthanized Stormy, her rescued Labrador. Stormy was not sick, his liver and kidneys were fine and he didn’t have cancer. But Stormy could no longer walk due to the lifelong effects of hip dysplasia. Nursing a large dog with limited mobility in a New York City apartment without an elevator is nearly impossible. After a Herculean effort to keep Stormy going, this loving pet owner realized his time had come.
She called today because she was thinking about getting a new dog. She hoped not to repeat the scenario she had experienced with Stormy and asked for advice on how she might help prevent hip dysplasia in her new dog.
What is hip dysplasia?
The end result of hip dysplasia is hip arthritis, but the problem starts much earlier. Hip dysplasia is an incurable developmental disorder. While the exact mechanism is unknown, one theory suggests loose hips in young dogs change the maturation of the hip joint, resulting in abnormally formed hip joints, which later lead to hip arthritis. A competing hypothesis proposes dogs with hip dysplasia have abnormal cartilage and bone formation in their hips as the cause of arthritis. Regardless of the cause, as the arthritis worsens, dogs become stiff, less active and lose strength in their hind legs. In the worst cases, they lose the ability to walk without assistance.
How do dogs get hip dysplasia?
Hip dysplasia starts with the genetic make-up of a dog. Certain genes have been identified that occur in dogs with hip dysplasia.
Someday, veterinarians hope to be able to screen dogs’ DNA through a simple blood test and determine their risk for hip dysplasia.
Dogs without hip dysplasia
No one can promise with total certainty that your new dog will not have bad hips. Purchasing a dog born to parents with certified hips may decrease the risk. Two well-known organizations are Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and PennHip.
We know small breed dogs are less likely to have hip dysplasia than large breed dogs, but some small breed dogs still suffer from this disease.
Preventing hip dysplasia
Obesity is a hip dysplasia risk factor you can control. Scientific research has shown that thin dogs are less likely to develop hip dysplasia, and if your dog has bad hips and is overweight or obese, losing weight will improve his ability to walk.
A recently published study of Norwegian dogs including Newfoundlands, Leonbergers, Labradors and Irish Wolfhounds, found an association between daily use of stairs in puppies less than three months of age and development of hip dysplasia. For puppies less than three months of age, exercising in an area with soft ground and park-like terrain protected puppies against developing hip dysplasia.