Hip dysplasia:improving the odds

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chocolate Labrador puppy waiting to go potty

Hip dysplasia is a serious condition affecting dogs of many different breeds.

This disease can be crippling,  especially in medium and large dogs like Labrador Retrievers.

In this article we will be looking at how to improve the odds that your puppy won’t suffer from this disease. If you would like to know more about the signs or symptoms of hip dysplasia, check out this article.

If you are searching through advertisements for a Labrador puppy, you will notice that many litters advertised for sale will state the ‘hip scores’ of the parents of their puppies.

Sometimes the advert will simply state that both parents are ‘hip scored’ without actually telling you what the scores are.

Some will be even more vague, and simply say that the parents’ hips have been tested.

But it’s important that before you even visit your potential puppy, you find out exactly what the hip scores are. Because this could have a massive impact on your puppy’s future.

Hip dysplasia testing

All responsible Labrador breeders in Europe the USA and elsewhere, now have their breeding stock tested for signs of hip dysplasia, using some kind of standardised hip score.

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This test is crucial and must be carried out by anyone breeding from a Labrador.
That includes people that are simply breeding from a family pet.

There are no exceptions.

If the breeder of the puppy you intend to buy has not tested her bitch and/or has not ensured that the stud dog was tested, you need to walk away from that particular litter of pups.

Here’s the reason:  Labradors are the most popular pedigree dog breed in the UK and in the USA.

There are many, excellent litters of Labrador puppies available nationwide, both show and field, that have been properly tested for this condition.

Help protect our breed

There is absolutely no need for anyone to purchase a puppy from parents that have not been tested, or that have poor test results.

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Buying such puppies also encourages the breeder to produce more of them and so puts another generation of puppies at risk

What does the hip score mean?

Each dog that is to be hip scored, has its hips x-rayed under sedation or general anaesthetic. These x-rays are then sent off to a team of expert vets, who examine the hip joints and ‘score’ them according to a number of criteria.

In the USA there is a descriptive system of grading. Normal hips are graded fair, good or excellent. Dysplastic hips as mild, moderate or severe.  There is also a borderline grading between the two.

In the UK, hips are scored numerically. They have in mind the ideal or perfect hip joint, and every deviation from perfection adds to the hip score. So a score of zero is perfect, a score of fifty is very bad indeed.

The scores for each criteria are added together to make a total score for each hip.

These two hip scores are usually written down like this 5/6 or this 5:6 . In this case the score tells you that the dog has one hip with a score of 5 and the other hip has a score of 6, an overall total hip score of 11.

Why does hip scoring matter?

Hip scoring is a very important procedure, because it gives us a clear indication of the likelihood of the dog being scored developing the serious disease that we call hip dysplasia.

Because there are genetic aspects to this disease, these scores also give us an indication as to the likelihood that the offspring of the tested dog will have sound hips.

To improve the overall joint health of Labradors (or any other breed of dog), it is important that breeders always breed from animals with normal (in the USA) or better than average (UK) scores.

That way, over time, the breed will improve, and indeed a recent study of Labradors in the UK has shown that scores are slowly improving (source)

The British Veterinary Association display current breed mean scores on their websites. The breed mean for Labradors is at present a score of 12.

What is hip dysplasia?

Canine hip dysplasia or CHD is a ‘malformation’ of the hip joint that affects the dog’s ability to move freely, and causes pain.

Unlike some of the other conditions we can now test our dogs for, hip dysplasia is a complex condition and has its origins both in the genetic information inherited by the dog from its parents, and in the environmental factors that have acted on the dog’s skeleton as he grows and ages.

In a healthy dog the rounded end (ball) at the top of the major weight bearing leg bone (femur) sits comfortably into a deep socket.

In a dog with hip dysplasia, the socket is shallow and inadequate, which leads to further progressive damage within the joint as the dog ages.

How do dogs get hip dysplasia?

The mechanism of inheritance for hip dysplasia is not straightforward. It is not a question of a single faulty gene being passed on from one or both parents.

Rather it is a polygenic condition where a group of several genes determines the potential for the development of a faulty hip socket in any puppy unlucky enough to inherit them. And the genes inherited by the puppy are only a part of the story.

The fact that CHD is not caused by one single defective gene makes it difficult to accurately trace the path of inheritance.

What we do know, is that if we breed from a dog with poor hips then the puppies that result are more likely to develop poor hips themselves.

The hip sockets the puppy with CHD is born with, in most cases look similar to the hip sockets of healthy puppies. But the hips of puppies who inherit the CHD genes do not grow normally.

In these puppies what should be a nice deep socket, which safely cradles the top of the femur, fails to grow properly and over time this inadequate socket allows damage to develop in the joint in the form of arthritis.

A number of environmental factors can strongly influence the development of the joint and two key factors involved in this process are the growth rate of the puppy, and the physical stress applied to the joint whilst it is still developing.

What are the effects of hip dysplasia?

Because so many factors are involved in the development of this disease, hip dysplasia can vary widely in its severity, from premature arthritis and lameness in middle age to severe disability in a young dog.

My own CHD dog (a working cocker spaniel) was crippled before her first birthday, and x-rays clearly showed that she had virtually no hip sockets at all. This is an extreme form of the disease, but in most cases CHD causes pain and some degree of disability.

It often requires (very expensive) major surgery in order to provide the dog with permanent pain relief and freedom of movement.

How will I know that my dog has hip dysplasia?

Your vet may suspect hip dysplasia if your dog is displaying a number of characteristic symptoms, but an x-ray is the diagnostic tool. If your dog is limping or moving awkwardly you need to have him checked out by a vet.

My own dog went lame at ten months old after I increased her exercise, and displayed a bunny hopping gait with both back legs being used together as she negotiated steps.

Not all dogs with CHD will do this and not all dogs that ‘bunny hop’ will have CHD. So a vet’s examination is essential, and an x-ray will be required to confirm the diagnosis.

What can I do to protect my puppy from hip dysplasia?

There are three key steps you can take

  • Buy from tested parents
  • Feed correctly
  • Do not over-exercise

The most important action you can take to ensure your puppy does not develop this disease, is to buy a puppy from hip scored parents whose scores both fall below the breed mean score and are balanced. This means that each hip is similar to the other.

For example a score of 11 in a dog with 6/5 hips is OK, but a score of 11 in a dog with 2/9 hips is not OK, because one hip is in much worse shape than the other.

Multiply the worst hip by two and ask yourself if you would be happy about this as your total score.

Pick your puppy carefully

Be aware that around 40% of Labrador puppies born each year in the UK are born to untested parents (source).  Don’t be tempted!

Make sure your puppy comes from the 60% of breeding Labrador that have had this important test.

Buying a puppy from hip scored parents in this way, will not guarantee your puppy is free from hip dysplasia, but it greatly improves the odds.

Check the certificates

Always ask to see the certificates for both bitch and stud dog. The breeder will have copies of these ready to show you.

Never, never  take a Labrador puppy home without seeing them!

Moderate growth

The next action you should take is to ensure that your dog does not grow too rapidly. Do not overfeed your puppy, no matter how hungry she seems.

Most Labradors are very greedy and will eat far beyond their needs. Rapid growth means that the hip joint may not develop properly.

Moderate exercise

Last but not least, do not over-exercise your puppy. People sometimes take puppies for long walks at far too young an age. Puppies do not need to go hiking.

Playing in your garden for short periods is fine. Likewise avoid teaching or encouraging young puppies to jump or climb stairs, as this places stress on the growing joints and is not necessary.

Veterinary Insurance

I believe that it is a good idea to insure your single puppy against veterinary treatment.  There have been huge advances in the treatments available to dogs in the last twenty years, but this technology comes at a price.

Even if you take all the precautions outlined above, it is still possible that your dog will get hip dysplasia. It is such a complex condition that all we can do is swing the odds in our favour. There can be no guarantees.

So getting your puppy insured will give you the peace of mind that comes from knowing that should he develop this or any other condition, your choice for treatment can be entirely based on his needs and not on your wallet.

Insurance can become prohibitive if you have several dogs.  If you have multiple dogs as I do, then you may be better off putting the insurance premiums in a savings account.

Your dog

Finally,  please remember that the information in this article is not a substitute for veterinary advice. If you are concerned about your dog’s health, your first port of call should always be your vet.

If you would like to share your experiences of hip dysplasia please feel free to comment below.

Useful Links

BVA/KC Hip Dysplasia Scheme (UK)

Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (USA) 

More information

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Check out our Labrador Health section for more help and advice on genetic diseases in Labradors.

If you’d like lots more useful breed information together in one place, don’t miss my new book, due to be released in September 2015

The Labrador Handbook looks at all aspects of your Labradors life, through health, care and training at each stage of their life.

Click hereto pre-order now from Amazon UK, with Amazon’s pre-order price guarantee

 

This article was first published  2011, and has been fully revised and updated for 2015.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Pippa
    Both the parents of my 19 month old lab, Ruby, have 0/0 hip and elbow scores but I must admit that I still have concerns that she may develop this condition if I have over exercised or over feed her. Being a novice dog owner I don’t have a ‘yard stick’ to go by. I think I’ve kept the feeding and exercise guidelines.
    Although I don’t intend to breed from her (she’s been spayed so it would take a miracle now), I wonder if it would be worth investing in a hip score test just to set my mind at rest or, on the flip side, give advance warning of a problem developing. What sort of cost does this involve?
    Thank you
    Neal
    http://Www.walkingalabrador.com – the random thoughts of a novice dog owner

    • Hi Neal,
      My thoughts are that it would be somewhat unreasonable to put your dog through this procedure (sedative, xray etc) bearing in mind that she will never reproduce and that her parents have excellent scores. The chances of her developing HD are slim and will not be improved by the test which is intended to allowed informed breeding practices.
      Pippa

  2. Hi
    Thanks for the quick response. Good point about avoiding unnecessary procedures. I’ve learnt a lot about dogs in the last 17 months but have a lot more to learn.

  3. Hi Pippa,
    I have a very nice labrador which had all papers showing that his parents were HD A. I did his test two weeks ago and came out that he is HD D, so I am quite sad with the feeling that I did something wrong with him. At the moment he is 3 1/2 years old and has no sign of any pain/problem. What should I do now to make sure that he will have a quality life? Thanks, Pedro

    • Hi Pedro, sorry to hear your dog has HD. Unfortunately good parental hip scores are not a guarantee of good hips, and it may be that you did nothing wrong and have just been very unlucky. The best person to advise you on medical treatment is your vet, and if you have your dog checked over regularly, he will be able to help you decide on any treatment needed. One thing you can do at home that will really help your dog is to keep him nice and slim. Good luck, Pippa

  4. Hello, Unfortunately I didn’t know anything about HD when I picked out my lab puppy. Her parents have not been tested (to my knowledge) and it’s something that scares me a bit. I read somewhere that sometimes the xrays can be done while she’s already under for her spay. Is this something that I should consider? She’s 5 months old, and I clearly don’t plan on breeding her if I would like to do the xrays with her spay. Just trying to figure out if it makes sense for either piece of mind or any early interventions if needed.

    • Hi Kristina, I personally would not hip score a dog that was not going to be bred from, unless my vet advised it. Which would normally not be unless the dog were showing symptoms of hip problems.
      Pippa

  5. Hiya Pippa, I’ve read some of the other comments I have a 4 1/2month old lab I do not intend to breed her at all so the same question should I have her hip scored? Her parents both had great scores an she’s going to be a big girl like her dad… Also, I’ve recently read a worrying report about pedigree dog foods as we give her this in a dry mix for larger breed puppies, should I consider moving her onto kibble instead… thankyou carol x

  6. Pippa,
    I get my dogs tested by OFA for hips and elbows, but they do not give a score. They simply say Excellent, Good, Normal, etc….How can I get a score?
    Thanks,
    Ellen

  7. My 1yr old black lab was limping slightly so I took her to the vet and he x rayed her ,she had hip dysplasia. Since then she gets 1000mg of glucosamine every day and you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with her she is called Millie and she’s now five.

  8. I’m in the process of adopting a 1.5 yr old lab-mix, 40 lbs – so she’s a small one named “Tina”

    An xray showed that her left hip joint is not completely together. (Sorry I don’t have the medical terms, I haven’t spoke with the vet yet… only foster mom, but maybe you’ll have some questions for me to ask when I do!).

    Tina has no limits in her movements, range of motion. She’s not in pain. I’m being told that she will likely need a hip replacement down the road.

    My questions for those of you with related experience:

    Is it possible to avoid hip replacement with lifestyle choices? She’s around 1.5yr old — if we begin now with joint-support diet and exercise — can this save her from having a future surgery?

    And, I live on the 2nd floor of the house we own so Tina would be walking up&down the stairs a few (2-4) times a day to go outside.
    Will this help keep her strong or will this aggravate the joint.

    Thank you in advance for any feedback.
    -Shera

    • Hi there, only a vet who had seen your dog’s xrays could attempt to answer your questions with any degree of confidence. Even then, different dogs respond differently to environmental influences. So I doubt if anyone would be able to offer you any guarantees. With hip problems it is often a case of waiting to see how the dog goes, and how free from pain she is. The most important thing you can do in the meantime is keep her very slim. Best wishes, and good luck, Pippa

  9. Hello i am currently thinking of buying a lab outside te US. Unfortunately here hip scores are not common. What can i do to ensure i dont buy a lab with future hip problems? Also does pedigree matter in hip dysplacia?

  10. Hi Pip,
    We are looking to buy a Labrador from a KC registered breeder. The sire has a hip score of 2/2=4 and the dam has a hip score of 8/9=17 which sounds high. What are the chances of a puppy from this litter developing hip dysplasia problems with these hip scores. any advice you can provide greatly appreciated.
    Thanks
    Mark

  11. Hi,
    It is reported that millions of dogs are diagnosed with CHD every year.
    From being first identified by Dr Tom Hungerford in the 1930’s-it is now-millions!
    When/where/how did this supposed genetic fault enter the scene??
    There is no recorded history of CHD in canis lupus as far as I am aware.
    What is important of the 1930’s to today?
    Doesn’t anyone think anymore?
    Peter

    • Do you mean what has changed between the 1930s and the present day? If you do, then you might be interested in the work of Carol Beuchat at the Institute of Population genetics. She has some very good explanations of the long term effects of closed registers on canine health.

      I don’t know what you mean by “doesn’t anyone think anymore” Most people are not aware of the effects of long term isolation of a breeding population

  12. I have a 9 week old choc lab pup and have been advised not to walk her on soft sand(no trips to the beach) until she is at least 6 months old and her skeletal structure is stronger.

    Would you agree?

  13. Hello, I have a labrador who is 15nmonths. She has been diagnosed with double elbow dysplasia and hip dysplasia. We have decided to not operate but use more conservative methods. She has improved greatly since we began doing but we haven’t had her spayed because we are worried that the hormones produced are important despite not wanting to breed from her. Will it make things worse to get her spayed?
    Thanks, Ella.

  14. hi our Lab Daisy is 5 1/2 years and seemed to have a little limp over christmas on getting up just for a few mins, we ‘ve taken her to our vet who has looked after her since we got her and she needs x-ray as he thinks it may be the start of HD. we do have her insured so thats not a problem but very upsetting as we though we had done everything to look after her development and she has always been a very active outgoing not overweight pet.

  15. Hello, my dog is 3 years old and has a good genetic hip score. However, he slipped his lead and was hit by a car at around 8 months and had bruised hips following that. He then developed a limp which was sorted out with joint supplements and less walking. He now carries his bad leg with a bunny hop and although it doesn’t stop him now, I worry about the future. What can you recommend for delaying his inevitable suffering with this in a few years? He is on a very strict diet and kept at a nice lean weight. Thanks

  16. Hello, I have a female 7 months old chocolate lab with moderate weight and size.. My vet is recommending spaying before her first period to prevent various diseases as all know.. I started digging forums & articles regarding spaying and read some articles about the effect of spaying that causes hip dysplasia. I am wandering the owners personal experience or comments regarding this matter. You may find the related article in the following link http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0055937

    Thanks,
    Tunc

  17. Hi I have a question. So my dog develop hip and elbow dysplasia in all 4 legs. We went through surgery for all of his legs. It’s been 10 years since we got kona. We informed the breeder immediately. I looked back at his breeder, Sandra scarr with alohalabradors in the big Island and I noticed that she continued to breed kona parents and his sister with her other labs. For the description she says the hips and elbows are good. Is it possible that my dog just got the bad luck and developed hip and elbow dysplasia at 6 months? And it’s okay for her to still breed his parents amd sister and her daughter, after we told the moment we found out about the dysplasia?

  18. Hi Pippa,our 8 month old black Labrador has elbow and hip displacia .All 4 of his limbs are affected.I can’t stop crying and the whole family are heartbroken.Is it possible for him to have any quality of life or would it be kinder to have him put to sleep. I’m thinking of him not bring able to walk and do everything that other dogs do.Is it fair on him for us to let him live with constant pain.

    • Hi Paula, I am so sorry to hear that your lab has joint problems. It is quite impossible for me to say what the outcome will be in your individual dog as every dog is different. Some dog cope very well with perhaps a little pain relief, others need surgery. The only person who can help you is a qualified vet. Your vet should talk you through all the options for treatment, but there is certainly no reason to give up hope at this stage. Wishing you lots of luck – do get back in touch with your vet asap and ask lots of questions! Best wishes, Pippa

  19. My 6 month old lab had just been diagnosed with hd and my vet advised a score of 20:30 is this a really bad score? In terms of quality of life? His parents hip score are 2:2 (dam) and 4:6 (sire) i think back to when we met him at 6 weeks old and being the last pup left we laughed at how odd he ran… Could it have been that we missed the symptoms of his hd then? we have informed the breeder of his diagnosis but his dad is still being advertised for stud…. Should they still be doing this??

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