You watch as the puppy waddles over to you, their hips swaying like a Hawaiian hula dancer. The pup plops down on the floor and sits in the most adorable way you’ve ever seen – just like a frog with his hips splayed out.
You’re ready to pick this cutie on the spot and take him home.
However, if you had a veterinarian watching this plump pup play in the grass, they would have a much more sobering outlook. Those swaying hips and unique sit may be cute now, but they are also signs that this puppy’s hips will become an issue latter.
This puppy is suffering from the early stages of Canine Hip Dysplasia.
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What is Canine Hip Dysplasia?
Canine Hip Dysplasia, or CHD, is the term used to describe the malformation of the hip joint. This deformity affects the dog’s ability to move freely and can cause pain.
When you look at a healthy dog’s x-rays, you will see that the rounded end of the femur, the major weight-bearing bone, sits comfortably in a deep hip socket.
A dog with CHD has a much more shallow socket, and the ball of the femur doesn’t fit correctly. The hip socket, called the “acetabulum,” is the wrong shape for dogs with CHD.
As you can imagine, if the ball and socket joint don’t fit together correctly, this causes wearing down of the cartilage, pain and arthritis as the dog ages.
Just like misaligned tires on a car, a joint that isn’t correctly shaped will wear out faster than a normal joint because it chafes and grinds together instead of moving smoothly.
Some dogs with CHD have normal hips as puppies, but as they age the surrounding ligaments, muscles and connective tissue that support those joints won’t hold the joint together very well. This results in the separation of the joint and the resulting wear and tear on the cartilage and bones.
What Dogs Get Hip Dysplasia?
Unfortunately, CHD is often seen in larger, popular breeds like Labrador Retrievers. Other breeds prone to the disease are the Newfoundland, Saint Bernard, Old English Sheepdog, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Alaskan Malamute and Samoyed.
No one knows for sure why some dogs develop this painful joint condition. However the severity of the illness seems to be linked to both the nature (genetic component) and the nurture (environmental and nutritional elements) that the dogs experience as they grow.
There’s no denying that CHD is found in the genes. Unfortunately, it’s a polygenetic multi-factorial disease, which is really a fancy way of saying that it’s hard to determine the exact genetic recipe that will create this joint deformity.
It’s thought to involve many genetic combinations, which makes eliminating it from the gene pool much more difficult.
However, it seems to be less prevalent in puppies with parents passing rigorous hip testing through the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation of Animals).
Sadly, it’s often difficult to tell if your puppy has this hip issue as most don’t show up until the joints are fully developed. By the time a dog has reached two years of age, almost 95% of CHD cases reveal themselves.
Nutritional Role in Hip Dysplasia
In addition to genetic factors, CHD has also been linked to nutritional factors. For example, if puppies grow too quickly, are lacking specific nutrients or have electrolyte imbalances, they are more likely to get CHD when they get older.
Again, this issue is more often seen in larger breeds since they undergo more growth and skeletal changes than smaller breeds. The main two things you want to avoid are rapid weight gain and over supplementing too much calcium into the diet.
While not everything is known about the role that nutrition plays in your puppy’s risks for hip dysplasia, one of the best ways to protect your lab puppy is to feed them a veterinary-recommended puppy food specific to large-breed puppies.
You will also need to follow the feeding schedule set out by your veterinarian and not feed your puppy too much food.
All dogs have a genetic code of how big they will get as adults. Your job, to reduce their risk of hip dysplasia, is to make sure they grow at a steady growth rate over time and not shoot up too quickly by feeding them a balanced diet specifically formulated for large-breed puppies.
Puppies are not usually born with hip dysplasia; it develops as the dog matures.
While genetics has a predominate role in the disease, what happens in a puppy’s environment can also have an effect on whether they will develop hip dysplasia as adults.
For example, while exercise is encouraged for your pup, it should be at the puppy’s pace. You can take your pup out for a low-impact game of fetch in a park or a swim in a pool.
However, doing activities such as forced running, stairs, jumping or agility courses when joints have not fully matured is thought to increase the likelihood of hip dysplasia later in life.
It’s best not to make your puppy your running partner or compete in activities involving jumping until they reach adulthood to lessen the impact on immature joints.
How Do You Know If Your Lab Has Hip Dysplasia?
The easiest way to tell if you pup has CHD is to do an x-ray of their hips while they are sedated. This allows the veterinarian to see if the joint fits together as it should. Many dogs don’t show signs of CHD early in the disease and an x-ray is the only way to spot it.
However, barring an x-ray diagnosis, there are a few symptoms to look for in more advanced cases. If you notice your lab exhibiting any of these symptoms, it’s best to take them to your veterinarian.
Signs of CHD include:
- Sitting in a frog position with one hip splayed out.
- Exercise intolerance.
- Swaying gait where the back end moves back and forth in a pronounced fashion.
- Reluctance to run, jump or climb stairs.
- Bunny hopping, especially up stairs.
- Difficulty getting up.
- Back legs or hips are painful when touched.
- Hind leg lameness, which worsens with exercise.
- Back legs are more close together when the dog stands than the front legs.
- In more severe cases, you may see muscle wasting in the back legs and hindquarters.
- Arthritis may develop as the disease progresses.
- Your dog may start to show unexplained aggressive behavior as the pain increases.
Not all dogs with CHD exhibit these symptoms, since CHD has many different levels of severity. Again, the best way to diagnose CHD is with an x-ray.
How To Prevent and Treat Hip Dysplasia
Obviously, the best way to treat CHD is to not purchase a puppy without ensuring all the genetic odds are in your favor.
The parents should have their hips scores through the Osteopathic Foundation for Animals (OFA). These test rank the hips as Excellent, Good and Fair. You should not buy a puppy without ensuring the parents have at least a Fair rating, and preferably a Good or Excellent hip score.
The OFA also has the hips scores for Hip Dysplasia: Borderline, Mild, Moderate and Severe. Obviously, dogs exhibiting these scores should not be bred.
Yet, even if both parents have great hips, this is not a guarantee that the puppy will be free from hip issues.
You also want to feed your growing puppy proper nutrition for large-breed puppies and let them freely exercise in grassy areas that won’t put strain on the developing joints. Refrain from making your puppy your jogging or jumping partner until they are grown.
Even if you do everything right, if your dog carries the genetic predisposition for CHD, you may still encounter it when your pup reaches adulthood.
If your dog develops CHD, there are several ways to treat it. The best course of action should be determined with your veterinarian.
Less invasive approaches include managing your dog’s weight to keep the added pressure off the joints, medications through a veterinarian to relieve inflammation and pain (NSAIDs) and nutritional supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulphate and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
You can also add in exercises such as swimming and leash walking to keep the muscles toned around the joints. Physical therapy and massages have also been known to help.
It’s also important to create a more dog-friendly environment with ramps and easy steps so your dog doesn’t have to jump as a part of his routine.
Depending on the severity of the CHD, some vets recommend surgery to increase your dog’s quality of life. Some dogs undergo total hip replacement surgery, just like humans, and have good success with this approach.
There are other preventative surgeries, such as juvenile pubic symphysiodesis (JPS) that vets give puppies with a high likelihood of developing CHD as a preventative measure.
While CHD is certainly a frustrating diagnosis, there are many treatment options to help your dog live a long, satisfying life.
If you take a proactive approach to their treatment, you can still have an energetic, happy companion that will keep you company on walks, swim with you at the beach and lay by your feet when you relax.
While you may have to scratch your future agility competition plans if your dog develops CHD, always remember that their ability to love isn’t limited by the height of their jump, but the size of their heart!
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Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
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