Hip Dysplasia In Older Dogs


What are the signs of hip dysplasia in older dogs? Your sweet older pup may be sporting a few distinguished gray whiskers on his chin these days, but lately you’ve observed some more worrisome traits—he can’t negotiate the stairs he once bounded up effortlessly; standing up from a prone position is difficult and painful for him; and his gait seems somehow “off” on your daily walks. You expected him to slow down in his twilight years, possibly even to develop arthritis in his joints. But he may also belong to a population of dogs who are vulnerable to a hip condition called dysplasia, a genetic problem that can occur at any age but most commonly occurs in larger adult and older dogs. Read on to learn more about what causes hip dysplasia and how it affects senior dogs in particular.


What Is Hip Dysplasia In Dogs, And What Causes It?

Hip Dysplasia is a chronic, inherited condition where the rounded head or “ball” of the dog’s femur—the longest bone in his leg—does not fit properly into his hip “socket,” or acetabulum, because it is too shallow. Additionally, weakened ligaments that are supposed to join the two bones instead allow them to separate. So instead of being “seated” nice and snug inside the joint, the femur slides around against the acetabulum.

Having hip dysplasia is known as being dysplastic, or loose-jointed. A dysplastic dog’s bones slowly dissolve in response to irritation during movement, and eventually change shape, or remodel. This often results in painful osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, but in mild cases a dog may exhibit few or no symptoms. In the most severe cases, the entire structure of the hip is lost.

While hip dysplasia may result from a traumatic injury or dislocation, it is largely a genetic disease that affects both hips and worsens over time. Bad breeding is routinely blamed for hip dysplasia, but the condition can skip generations, and sometimes affects only some of the puppies from the same litter, thus making it difficult for breeders to completely eradicate it. Most notably, hip dysplasia can be painful for your dog.


Anatomy Of A Dysplastic Dog’s Hip Joint

The entire structure of a dog’s hip joint is called the joint capsule. It consists of:

  • the femoral head, or “ball” joint
  • the acetabulum, or “socket” joint
  • elastic ligaments
  • layers of flexible fibrous tissue and cartilage

The smooth coating inside a healthy hip joint—coating that allows proper cushioning and joint function—is eroded away in a dysplastic joint, causing bone to wear against bone. As the bone under pressure dissolves, new bone builds up around it; this phenomenon is painful for the dog and worsens over time.

In severe cases of canine hip dysplasia, the ball joint may wobble, which is called subluxation, or may slip out of the acetabulum completely, which is called luxation.


Symptoms Of Canine Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia symptoms emerge differently in different dogs. Sometimes they’re noticeable when a dog is still a puppy. Other times they emerge all at once when a dog becomes a senior. But in most cases, symptoms show up during a dog’s mid-life years and beyond, and worsen over time. Start by looking at your dog’s family history if it’s known; if there are relatives with dysplasia, your dog is more likely to have it, too.

Symptoms of hip dysplasia in your older dog:

  • He’d rather sit than stand.
  • He spends more time lying on his side and grooming.
  • It’s hard for him to stand up from a prone position and he seems stiff or sore in the hips when he does.
  • He’s hesitant to climb stairs.
  • His back legs are stiff when he walks, nor can he keep up with you on walks as he once could.
  • He’s hesitant to stand on his hind legs.
  • He limps or “bunny-hops.”
  • He’s hesitant to exercise, or shows pain or discomfort when he does.
  • There is a discernible loss of muscle tone in his back legs.
  • He’s reluctant to enjoy the activities he once loved.

Signs of pain in dysplastic dogs tend to emerge first thing in the morning and after exercise; often the stiffness eases as the day wears on. The problem is worse in cold weather, and when your dog rests on cement or tile floors. Hip dysplasia is nearly always bilateral, meaning it occurs in both hips, but whichever side is causing the most trouble on a given day will create observable lameness or limping on that side—which unfortunately can overshadow pain in the opposite hip. And while some cases are so mild there are no symptoms at all, a stoic dog may not admit he hurts until his dysplasia is advanced. Visit the vet if you observe any symptoms.


How Can I Tell My Dog’s In Pain?

  • Reduced activity – this is the most common sign of pain. Look for your dog to maintain more or less the same activity level he had at one year of age, well into his life as a senior. If he’s not, he may be hurting.
  • Trouble standing and lying down – pain is worse in the morning, and when a dog assumes a resting position; look for hesitation in your dog.
  • Trouble negotiating stairs – especially if they were no trouble in the past
  • Excessive grooming – this happens because an inactive dog is bored; some dogs groom themselves to the point of hair loss.
  • Pressure calluses and sores – these occur in the elbows and points of the hips, the areas that bear the most pressure but possess the least padding; the pain is worse for a dog who hangs out on hard floors.
  • Abnormal gait – watch for shortened steps, rear legs held more forward under the belly, unusual swiveling in the hips, or “bunny hopping.”


Diagnosing Canine Hip Dysplasia

You have a better chance of managing your dog’s dysplasia with an early diagnosis; get to the vet if you observe any of the symptoms described above. During the visit you can expect:

  • A thorough examination of your dog
  • Manipulation of your dog’s hips; the vet will probably stretch your dog’s rear legs and rotate them to look for signs of pain. You may be asked to walk the dog around the office while the vet further manipulates the hip to feel for a “pop” in the joint.
  • Almost certainly, X-rays; this will most likely be done under sedation, during which further manipulation of your dog’s hips may reveal abnormal looseness.

After assessing the extent of damage in your dog’s hips, your vet will outline the best treatment options for him.


Does My Dog Have Hip Dysplasia?

While any dog can have hip dysplasia, it’s most common in dogs who weigh more than 60 pounds, and in stocky breeds. It occurs more often in purebreds than mutts, but a cross between two dysplastic parents of different breeds is equally vulnerable. The Orthopedic Foundation of America (OFA) reports these breed-specific frequencies:

  • Otterhounds, 54%
  • Neapolitan Mastiffs, 48%
  • Saint Bernards, 47%
  • Bloodhounds, 26%
  • Newfoundlands, 25%
  • Catahoula Hounds, 25%
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, 21%
  • Rottweilers, 20%
  • Golden Retrievers, 20%
  • Norwegian Elkhounds, 20%
  • Mastiffs, 20%
  • Chows, 19%
  • German Shepherds, 19%
  • Old English Sheepdogs, 19%

Susceptible small breeds include Pugs, Bulldogs, and Basset Hounds.


Treatment For Hip Dysplasia In An Older Dog

You can’t keep your dog from getting hip dysplasia since it’s inherited. But you can manage hip dysplasia in your dog.

I. Non-Invasive Treatment For Hip Dysplasia:

  • Medication – Mild hip dysplasia in dogs can be managed like any other kind of arthritis, with some of the same medications used to treat arthritis in humans. Medications do not improve your dog’s condition, but can alleviate his pain, reduce inflammation in the hip joint, or both. Your vet may also prescribe other kinds of medications, including tetracyclines, and in advanced cases, corticosteroids.
  • Note: Drugs have side effects; any medications you give your dog should be administered only under the supervision of a veterinarian.
  • Weight Management – If you want to help a dog with hip problems, start with his diet. More weight equals more stress on a dog’s hips. It follows that keeping your dog lean will help his hips, especially if he’s a big fella. And if he ultimately requires surgery to correct his dysplasia, it’ll go more smoothly if he’s not overweight. Consult your vet about the nutrition regimen that’s right for your dog.
  • Dietary Supplements – You can also try giving him “nutraceuticals,” which might include glucosamine and chondroitin products, among others, but be advised the FDA does not evaluate these products and their effectiveness can’t be proven.
  • Orthopedic Dog Bed – Sleeping on a cold, hard floor is the worst thing to ask of your dysplastic dog; a memory foam dog bed can help his hips. And keep him in a warm, dry space; he might even benefit from a dog sweater.
  • Modified Home Environment – Put down carpet on slippery tile or hardwoods to give him traction, use a ramp or a dog sling to help him negotiate steps or get into the car, and paper train him if necessary.

II. Physical Therapy For Hip Dysplasia: The Next Level Of Treatment

  • Exercise – Exercise slows muscular atrophy in your aging dog. Strengthening his muscles may even allow you to avoid surgery, but don’t overdo it: walking, light running, swimming, or walking on a treadmill are excellent strategies. Walk on soft surfaces if you can, to reduce impact to his joints. Avoid anything that encourages jumping, for example catching a Frisbee, and if you notice discomfort in your dog the day after an activity, then you’ve pushed him too far. Talk to your vet if you’re unsure of your dog’s tolerances.
  • Hydrotherapy – This is controlled aquatic exercise to build weak hip muscles in dogs with dysplasia. It can be pricey, averaging around $50 per session, and is not available everywhere.
  • Home Therapies – Gently massaging your dog’s hips with your fingertips for ten minutes twice daily can help him, but take your cues from him—if this seems painful, don’t do it. Placing a warm water bottle on his hips twice daily can also be therapeutic for him.

III. Surgeries to Correct Hip Dysplasia in Older Dogs

In severe cases of hip dysplasia surgery may finally be the best treatment option but some vets recommend waiting for as long as possible. Surgery treats the result of dysplasia, and not its cause—an important distinction. The cause of hip dysplasia is weakness and looseness of the soft tissue that holds the joint together, and the result is an improperly shaped hip.

There are several surgical procedures for treating hip dysplasia, but only two of them are indicated for older dogs:

  • Femoral Head Excision or Osteotomy (FHO) – The neck and head of the femur are removed and replaced with a fibrous joint. It’s not always the best option, but is more affordable than total hip replacement surgery. This procedure works best in dogs whose adult weight is 45 pounds or less; it takes care of pain and restores full motion and weight bearing to the joint.
  • Total Hip Replacement – This procedure is similar to hip replacement in humans, where the femoral stem, head, and acetabulum are replaced with components made of cobalt chrome, stainless steel, or titanium, and ultra high molecular weight polyethylene or other self-lubricating plastic. Total hip replacement is indicated for severely dysplastic dogs over 50 pounds. This procedure restores near-normal function of the joint with exceptionally high success rates, but it is costly and available only at large veterinary centers.

Because hip dysplasia is genetic, you’re not likely to prevent it if your dog is already predisposed to it. But you can take steps to control for it. It’s believed a rapid growth rate together with rapid weight gain can increase the odds of hip dysplasia, especially in very large breeds. You can help your dog by not overfeeding him, and by avoiding a diet too rich in protein. When you’re choosing a puppy, look for average-sized parents, and choose an average-sized puppy from the litter; better still, try to find Orthopedic Foundation of America (OFA)- certified parents, or choose from the second or third litter of dogs with no mobility or joint problems. Never buy a puppy where the parents are not available for inspection.

Then as your dog ages, keep him lean. If he’s inactive, adjust his diet—feed him smaller portions, or feed him a less caloric preparation. Exercise him if you can, but don’t push him to over perform: he wants to please you and won’t tell you when he’s gone beyond his limits. When you practice these strategies, even your dysplastic dog can enjoy a long, pain-free, and mobile life with you.

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