Canine Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a common health problem in dogs that affects the stability and function of the hip joint. It can affect any dog but is more common in large dogs breeds. Dogs with hip dysplasia experience pain, lameness, and loss of mobility. Fortunately, there are several treatment options to improve the quality of life for dogs with hip dysplasia.

What is Hip Dysplasia in Dogs?

Canine hip dysplasia is an orthopedic condition characterized by abnormal development of one or both hip joints, leading to instability and degeneration of the joints. Hip dysplasia can affect one or both limbs and may range from mild to severe.

The hip joint is a ball-and-socket joint that includes two main components:

  1. Femoral head: a ball-shaped formation at the top of the femur (thigh bone)
  2. Acetabulum: a rounded socket in the pelvis

In a normally functioning hip joint, the femoral head sits within the acetabulum and moves smoothly with the assistance of cartilage and joint fluid. The joint is secured with ligaments. The joint capsule provides stability, produces fluid, and holds the fluid in the joint.

When a dog has hip dysplasia, the hip joint does not develop properly. The femoral head fits poorly in the acetabulum (or not at all) and there is laxity in the hip joint. Because the joint is unstable, movement of the leg causes excess friction in the joint, leading to further deformity. Over time, the cartilage in the joint wears down. The hip joint eventually develops osteoarthritis, including abnormal bony growths called osteophytes. The damage in the joint limits the dog’s range of motion and makes it gradually more difficult for the dog to move the leg without pain.

hip dysplasia in dogs

Model of a canine hip showing hip dysplasia (left) and normal joint (right)  Todorean Gabriel / Getty Images

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Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

  • Lameness/limping
  • Hip pain
  • Difficulty rising
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Muscle loss in rear limbs

Signs of hip dysplasia often appear gradually and vary depending on the severity of the disease. Puppies with severe hip dysplasia may begin to experience pain and lameness as young as six to 12 months of age. Dogs with milder cases may appear to live normal lives until they grow older and develop arthritis in the hip joint.1

Be aware that the signs of hip dysplasia may be similar to the signs of other health problems seen in dogs. if you notice these or any other signs of illness in your dog, contact your veterinarian for an appointment.

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Causes of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Several factors may contribute to the development of canine hip dysplasia. The primary cause is heredity (inherited trait). Several dog breeds are predisposed to hip dysplasia, most of which are large breed dogs. The following are just a few of the dog breeds prone to hip dysplasia:

A contributing factor to the development of canine hip dysplasia is rapid growth (often due to dietary factors). This is part of the reason many owners of large breeds choose specially formulated large breed puppy food. Ask your veterinarian if large breed food is right for your puppy.

Although obesity does not cause hip dysplasia, it can significantly increase the symptoms. If your dog is predisposed to hip dysplasia or has been diagnosed, be sure to keep his weight under control in order to minimize symptoms.

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Diagnosing Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

When you bring your dog to the vet for lameness or hip pain, your vet will begin by thoroughly examining your dog. This will include manipulation of the joints and observation of your dog’s gait. Next, your vet will likely recommend radiographs (x-rays) of your dog’s hips, back legs, and possibly spine. Proper positioning is extremely important in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis. This may be difficult for many dogs, especially those in pain. Many dogs need to be sedated for properly positioned radiographs.

Both the examination and radiographs are essential in order to properly diagnose canine hip dysplasia. Be aware that other orthopedic issues may be discovered as the primary cause for your dog’s signs. Hip dysplasia may be discovered incidentally, but there may be another issue requiring treatment, such as cruciate ligament injury or patellar luxation. This is why the examination is so important.

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If your dog is diagnosed with hip dysplasia, there are options for treatment. Recommendations will be based on the severity of the disease plus your dog’s age, size, and overall health. In some cases, hip dysplasia can be conservatively managed with medical treatment. Surgery is often necessary in moderate to severe cases. Your vet may refer you to a veterinary surgeon for further evaluation and treatment.

Conservative Management

When hip dysplasia is mild to moderate, medical treatment and physical therapy can be very helpful. In most cases, mature dogs with secondary arthritis are more likely to respond to medical treatment than the younger ones without arthritis.

There is no medical cure for hip dysplasia. The goal of medical therapy is to ease the symptoms and slow the disease progression.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, joint supplements, and/or disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs may help give your dog some relief.
  • Physical therapy has been known to help many dogs build muscle mass, improving strength and range of motion.
  • Regular low-impact exercise can also help your dog maintain muscle mass and decrease stiffness.
  • If your dog is overweight, weight loss can significantly improve symptoms. Gentle exercise and diet change are essential for weight loss.

Caring for dogs with hip dysplasia is much like caring for those with arthritis. You may wish to ​make certain accommodations for your dog to improve ​his quality of life. Adjustments to your dog’s environment can be helpful in most cases.

  • Mats or rugs on slick floors to help your dog gain traction
  • Supportive orthopedic dog bed; heated bed during cold weather
  • Keep toenails short; long nails may make it even more difficult for dogs to gain traction.
  • Ramps to access stairs, furniture, cars
  • Sling or harness to support the rear limbs

These accommodations can also help dogs with severe hip dysplasia, but, surgery is often considered the best treatment option for these cases, especially in younger dogs without arthritis.


There are several surgical options for the treatment of canine hip dysplasia. Your veterinarian will most likely have referred you to a veterinarian who is board-certified through the ACVS. This surgeon will talk with you, examine your dog, and review the radiographs. In some cases, additional radiographs or other diagnostic tests will be recommended. Then, the surgeon will consider several factors, such as size, age, disease severity, and risk factors before determining the right course of treatment for your dog.

If surgery is recommended, one of the following surgical procedures will most likely be performed

  • Femoral Head Ostectomy
  • Total Hip Replacement
  • Pelvic Osteotomy
  • Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis

Your dog will need to recover after surgery so he can heal properly and regain the best function possible. Recovery time depends on the type of surgery done and your dog’s individual rate of healing. Exercise restriction will be required, but your dog will also need to move the hips in a controlled manner. Physical therapy is an important part of the recovery process, whether you do it at home with instructions from your vet, or you take your dog to a canine rehabilitation practitioner.

Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary surgeon about the expected risks, recovery times, success rates, and expense of the recommended options so you can make an informed decision. When in doubt, consider seeking a second opinion.

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How to Prevent Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

Because hip dysplasia is inherited and affected by a dog’s development, you may not be able to prevent it from occurring in your dog. However, you can prevent the signs from getting worse by bringing your dog to the vet after the first signs of pain or lameness appear.

The occurrence of hip dysplasia may be minimized in purebred dogs through selective breeding. Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred. Reputable breeders of predisposed dog breeds will often have their dogs’ hips screened and certified via the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or PennHip prior to breeding them.3 Screening involves taking precisely positioned radiographs of the hips, usually done under sedation. Dogs can be certified after the age of two years. However, radiographs taken as early as four months of age may reveal a dog’s susceptibility to hip dysplasia.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

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