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Hip Dysplasia – Symptoms, Causes, Prevention & Treatments

Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Wednesday 8 September 2021
Last updated on
Tuesday 9 May 2023
dog hip dysplasia
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There’s nothing like a cute, chubby puppy to melt the heart, but every extra pound and every breeding that is done without OFA testing puts puppies like yours at risk of painful conditions like hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a common skeletal disorder in dogs that was first described in 1935. It commonly affects medium to large breeds, like the German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Golden Retriever, and Newfoundland, among others. However, any dog breed can develop hip dysplasia, so it’s important to test for it often.

Hip dysplasia in dogs involves pain in the hip joint, a lack of motion in the joint, and an abnormal gait. As hip dysplasia progresses, osteoarthritis develops, too. This causes further pain and discomfort in and around the joint. So, what are the other symptoms? How is it preventable? What options are there for treatment? And how will a vet diagnose your dog with hip dysplasia? To find out more, read on with us.

What is Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is an abnormal formation of the hip socket. During growth, the head of the femur and the socket in the pelvis should grow at equal rates. When hip dysplasia is involved, this uniform growth does not occur. The muscles in the pelvic area are also often poorly developed. The overall result is the looseness of the joint, leading to subluxations and microfractures. This is a self-fueling process. The more the joint becomes damaged, the more damage and inflammation it causes to the surrounding tissues. This leads to a cycle of cartilage damage, inflammation, and pain. As such, it’s common for hip dysplasia to lead to osteoarthritis in dogs.

Lastly, both genetics and environmental factors play a role in hip dysplasia. Some environmental influences include obesity, injury at a young age, overexertion of the hip at a young age, ligament tears, and possibly even neutering a dog before maturity. When looking at a list of risk factors, you may find that several of them are the very sorts of things that happen in a puppy’s new home. Feeding too much, changes in diet, inappropriate exercise, and stair-climbing can turn a small amount of hip laxity into a lifetime of hip dysplasia.

  • Obesity
  • Injury at a young age
  • Excessive exercise at a young age
  • Ligament tears at a young age
  • Neutering before maturity
  • Breed predisposition
what hip dysplasia is
Bigger breeds are prone to hip dysplasia especially when they are overfed.

Symptoms of Hip Dysplasia

There are many symptoms of hip dysplasia, but some might not be as obvious as others. Unfortunately, most dogs do not develop clinical signs until they are older, despite HD beginning in puppyhood. This leads to extensive damage to the joint before it is caught. So, it is essential to know the signs of HD when owning or breeding dogs so that they can be spotted as early as possible.

Perhaps the first sign of hip dysplasia is a lack of physical activity. With hip dysplasia, your dog might be reluctant to do things they used to enjoy, like chasing after their favorite ball or going for a jog with you in the morning. Your previously energetic dog might prefer to lay in bed, or not rush to the door as quickly to go outside. Some dogs become reluctant to climb stairs, too. This ties in with a decreased range of motion. Your dog might seem to have difficulty laying down, standing, jumping, and climbing due to the lack of motion and pain of HD. You may notice this when your dog stops jumping up onto your sofa or walking up the stairs.

Some dogs develop a swaying, “bunny hop” like gait with HD. This refers to the movement wherein your dog lifts both hind legs at the same time like a jumping rabbit when walking, running, or climbing. Your dog should use one hind leg at a time when active, rather than using this “bunny hop” like gait. This gait comes with a loss of thigh muscle mass, especially around the hips. As this symptom progresses, you might notice your dog’s shoulder muscles growing to compensate for the loss of strength in the hind end.

Hip Dysplasia Diagnosis

If you spot signs of hip dysplasia in your dog, be sure to check in with your vet as soon as possible! The sooner treatment starts, the better your dog’s prognosis is. Be sure to tell your vet about all of your dog’s symptoms, and when they started. Your vet will manipulate your dog’s hind legs to check for looseness of the joint, pain, and a reduced range of motion. A lack of motion also indicates early osteoarthritis of the hip. During the physical exam, your vet will check for your dog’s pelvic muscle mass. Dogs with greater muscle mass are less likely to develop hip dysplasia.

Other tests may be done to assess how severe your dog’s hip dysplasia is. A hip lift test (Bardens test) is done under general anesthesia, for example, to attempt to luxate the femur head out of its socket. Similarly, the Ortolani Sign is done under anesthetic for clinically affected dogs to check for joint laxity. This test can tell your vet about the damage already done to your dog’s joint, caused by repeated subluxations and weight-bearing. These physical techniques help your vet determine the best treatment for your pup.

Diagnostic imaging is particularly important in assessing HD in dogs. Radiographs are helpful for diagnosing severe OA in dogs. However, they are not always beneficial for diagnosing mild or moderate disease, as there is no direct correlation between radiographic changes and the severity of joint pain. If your dog has HD, a radiograph might show hip subluxation, a triangle or wedge-like shape of the hip socket, increased width of the joint space, thickening of the femoral neck, and flattening of the socket.


Despite the prevalence of HD in dogs, a gold standard surgical procedure has yet to be identified. As such, there are multiple surgeries that can be done to manage and prevent the progression of HD in dogs. It’s important that you talk to your vet as soon as possible so that treatment can begin early.

The treatment for HD depends on your pet’s age, condition, and degree of hip pain. For example, a young dog without osteoarthritis may benefit from a triple pelvic osteotomy. At this stage, a vet may be able to correct the laxity of the hip joint. In contrast, an older dog with osteoarthritis and HD may benefit from a total hip replacement or a femoral head osteotomy. These surgeries are normally successful and have a quick recovery time, as long as your dog is a suitable candidate for the surgery of choice. For example, a femoral head osteotomy is best for small, active dogs weighing less than 50 lbs.

Many dogs with HD and osteoarthritis benefit from conservative medical therapy. While conservative therapy does not eliminate the problem, it can control your dog’s clinical signs. The main aim of these treatments is to provide effective pain relief, usually through a combination of NSAIDs and chondroprotective agents. Carprofen and meloxicam both offer long-term medical management of osteoarthritis associated with HD. Hydrotherapy and physiotherapy are also beneficial for some dogs. Not all dogs respond to conservative treatment and may need surgery later on.

dogs with hip dysplasia lifespan
Hip dysplasia is a relatively manageable health issue as long as the dog’s handler is consistent with their dog’s maintenance and supplements.

Hip Dysplasia Prevention

Prevention by selective breeding is key! There has been significant effort focusing on identifying the specific genes responsible for HD to use in conjunction with imaging methods, and these resources are invaluable for breeders. So, any dog breeder should use OFA testing for their dogs. For OFA certification, your dog must be 2 years old. It’s essential for any breeder to get their dogs OFA certified before breeding, especially for breeds that are prone to hip dysplasia. Any dogs who do not pass with healthy, normal hips should not breed.

Over-exercising puppies may contribute to hip dysplasia later in life. This is because excessive exercise can negatively impact their musculoskeletal development. As such, it’s best to avoid running with your puppy before they are six months of age. Some large and giant breeds may need more time before they start running. Similarly, stair-climbing in puppies may be a risk factor for HD. As such, some pet parents carry their puppies up and downstairs until they are stronger.

Hip Dysplasia: FAQ

Have any more questions about hip dysplasia in dogs? Feel free to check out our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt about your pup’s joint health, always ask your vet for advice.

Is hip dysplasia hereditary?

Hip dysplasia in dogs is polygenic, meaning that it’s influenced by more than one gene. However, it is also influenced by environmental factors. Because there is a clear genetic link, OFA testing is paramount for any dog breeder. Only dogs with normal hips should breed to prevent puppies from developing this disease. Also, any dog breed can get hip dysplasia, but certain breeds appear more prone than others. These breeds are often medium to large in size. Such breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Newfoundlands, and German Shepherds.

Do I have to lessen my dog’s exercise time?

When you know your dog has a painful joint condition, it might be tempting to stop exercise altogether to protect them from pain. However, no exercise at all is just as bad as giving too much exercise! This is because dogs who don’t exercise gain weight, putting extra pressure on the joints. Your vet should advise you about the intensity of your dog’s exercise, but shorter, frequent walks are usually best during your dog’s recovery. It’s best to talk to your vet about the best treatment plan for your pooch.

Should I prevent my puppy from climbing stairs?

Stair-climbing in puppies is a risk factor for hip dysplasia, according to one study on the matter and anecdotal evidence. This is because repeatedly climbing up and downstairs can gradually cause injury to the joints, leading to hip dysplasia in dogs who are already susceptible. The negative impact of this activity is especially pronounced for puppies whose joints are still forming. As a precaution, some owners carry their puppies up and down stairs until their joints and muscles are better equipped for climbing.

Is hip dysplasia fatal?

Hip dysplasia in dogs is not fatal. In fact, dogs with hip dysplasia can still lead long and full lives with treatment! However, this condition is not curable, and your dog will need life-long treatment to manage their symptoms. Unfortunately, the osteoarthritis that comes with HD is progressive and can become aggressive when not managed by a vet. When osteoarthritis progresses to the final stage, pain can become severe for a dog. At this stage, a dog might resist, cry, or scream when their joint range of motion is assessed. A lack of mobility is life-threatening for dogs, and an inability to stand up or walk comes with a poor quality of life. Where high doses of NSAIDs are no longer effective, your vet may suggest euthanasia.

Is hip dysplasia painful?

Hip dysplasia is a painful condition for dogs. In the beginning, it’s rare for dogs to show signs of pain at home, but clinically affected dogs often show signs of pain when their hips are extended by a vet. When HD becomes painful, many dogs will be slow to stand, less able to jump, and reluctant to exercise. Unfortunately, many dogs hide their pain well. The signs of pain may be subtle or mistaken for other problems, like anxiety or depression.

Hip dysplasia in dogs is a painful but manageable condition. When caught early, the progression of concurrent arthritis can be slowed with surgical or conservative treatments. Later treatment, however, can also be effective at managing the pain and laxity of hip dysplasia. All dogs should be tested for hip dysplasia before breeding. This helps to prevent hip dysplasia in puppies. This is especially important for breeds that are prone to hip dysplasia, like Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Newounflands. Be sure to talk to your vet if you suspect that your pup has hip dysplasia.

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