Pet talk: Hip hip hooray

Pet talk: Hip hip hooray

By SARAH NETHERTON/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine 

Dogs — young and old, big and small — may suffer from hip dysplasia. Fortunately, treatment options are available to help pets stay mobile and free of pain.

"The hip is a ball and socket joint," explained Dr. Tisha Harper, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana who has additional training in orthopedic surgery and canine rehabilitation. "Hip dysplasia is a condition in which the ball — a protrusion at the top of the femur, or thigh bone — does not fit together well with the socket in the hip, called the acetabulum, and there is looseness or laxity in the hip."

Heredity is a major factor in the abnormal development of the hip joint. The femoral head may be misshapen, or the acetabulum may not be very deep and may be flattened or more "saucer shaped," thus not allowing the femoral head to seat well.

Hip dysplasia is commonly seen in large and giant breed dogs, including Rottweilers, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. It can also be seen in bulldogs and pit bulls.

According to Harper, puppies with hip dysplasia may show signs of the problem, such as unwillingness to play or taking frequent rests during play; hopping like a rabbit — a response to the pain they feel when flexing and extending the hip; difficulty climbing stairs; and reluctance to jump onto furniture or into a vehicle.

However, it's also possible that young dogs with hip dysplasia will not show signs of pain. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, about three-quarters of young dogs with hip dysplasia can function pain-free for many years without treatment.

In older dogs, an owner may notice stiffness of the hind limbs when the dog is walking, muscle wasting in the hind limbs and slowness to rise from a sitting or lying position. Hip dysplasia leads to arthritis in the hips as the dog ages.

"To test for laxity in the hip, the veterinarian will perform an Ortolani test, which involves manipulating the hip to see if the femoral head can be displaced out of the acetabulum," Harper said. "As the veterinarian continues to manipulate the limb, the femoral head will pop back into the acetabulum. The popping sound or feel indicates a positive Ortolani test and means that there is laxity in the hip."

Not all dogs with hip dysplasia will have a positive Ortolani test, so the veterinarian will also take X-rays to examine the shape of the femoral head and the acetabulum and to look for evidence of arthritis in the hip.

Hip dysplasia can be treated either medically or surgically. The treatment of choice will depend on age, severity of clinical signs, presence or absence of other diseases and financial constraints of the owner.

According to Harper, most pets are initially treated medically with rest, physical therapy, pain medication and weight management.

The most common surgical treatments are the femoral head and neck ostectomy and total hip replacement.

The first of these involves surgically removing the femoral head and neck, thus eliminating rubbing of an abnormally shaped femoral head on the acetabulum. The surrounding musculature will take on the function of transmitting forces from the leg to the pelvis and spine. Post-operatively, great attention is paid to maintaining range of motion of the hip to prevent the formation of scar tissue that would limit limb function.

In a total hip replacement, just as in a human hip replacement surgery, a prosthetic hip replaces the arthritic femoral head and acetabulum. After a hip replacement, activity is restricted to prevent splaying of the hind limbs and possible dislocation of the hip before healing is complete.

"The goal of both of these procedures is to eliminate the pain associated with hip dysplasia, thus improving quality of life and eliminating the need for continuous pain medication, Harper said.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy at

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