Hip Dysplasia

Learn the causes and symptoms of hip dysplasia in dogs, and its frequency of occurrence by breed.

| March/April 1989

I watch from the window as one of my favorite patients climbs out of the car. He's a huge German shepherd named Von Hunkermann. The Von is graying at the temples, and for all the years I've known him — despite the pain he's had — he's always been a pure wag-tailed, lick-your-face joy to be around.

Today, however, he struggles. The jump from the car to the ground is almost too much for his diseased hips to stand. There's a visible wince as he lands; a barely audible whimper escapes his lips. He tries to wag his tail, but the effort is too painful for even this stoic German to bear.

The Von is suffering from hip dysplasia, a disease he was born with and a pain that will only get worse as he ages. Hip dysplasia affects many of our dogs, but it can be especially prevalent in the larger breeds, such as the Saint Bernard, Newfoundland, bull-mastiff and rottweiler (see my Frequency of Hip Dysplasia by Breed table).

Von Hunkermann's pain comes from a severe arthritis surrounding both hips. If I were to take an x-ray, I would see an intense bone formation around the hip joints and possibly some bone chips floating in the joint capsule itself. Every time the Von moves, his hips grind against the roughened edges of the excess bony growths. I can only imagine his suffering.

All these changes were brought on by hips that were too loose from birth. The dysplastic ball-and-socket hip joint — instead of fitting snugly and cleanly as a normal hip joint would — slipped and slid around like a size-nine foot in a size-12 shoe. As the Von's hips creaked and popped (in some severe cases you can actually hear the creaking as the dog walks), the bony growths were being deposited to compensate for the excess joint movement.

As I watch the Von, I wish there was more I could do for him — more his owners could afford. But there isn't. So we will do all we can for his pain and hope that the next puppy his owners choose is free from the disease. And I can help them with that selection process. You see, hip dysplasia is a genetic disease passed down to succeeding generations. If one has enough information to pick the right parents, the pups they produce should be free of dysplasia.

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