Cow-hocked dogs are often the subject of confusion and controversy. Are cow hocks dangerous for dogs? Are they always a sign of hip dysplasia? Fortunately, it seems that mildly cow-hocked dogs do not struggle with any health conditions due to their hocks.
Most dogs with cow hocks live very normal lives. On the other end of the scale, severely cow-hocked dogs may be more predisposed to a luxating patella and an abnormal gait. Canine cow hocks should be evaluated on an individual basis.
What is a Cow-Hocked Dog?
The canine hock is located in a dog’s hind leg. It sits below the stifle and corresponds to the human ankle. Dog hocks create the sharp angle of the hind legs. While dogs put little to no weight on their hocks, the human ankle and canine hock are comparable in structure and function.
A dog is cow-hocked when its hocks are set inwards, resulting in a splayed appearance in the back legs. The hocks are closer together and the toes point outwards. If a dog is cow-hocked, the trait does not go away over time. Instead, a cow-hocked dog might become more muscled later in life, lessening the appearance of the cow hocks somewhat. Mild to moderate cow hocks are normally harmless conformation faults, and cow-hocked dogs can still perform well in agility and in the field.
The cow-hocked trait is thought to be genetic. This means that the dog’s prospects as a stud or dam are practically nil, even if no other genetic problems arise through testing. In addition, cow-hocked dogs are typically faulted in the conformation ring in favor of parallel hocks. Deliberately breeding for a conformation fault is frowned upon because it potentially exacerbates the problems associated with it.
At the same time, severe cow hocks can be an indicator of hip dysplasia (HD). Because of this, many owners worry that their cow-hocked pups are displaying signs of hip dysplasia and get them screened. The severity of hip dysplasia cannot be determined by a physical exam, so instead, an X-ray under sedation or anesthesia is used. The X-ray results are sent to the OFA for grading and certification. It should be noted that cow-hocked puppies are cow-hocked from birth, whereas cow hocks due to HD develop over time.
Effects of Being Cow-Hocked in Dogs
The mildest examples of cow-hocked dogs often don’t struggle with any negative effects of the fault. Many slightly cow-hocked dogs excel in the field and in agility. In contrast, severely cow-hocked dogs may struggle with luxating patella, weakness in the hind legs, and an abnormal gait.
In dogs, cow hocks are normally not painful. However, severe cow hocks are linked to weakness in the hind end in younger dogs. In those that have this weakness, activities involving balance and climbing can be more difficult. In severe cases, dog cow hocks alter the weight-bearing angle of the knees, hips, and hocks. The most severe cases of cow hocks cause dogs to tire more easily when they gait and they may not move with as much efficiency.
The more severe examples of cow-hocked dogs can lead to a luxating patella. Moderate and severe patella luxation causes issues like inflammation, pain, cartilage damage, and ligament tears.
Severe cow hocks can be a symptom of hip dysplasia (HD) in dogs. This is because the upper thighs and hips lack muscle mass and have a bonier appearance, creating a cow-hocked appearance. At the same time, it’s important to note that not all cases of cow-hocked dogs end in HD. In fact, there is no link between genetically acquired cow hocks and HD. The OFA offers radiologist screening for HD.
The cow-hocked trait can cause some gait abnormalities. When gaiting in the show ring, the hocks can look more true and straight than they actually are. Walking a dog towards and away from you is the best way to identify the true extent of a hock problem. The diagonal mat in the show ring is used by judges for this “up and back” method of gaiting.
The hocks of a well-structured dog will move up and down naturally in a letter V. In contrast, a cow-hocked dog will move their hocks outside or inside the branch of the V-shape. Sometimes the hocks wobble so much that the dog appears to move in both ways! A dog who is extremely cow-hocked may swing their legs around in an arc during forward movements to avoid bumping their hocks together.
Interestingly, some dogs with mild cow hocks actually score better on their hip OFA screening tests than dogs with normally-structured hocks. From this, we can conclude that mild cow hocks have no or little effect on the hip conformation of a dog. In contrast, severe cow hocks can cause a weak rear end, affecting the musculature of the hips. Exercises to help reduce the appearance of cow hocks tend to focus on strengthening the hind of the dog.
Drawbacks of Being Cow-hocked
Although cow-hocked dogs can live normal lives, there are drawbacks to even mild cases of this structural fault such as penalization in conformation shows. The more severe cases can have further consequences for your dog’s health, though not all cow-hocked dogs will struggle with any additional problems.
Disqualification from Shows
Structural abnormalities and abnormal gaiting are grounds for losing marks in the conformation show ring. Excessive angulation, like that of extreme cow or barrel hocks, is considered detrimental to joint support, firmness, and overall endurance. Furthermore, cow hocks are not desired in any dog breed standard and their usefulness in the field is debated. For these reasons, cow hocks in dogs are penalized in the show ring, though in recent years there have been some controversial cases of dogs with obvious hock abnormalities placing in conformation shows.
Potential Health Concerns
The main issues that come with cow hocks are weakness in the rear and an increased propensity for a luxating patella. Some weakness in the rear of a dog can lead to gait abnormalities and reduced balance. Dogs who lack strength in their hindquarters might hesitate when climbing stairs or jumping from one place to another.
Patella luxation is a condition where the kneecap slips out of its normal position. Of the dogs who have patella luxation, about half have it in both of their knees. An alignment problem that causes an abnormality of the patella ligament can contribute to the development of this condition. This includes cow hocks and barrel hocks as well as hip dysplasia. Moderate and severe patella luxation causes issues like inflammation, pain, cartilage damage, and ligament tears.
Can You Correct Cow-Hocked Dogs?
Cow hocks can’t be completely corrected. Most treatments will focus on strengthening the hindquarters of the dog to help mask the appearance of the cow hocks and to compensate for the weakness associated with them.
The exercises used for cow-hocked dogs typically focus on hind leg strength. Uphill walks, low hurdles, swimming, and exercising on a treadmill in water are popular ways to increase the muscle power of a dog’s rear-end. Over time, the increased muscle coverage of the hind limbs reduces the outward appearance of the cow hocks.
Some owners use supplements to support their dogs’ joint health. Cosequin is a popular joint health supplement. It contains glucosamine hydrochloride, sodium chondroitin sulfate, and MSM, all ingredients which are commonly recommended as joint supplements. In some studies, a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate protects joints from degenerative damage. It can also lessen the effects of luxating patella in some dogs.
Are Cow-hocked Dogs Better at Herding?
Cow hocks are most common in herding breeds and bully breeds. Some people believe that this is because the cow-hocked trait enhances the cornering abilities of herding and pastoral dogs. According to proponents of this theory, moderately cow-hocked dogs work using quicker, tighter turns and faster bursts of speed. There are no studies that verify if this is true or not and it should be noted that selectively breeding for exaggerated cow hocks would be highly unethical. Severe cow hocks can lead to a luxating patella and an unstable gait.
Cow-Hocked Dogs – FAQs
Got any more questions or concerns about cow-hocked dogs? Feel free to refer to our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details about dog cow hocks.
Can Cow-Hocks be Corrected in Dogs?
The cow-hocked trait in dogs cannot be completely corrected. However, its appearance can be reduced. Some exercises can help to compensate for weakened hind legs by building thigh muscles. The most popular exercises for cow hocks are uphill walks, low hurdles, swimming, and exercising on a treadmill in water.
Some owners provide joint health supplements to their cow-hocked dogs to further protect against the problems associated with cow hocks. One popular supplement is Cosequin. This supplement contains glucosamine hydrochloride, sodium chondroitin sulfate, and MSM, all ingredients which are commonly recommended as joint supplements. In some studies, a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate protects joints from degenerative damage.
What are Hocks on a Dog?
A dog’s hock is analogous to the human ankle joint. The tibia (shin bone) is connected to the hock joint which then joins the talus (a bone in the paw). The fibula (splint bone) follows the length of the tibia. Ligaments situated on the inner and outer sides of the hock hold the bones in place. The sides of the dog’s hock hold two ligaments, totaling to four main ligaments that hold the hock’s bones together.
The hocks are an important part of a dog’s conformation because they govern the dog’s gait. If the dog’s hocks are damaged or faulty, a dog might have an abnormal gait. The most common canine hock injuries include hock dislocation, sprained hocks, canine osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), and osteoarthritis of the hock joint. These conditions are separate from conformation faults like cow hocks and sickle hocks, but both can occur in the same dog.
What Causes Dog Cow-Hocks?
The cow hock trait is genetic. Dog cow hocks are characterized by the inward rotation of the hocks, causing the points of the dog’s hocks to be closer than normal. Dogs with the trait will be born with it. With exercise and supplementation, a dog’s cow hocks can be lessened in their appearance over time, though the trait cannot be completely eliminated.
Advanced hip dysplasia can cause a cow hock-like appearance in dogs. This is because the upper thighs and hips of a dog with HD are often bony and lacking in muscle mass. HD begins to develop in puppies at five months old but may not emerge until the dog is much older. In contrast, puppies who are born with cow hocks will have them from birth. HD is not directly linked to cow hocks and cow hocks are not always a sign of HD.
Is Cow-Hock a Genetic Condition in Dogs?
The cow-hock trait is genetic and appears most commonly in working lines. German Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Cattle Dogs and bully breeds are most often bred with mild to moderate cow hocks. Cow hocks can also appear in puppies whose parents are not cow-hocked, suggesting that they can also be recessive.
Because of the problems associated with severely cow-hocked dogs, breeders should not work with cow-hocked stock. Any puppy who is born with cow hocks, whether they be mild or severe, is automatically carrying a conformation fault with them. Deliberately breeding with this trait can exacerbate the severity and health risks that come with the most severe cow hocks.
In conclusion, cow hocks in dogs are not always a cause for health concerns but are always faults of conformation. A mildly cow-hocked dog can have excellent hips, excel in the field, and smash an agility course. The severe cases, however, can result in luxating patella and obvious gait abnormalities. For these reasons, it is not recommended for breeders to work with cow-hocked stock due to the risk of causing more severe cow hocks in their puppies.