The old dog that needs help getting up. The young pup who runs with a bunny-hopping gait. Hind limb lameness. Hind limb muscle atrophy. Reluctance to climb stairs or hop into the car.
These are all symptoms consistent with hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a term that is used a lot, but I would venture a guess that many pet owners don’t fully understand exactly what it means.
Dysplasia means “abnormality of development”, and hip dysplasia is just that – hips that have not developed properly and are now suffering from some degree of instability. Joint instability is a bad thing because the body will make every attempt to remedy this instability by remodeling the joint. It is this remodeling process that is an underlying cause of arthritis. Instability also causes abnormal wear and tear on a joint, and over time this wear and tear degrades the delicate smooth areas that make up the joint’s internal workings. All of these changes are irreversible and can be very painful for our pets.
To better understand an unstable hip joint, it is easiest to envision the hip as it is typically described – a ball in socket. The femur, or the thigh bone, connects to the pelvis by forming a ball shaped projection that fits neatly into the socket on the pelvis. In a healthy hip the ball of the femur fits perfectly into the socket of the pelvis, creating a tight, stable joint. In a dysplastic hip, there are several changes that can occur to cause a certain looseness or instability in the joint. The socket can be too shallow, the ball can be misshapen, or the joint can be so loose that the ball and socket fail to align altogether.
There are many factors that can contribute to hip dysplasia, but genetics plays the largest role by far. If your pet’s DNA predisposes him to hip dysplasia, then there is little chance that he will end up with completely normal hips. Certainly we see particular breeds with a higher incidence of hip dysplasia, with Labs, Goldens, and Shepherds being among the most common breeds represented. Other factors that can have an impact on the development of hip dysplasia are things like diet and exercise in a growing puppy.
Hip dysplasia is diagnosed based on clinical signs and X-rays of the hips. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the disease and the dog’s comfort level, but can range anywhere from joint supplements and anti-inflammatories to surgery, which can be as sophisticated (and expensive) as a total hip replacement.
Hip dysplasia can be managed, but it is not curable. With a good plan for careful management, dogs can have many years of comfort – even if their hips aren’t perfect. If you suspect your dog has hip dysplasia (or any joint disease for that matter) talk to your veterinarian about the multitude of options you can try to decrease the associated discomfort and slow the progression of arthritis.