Hip dysplasia (HD) is a problem that is seen across many breeds of dogs but it is more common in the giant and large breeds.  It is an abnormality of the ball and socket joint of the hip.  The hip is designed so that the ball should fit snugly into the socket allowing it to move freely but securely without causing any damage to the bones.  However, damage may occur if there is looseness in the joint because the bones are not properly formed (e.g. socket is too shallow) and the ligaments do not hold the ball in place.   The bone will become damaged and eroded which may lead to new bone formation as part of the body’s attempt to stabilise the joint.

Signs - If it is not severe, HD may not cause any obvious signs.  If there are signs it may be lameness in one, or both, back legs, or the dog may “bunny hop”, that is move both back legs together, particularly when going up stairs or steps.  There may also be stiffness or pain after resting and eventually the dog may be reluctant to move and will certainly not be able to run and play freely.  In severe cases the dog will often sit down when not moving around rather than stand.  HD usually causes signs first while a dog is still growing and may affect one or both hips. The dog may appear to grow out of the problem as it becomes skeletally mature at 1-2 years of age, only for arthritis to develop and cause pain later in life.

Diagnosis - If you believe your dog has HD the only way to confirm this is by consulting your vet who will recommend an X-ray.  The X-ray should be submitted by your vet to a KC/BVA panel which reads the X-ray and gives individual scores for each hip.  The maximum score for each hip is 53 giving a maximum total of 106 and the lower the score the better the hips.  Each breed has a Breed Mean Score (BMS), this being the average of the total hip scores. The KC encourages breeders to only breed from dogs which have a score lower than the BMS; the BMS for Irish Setters is currently 10. If HD is confirmed then it is important that you let your breeder know.

Veterinary treatment - The treatment for a dog with HD will depend on the severity of the problem and its age.  In many cases drugs can relieve pain and increase mobility but sometimes surgery is required.  It is essential to follow veterinary advice which will include monitoring your pet carefully.  Regular exercise is important and swimming is excellent as it allows the dog to exercise without putting weight on its joints and comfortable, warm, dry bedding is also essential.  

Management - It is generally accepted that HD is a complex issue because environmental factors as well as several genetic factors are involved.  If the parents have poor hips then there is a higher chance of their offspring having poor hips and it is not advisable to breed from a dog with a high hip score.  However, the way your puppy is reared is vital and should your puppy have the genetic predisposition then the environmental factors may well influence the degree of severity of the problem.   One significant factor is rapid growth and rapid weight gain so it is important that your puppy has the correct food for his age; don’t be tempted to let him become fat as obesity can cause problems with the newly formed bones.  There are many puppy foods available which are designed to give your puppy the right amount of nutrition needed and your breeder should have given you a diet sheet.  Don’t be tempted to over-exercise your puppy as this increases the chances of developing hip problems.  It may be fun to watch your puppy try and get up and down the stairs or steps but again, please don’t allow him to do this too often as it can also make matters worse.   Don’t allow him to stand or walk on his back legs until he is mature and don’t encourage him to jump over obstacles.  It is also important not to let your dog jump into or out of a car with a high sill such as in some 4x4s. This sounds as though there are a lot of “don’t’s” but it will be worth taking the trouble not to let him do these things, or at least not in excess.

A hip replacement operation should only be carried when there is no alternative treatment and then only after discussion with a specialist referral vet.

Below is a link to a short video which includes xrays of normal hips and those from a dog with HD: