If you have purchased or are looking for a Labrador puppy, you will probably have heard of hip dysplasia. This is a health condition that affects many different breeds of dog, and is particularly serious in larger, heavier breeds like Labradors. Today we are going to be looking at how you can protect your Labrador puppy from hip dysplasia But first, let’s have a quick look at what this disease is, and how it can affect our best friends.
What is hip dysplasia
Our hips, and the hips of our dogs, are ‘ball and socket’ joints. And for these joints to work properly, the ball part, which is the bulbous end at the top of the long thigh bone, must fit neatly into the socket, which is a part of the pelvis. Your dog’s back legs need to swing smoothly back and forwards as he moves, whilst remaining snuggly in position.
If the hip joint is not perfectly formed, movement is impaired, and use of the joint causes damage to the surface of the bones (arthritis) making a bad situation even worse. In some cases this can progress rapidly and seriously.
What are the symptoms?
Hip dysplasia causes arthritis, pain, and lameness. It varies in severity depending on the degree of damage in the joint, and to some extent on the individual dog. Some cases can be adequately managed with pain relief and care. But many medium to large dogs will need expensive major surgery to restore normal movement and relieve pain.
What causes hip dysplasia?
There are two main factors at work. One is the genes that your dog has inherited and which determine the potential for your dog’s joint development. The other factor is the environment that the dog grows up in, particularly in early life. How fast he grows, and the way his joints are used when he is still developing, can influence the way his joints will turn out.
We don’t yet know everything about hip dysplasia, but it is thought that there are several different genes involved in your dog’s hip development, and several different environmental factors that can influence his hips after he is born. These environmental factors include diet, exercise, and hormones. It is believed that these genetic influences and environmental influences work together to shape your puppy’s hip development.
Helping your puppy
It is possible that with absolutely perfect genes, environmental factors may have little effect on your puppy’s joints. It is possible, but we don’t know for sure. It is also possible, that with absolutely terrible genes, the best environment in the world won’t prevent the dog developing severe hip dysplasia. Again, there is still a lot we don’t know about this condition, so we cannot say for sure. But for all the dogs in-between, we do know that there may be much that you as a pet owner, can do, to ensure your dog has healthy hips
Your opportunities to help
There are two main opportunities for you to ensure your puppy is free from hip dysplasia The first opportunity begins before he is born. The second begins when you bring him home. If you have already bought your pup, there is nothing you can do about the first, so just skip down the page and read up on what you can do when you bring your puppy home.
Before your puppy is born
Every Labrador used for breeding should be tested for hip dysplasia. This includes your puppy’s mother and father. There are no exceptions. We don’t have a genetic test for this yet, but we can x-ray a dog’s hips and these X-rays can then be assessed and given a score by a team of specialist vets. Breeders can then remove dogs with bad hips from their breeding programmes.
All responsible breeders have their labradors ‘hip scored’ in this way, and you find out more about hip scoring, and how to check hip scores, in this article: Hip dysplasia – improving the odds
A sad reflection on dog breeding
Sadly, a lot of Labrador puppies (almost half of puppies born in the UK) are still being born from parents that have not been hip scored. It is of course utterly irresponsible to breed from untested dogs, but the tests are expensive, so bad breeders will try and avoid them. And because puppy registrations generate money, the Kennel Club will still register puppies without scores, or with really bad scores!
This is a truly sad reflection on the current state of dog breeding and the dog registration process, but it is what it is, and it makes your role as a certificate ‘checker’ doubly important.
Check those certificates
It is vital that you check the health test certificates from both parents of any puppy you consider purchasing. Remember, Kennel Club registration will not protect your puppy from having parents with bad hips. Walk away from breeders that make excuses or say there is no need to test your puppy’s mother because Dad has been done. This is completely untrue.
After you bring your puppy home
This is your next opportunity to help give your puppy great hips. And it is thought that there are three main ways that you can help. The first is by avoiding inappropriate exercise, the second is by feeding for an appropriate rate of growth, and the third is a little more controversial as it involves delaying neutering until your dog is mature.
The right way to exercise a puppy
Puppies don’t need long walks or vigorous exercise. Playing in the garden is sufficient for pups under five months old. If you take your puppy out on a leash, a rule of thumb often mentioned is no more than five minutes walking per day, for each month of his age. So that means a maximum of 25 minutes for a 5 month old puppy. This is just a guideline, to help those who are not sure how to exercise a puppy, it isn’t backed up by studies or evidence, but is a common sense principle that will help you avoid overdoing it.
Avoiding steps and stairs
One study has shown that puppies climbing stairs at an early age were more likely to develop hip dysplasia. So it is a sensible precaution to carry your small puppy up and down steps. Most experts recommend you don’t teach or encourage dogs to jump until they have stopped growing and this seems a sensible precaution.
Diet and growth
Everyone wants their puppy to grow big and strong. But optimal growth does not mean rapid growth. It is now thought that slower growth probably allows for healthier hip development.
Make sure you keep your puppy slim, with a waist, and you should be fine. You can check out our feeding your puppy article for more information. So don’t be tempted to ‘feed your puppy up’ if he seems on the small side, without talking to your vet first. He may just be naturally small, and you don’t want him to grow to quickly.
At one time we used to whip away our puppies’ reproductive equipment without a second thought. But the hormones produces by your puppy’s ovaries or testes are now thought to be important for his or her health in a number of different ways.
In fact recent evidence has shown that neutering is implicated in a number of health problems, and hip dysplasia is one of them. A recent study of golden retrievers for example, found that the incidence of hip dysplasia in male dogs neutered early, was double that of male dogs left intact.
If you want to neuter your dog, waiting until he is physically mature may reduce the impact of hormone loss on his joint development. You can read more about the pros and cons of neutering in this article: should I have my Labrador castrated?
If you haven’t purchased a puppy yet, make certain you check the hip scores of the parents of any litter you want to look at. Preferably before you have a gorgeous puppy sitting in your lap and gazing into your eyes!
Once you bring your puppy home, give him time to grow and mature naturally. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to disrupt his hormones or take him jogging. There will be time enough for that later.
Spread the word
Remember that if we buy a puppy from untested parents the breeder will benefit and be tempted to produce more untested puppies in the future. Tell everyone you know about the importance of hip scores. We need to ensure that there is no market for puppies for untested parents. Let’s give all puppies a chance of a healthy future, where we possibly can. Your decisions now in this respect have the power to help many puppies now and in the future.
More information on puppies
For a complete guide to raising a healthy and happy puppy don’t miss The Happy Puppy Handbook.
Published in April 2014, the Happy Puppy Handbook covers every aspect of life with a small puppy. It will help you prepare your home for the new arrival, and get your puppy off to a great start with potty training, socialization and early obedience. You can buy The Happy Puppy Handbook from Amazon by following this link. If you do, The Happy Puppy Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated, and won’t affect the cost to you!
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website
I have a 6 month old lab which the vet thinks had either elbow dysplasia or FCP. I feed him appropriately, do very little exercise etc and did everything right as far as I am aware so this must be genetic. It’s so disheartening to see our beautiful puppy obviously in some degree of pain. Were awaiting a CT scan to determine the actual cause of him discomfort.
-> Avoiding steps and stairs
“One study has shown that puppies climbing stairs at an early age were more likely to develop hip dysplasia.”
As it is highly controversial that puppies are more likely to develop HD when they climbed stairs in an early age I’d be interested in a source of that study mentioned here (Anyway I also watch out for stairs if puppies are around)
Hi Thasy, Here is a link to a related study: http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/ajvr.73.6.83
Thanks Lucy 🙂
That should have read, as hip, elbows and eyes!
Hi Pippa, my pup is now 14 months old and had her first season at a year old. Will she be physically mature enough now to be spayed in about two months time? I’m never sure when labs reach a mature growing stage.
Thanks for the emails, they are always interesting.