Canine Hip Dysplasia

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on September 04, 2023
5 min read

Your dog’s hip joints are under a lot of pressure as they run, jump, walk, and play. It bears most of the load from their upper body weight when they launch themselves into motion and move about. When the ball and socket of the hip joints haven’t grown in equal amounts, the joint wears prematurely and causes pain that can eventually make it difficult for them to move. This is an inherited condition called hip dysplasia.

To help you identify canine hip dysplasia in your dog, it helps to have some background information and know the symptoms that will clue you in so that you can call your veterinarian.

Initially, you may not be able to tell if your dog has hip dysplasia. Sometimes, there are no symptoms until they begin to limp or favor their hind legs. If symptoms are present, you might see some or all of the following:

  • Stiffness in their back legs
  • A decrease in thigh muscle mass
  • Reduced activity
  • Reluctance to climb stairs or get up
  • Shoulder muscle growth from compensating for the pain in their hips

Dog’s hip joints are similar to ours in that they have a ball and socket type joint. The ball on top of the thigh bone (the femur) should fit snugly into the ligaments that are in the socket and allow the hip to move correctly. Hip dysplasia happens when the socket or ball grows faster or slower than its counterpart.

When the two do not grow equally, the ball does not fit correctly in the socket. This can cause both pieces of the joint to wear on each other. The joint becomes looser over time and shifts its position, causing more damage to the joint's ligaments.

This develops over time into the degenerative condition of canine hip dysplasia, where the hip joints break down, cause your dog pain, and, if left untreated, create the possibility of them not walking again. 

However, while there is no cure for the condition, there are procedures veterinarians use and some things you can do at home that can keep your dog comfortable and able to enjoy life. The first step is to have a veterinarian diagnose your dog’s condition.

If you think your dog’s hips are causing them pain, it’s essential to take them to the veterinarian for diagnosis. Your vet will perform back leg manipulation tests to check their range of motion, discomfort level, and listen for any grinding in the joint.

The veterinarian will discuss your dog’s history, previous injuries, diet, and exercise regimen.

If your veterinarian determines they want to look at your dog’s hip, they can order an X-ray to see if they have dysplasia. 

Not all dogs can receive a conclusive hip dysplasia diagnosis based on an X-ray. The two most common advanced screening tests in the United States are the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) protocol and the PennHIP protocol. The PennHIP protocol can be performed on dogs as young as four months old, while the OFA protocol requires that a dog is two years old before the test. 

While bigger dogs are more prone to hip dysplasia because of their size, the condition can affect dogs of all sizes. Rapid weight gain and growth can complicate a dog’s development of hip dysplasia. Diet and exercise play an essential part in the development or prevention of hip dysplasia in dogs. A good diet ensures that your dog stays at the weight that is best for them and keeps their bones and joints healthy.

A combination of a healthy diet and maintaining a thin or average weight can help your dog maintain mobility and live a less painful life. It’s essential to make sure they get an appropriate amount of exercise, have their joints massaged, and sleep in a warm and dry area. 

Your vet will help you explore exercise and feeding options to help ease your dog’s pain. In some cases, joint supplements and prescription veterinary pain-relieving medication can help manage the condition. Your vet will help you find a daily pain-relieving program that is right for your dog.

Physical therapy can also help, along with joint supplements, joint fluid modifiers, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines or corticosteroids.

If your dog needs surgery to correct the condition, vets may perform a total hip replacement. They might also elect to perform a double or triple pelvic osteotomy, cutting the pelvic bone to make the joint fit better, or a femoral head ostectomy, a removal of the ball at the top of the femur.

If your dog is diagnosed early enough, such as 10 to 18 weeks, veterinarians can perform a juvenile pubic symphysiodesis (JPS), which closes a growth plate at the bottom of your dog’s pelvis and allows the joint to grow together. 

Talk to your dog’s veterinarian about a good exercise program. Walking and moderate running can help strengthen the muscles around the joint. Your veterinarian may recommend that you try for two 20-minute walks each day — be sure to let your dog set the pace. 

As a general rule, try to avoid jumping or running for long distances. Consider letting your dog swim for exercise — swimming is excellent for the muscles surrounding the joints if you’re able to find a place for them to swim. 

Your dog's weight plays an important role in the wear and tear on their hips. Extra weight adds stress to hip joints, so ensure your dog is on a healthy diet, especially if they're a large breed. You can work with your vet to find the right eating regimen for your dog. Keeping your dog at their ideal weight can slow the onset of dysplasia.

To help your dog live with hip dysplasia, there are several home treatments you can do. Talk to your veterinarian about the actions you can take at home. They might include:

  • Applying a warm water bottle for 15 minutes twice a day.
  • Massaging the muscles around the hip joints, gently rubbing in a circular motion with your fingertips for ten minutes at the most. (Pay attention to their response. If the massage seems to irritate your dog’s hip, don’t continue.)
  • Keeping your dog out of damp, chilly weather.
  • Providing traction on slippery floors: Dogs with hip dysplasia often have a hard time on slippery floors, so lay some carpet down, and if they need to climb stairs or jump up into the car, a carpeted ramp will make it a lot easier on them.
  • Providing a firm, orthopedic bed for your dog.