Hip dysplasia in dogs can be painful and disabling. We look at how to improve the odds that your puppy will have healthy hips.
Many different breeds are affected by hip dysplasia. It occurs more often in medium and large dogs like Labrador Retrievers than in smaller breeds.
Hip dysplasia in dogs is incurable, although it can usually be managed by medication or surgery.
Buying your Labrador puppy
When you search through advertisements for a Labrador puppy, you’ll notice that many litters advertised for sale will state the ‘hip scores’ of the parents.
And 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.
It’s important that before you even visit your potential puppy, you find out exactly what the hip scores are.
Identifying hip dysplasia in the parents 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 one or another standardised hip score.
This is to help reduce the high incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs.
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 female dog and/or has not ensured that the stud dog was tested – walk away!
Help protect our breed
There are many excellent litters of Labrador puppies available nationwide, both show and field, that have been properly tested for hip dysplasia.
Labradors are the most popular pedigree dog breed in the UK and in the USA.
And the reason for the testing is to help reduce the high incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs.
There is absolutely no need for anyone to purchase a puppy from parents that have not been tested, or that have poor test results.
Buying such puppies encourages the breeder to produce more of them and so puts another generation of puppies at risk. Now let’s take a look at what the hip score means.
What does the hip score mean?
Each dog that is to be hip scored, has its hips x-rayed.
This must be done under sedation or a general anaesthetic.
This is why scoring is not recommended if you just want to screen whether your dog might develop hip problems in the future.
The x-rays are then sent off to a team of expert vets. They examine the hip joints and ‘score’ them according to a number of criteria.
In the USA there is a descriptive system of grading managed by the OFA Canine Health Information Centre
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 the scoring is managed by the British Veterinary Association. Hips are scored numerically.
The ideal or perfect hip joint will get a score of 0. Every deviation from perfection adds to the hip score.
The scores for each check are added together to make a total score for each hip.
Then the scores for the two hips are added together. A total score of 50 would be very bad indeed.
The scores for each hip are usually written down as 5/6 or 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. The overall total hip score would be 11.
Why does hip scoring matter?
Hip scoring is a very important procedure. It gives us a clear indication of the likelihood of the dog being scored developing the serious disease that we call hip dysplasia.
These scores also give us an indication of the likelihood that the offspring of the tested dog will have sound hips – because there are genetic aspects to this disease
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.
The British Veterinary Association displays current breed mean scores on their website.
In 2016 the 5-year breed mean for Labradors was 9, compared to 12 in 2011. These newly released scores are good news I can give in this article’s 2019 revision and update.
They clearly show that the breed has been improving over time.
Hip dysplasia in dogs could be reduced even more by using a system known as estimated breeding values (EBV’s). Let’s have a look at what EBV’s are and where to find them.
What are EBV’s
The EBV is a far better tool for determining the genetic risk for hip dysplasia in dogs than the parents’ hip scores alone.
This value considers the health pedigree information of three generations of its relatives as well.
Calculation of EBV’s is possible because organisations such as the Kennel Club in the UK have, over time, collected a lot of breed information.
You can find the EBV of any registered Labrador on the Kennel Club’s online tool.
You will need the dog’s registered name, registration number and studbook number.
In the US the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine developed a search tool for EBV’s. They used data supplied by the OFA Canine Health Information Center for the project.
But let’s see why it’s so important to try and prevent hip dysplasia in the first place by looking at exactly what it is.
What is hip dysplasia?
Hip dysplasia in dogs, or CHD, is a ‘malformation’ of the hip joint that the puppy is born with. Signs are not evident at birth but the hip joint degenerates over time.
This causes pain and affects the dog’s ability to move around freely.
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. This leads to progressive damage to the hip joint as the dog ages.
The hip sockets of a puppy born with CHD, 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.
Signs of hip problems might appear at a few months of age or much later in life. This depends on how severe the malformation is.
The abnormal joints in dogs with hip dysplasia cause more wear and tear than usual. Eventually the joint’s cartilage linings wear down – until bone rubs against bone.
At this stage the joint becomes inflamed and the dog experiences pain, swelling, stiffness and difficulty moving around.
The inflammation causes further damage to the joint and you have the progressive condition commonly referred to as degenerative arthritis.
How do dogs get hip dysplasia?
Unlike some of the other conditions we can now test our dogs for, hip dysplasia is a complex condition.
It results from both the genetic information inherited by the dog from its parents and environmental factors that act on the dog’s skeleton as he grows and ages.
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. This means that several genes determine a puppy’s potential for developing a faulty hip socket.
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 their puppies will be more likely to develop poor hips as well.
But the genes inherited by the puppy are only a part of the story. A number of environmental factors can strongly influence the development of the joint.
Two key factors involved in this process are how fast the puppy grows and the amount of physical stress applied to the joint while it’s still developing.
What are the effects of hip dysplasia?
Because so many factors are involved in the development of this disease, hip dysplasia in dogs 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 – 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 to provide the dog with permanent pain relief and freedom of movement.
You’ll want to recognise hip dysplasia in your dog as soon as possible..
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.
She also displayed a bunny hopping gait with both back legs being used together when 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.
Both hip scores should fall below the breed mean score and they should be balanced. This means that each hip is similar to the other.
For example a score of 9 in a dog with 4/5 hips is OK, but the same score in a dog with 2/7 hips is not OK, because one hip is in a 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
Don’t be tempted!
Make sure your puppy comes from the 60% of breeding Labradors 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.
You can improve the odds even further by checking the breed EBV’s of the parents.
Check the certificates
Always ask to see the certificates for both female and stud dog. A reputable breeder will have copies of these ready to show you.
Never, never take a Labrador puppy home without seeing them!
Then, once you have your new puppy at home, you need to make sure his environment also reduces the odds of developing hip dysplasia.
The next action you should take is to ensure that your dog does not grow too rapidly.
Don’t overfeed your puppy, no matter how hungry she seems – we know that most Labradors are very greedy and will eat far beyond their needs.
Rapid growth means that the hip joint may not develop properly.
Besides this, overweight increases the pressure on the hip joint. This can cause symptoms of hip dysplasia in dogs to appear sooner.
A long-term study of Labradors showed that a lifetime restricted diet considerably delayed the onset of osteoarthritis.
It also reduced the severity of the condition in affected dogs.
Interestingly, early neutering of male Labrador puppies has also been shown to affect the development of their hip joints.
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.
This places stress on the growing joints and is not necessary.
Remember though, once you dog is grown he needs regular exercise. Just like in humans, a sedentary lifestyle can affect his joints.
Exercise is necessary to increase muscle tone, keep joints lubricated and to strengthen the ligaments and tendons that hold joints together.
For more information on how to protect your puppy you can read the article Hip Dysplasia: Protecting your Puppy.
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.
This condition is so complex that all we can do is to swing the odds in our favour. There can be no guarantees.
So getting your puppy insured will give you the peace of mind.
You will be reassured that if he develops 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.
Protecting your dog from hip dysplasia
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 in dogs please feel free to comment below.
- British Kennel Club (2019) Estimated Breeding Value. BVC.
- British Veterinary Association/Kennel Club (2018) Breed Specific Statistics – 1st January 2001 to 31st December 2016). BVA.
- de la Riva, GT (2013) Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Canine Cancer in golden Retrievers. Plos One.
- Lewis, TW (2010) Genetic Evaluation of Hip Score in UK Labrador Retrievers. Plos One.
- Smith, GK et al (2006) Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis in the hip joint in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Association.
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