Veterinarians hate to give pet owners bad news. People today have a greater emotional attachment to their pets than in the past, and dogs and cats have moved from the farm and the backyard to being house pets. Not only do our four-legged companions sleep in the bedroom, many sleep in our beds.
Even with decades of experience, I still find it hard to tell owners of a problem, especially when their pets are young and the news is unexpected. When the owner is also a friend, it makes the job even more difficult.
I had to tell an old friend just last week that his young German shepherd had severe orthopedic changes associated with hip dysplasia. We often take radiographic films on large-breed dogs at the time they are spayed or neutered. The films we took on my friend’s dog revealed significant joint changes.
Hip dysplasia is a malformation of the hip joint, which is similar to a ball and socket. In hip dysplasia, the socket becomes shallow and the ball does not fit properly, which eventually leads to the development of arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease.
This is a genetic disease that breeders should try to breed out of their line. Eliminating the disease entirely is impossible as even dogs with perfect hips can produce a puppy with hip dysplasia. Breeders should follow their puppies and track both the breeding and non-breeding offspring to see if hip dysplasia shows up in their line.
When purchasing a puppy in breeds where hip dysplasia is common, a new owner should ask if any warranty for genetic problems is provided by the breeder. Some breeders will give a refund or replacement of a severely affected dog. Sometimes a breeder will require a dog to be returned. Returning a dog is usually not an option for an owner who has already developed a strong emotional attachment.
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals will certify the radiographs of hips and elbows of a breeding dog. The OFA standardizes the process and helps to ensure breeding stock is less likely to pass on this devastating problem to the next generation. Dogs can get OFA-certified after two years of age. Radiographs are sent to the foundation and a certificate is given with a grade from excellent to poor. OFA certificates of both parents with a good or excellent rating is necessary so that the puppies will be less likely to suffer this problem.
The University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School developed a program called Penn Hip that can identify joint abnormalities in very young dogs as early as 16 weeks of age. Early detection of lax joints will help a breeder decide which dogs should be kept in a breeding program. The Penn Hip program helps breeders identify early on which puppies will make the best potential breeding stock and improve the genetics for the next generation.
Complicated surgical procedures can benefit young dogs if hip dysplasia is detected early, but early surgery is possible in only a few cases and is quite expensive. Older dogs will sometimes benefit from a total hip replacement. This procedure, similar to the hip replacement that humans can undergo, is done only at veterinary schools or fully-equipped specialty hospitals.
Young dogs with hip dysplasia appear to bunny hop or swivel their hips. Older dogs might start to show lameness after exercise. Some affected dogs have a hard time getting up, and others have difficulty on stairs.
Some dogs with hip dysplasia do well with weight control and pain medication as they get older. As mentioned in a previous Pet Points article, pain drugs should be given only with precautions. Human drugs can be dangerous when given to animals. Also, side effects can include irritation to both the stomach and intestine or liver and kidney damage. Blood testing is required prior to starting medication and monitoring is necessary when using pain medication.
Other medications like glucosamine can also help and are safe and effective. The radiographs and clinical signs do not always correlate well, and each case has to be treated individually with careful veterinary supervision.
Young large-breed dogs should not have excessive exercise until their bones develop. Exercise should be confined to leash walking. We also strongly suggest that large-breed dogs do not get too heavy during their first year. In addition to the hips, we also worry about excessive stress on the elbows of young dogs.
Dr. Larry Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Gerson is a Past President of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.