The Hip Dysplasia Riddle

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by Jackie Athon

Hip Dysplasia is a condition of the hip joint where the ball and socket do not fit together properly. This causes changes in the bones that can cause pain and lameness. These changes are premature arthritis in the joint. Joint changes that occur and are diagnosed only later in life will sometimes be called hip dysplasia by the Veterinarian because it is a German Shepherd, but joint changes late in life are simply old age arthritis. Hip Dysplasia shows up early in life.

Hip dysplasia can and does occur in all types of animals (including humans!). German Shepherds do not have a 'corner' on the Dysplasia market. They are currently number 38 on the breed list. Hip Dysplasia is more common in large breeds than in small breeds.

Hip Dysplasia occurs in different levels of severity. Dogs with Dysplasia are graded as Mild, Moderate or Severe depending on the amount of changes to the hip joint. Dogs with Mild Dysplasia will generally go their entire life with no significant outward evidence of the problem. Dogs with Moderate to Severe Dysplasia are likely to show some degree of discomfort, especially when the joint is going through the first 'remodeling' changes, and they are likely to show arthritis pain earlier when they are older. Many Moderate, and even some Severe Dysplasia dogs show no discomfort until late in life. There are surgeries for dogs with Hip Dysplasia ranging from minor to major surgery, but I personally think surgery should only be done if the dog is in pain that can not be easily controlled with pain relievers.

If a dog shows arthirtic changes only in one hip joint, the cause is likely NOT hip dysplasia. If only one hip is affected, and the other is normal,   the cause is likely due to trauma when the puppy was in the rapid growth stages. Even running through the house and sliding into a wall can be enough to damage the hip. Once the hip joint is bruised, the body makes more synovial fluid (joint fluid) to try to cushion the bruised tissue. This causes greater separation of the joint surfaces, and this in turn can cause a cycle of ever worsening truma to the hip. The result is early arthritis which may be mis-diagnosed as hip dysplasia.

Some dogs that move badly (walk funny) have great hips, and some dogs that move beautifully have bad hips! Therefore, you can not determine if a dog has hip dysplasia or not unless a correctly positioned hip x-ray is taken. These hip x-rays can be submitted for evaluation, and if found to be free of Dysplasia, they are 'certified' by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) in Columbia, Missouri (age requirement is 24 months old), or they may be submitted to the Deutscher Schaeferhund Verein (SV) in Germany (age requirement of 12 months old). There is a 3rd type of hip x-ray done called the PennHip by the University of Pennsylvania that requires the dog be 'put out' under a general anesthesia, and then they use a fulcrum to attempt to dislocate the hips. I feel this is a very bad thing to do to a young dog, and personally do not want this technique used on any of my dogs.

Reputable breeders attempt to reduce the chance of Hip Dysplasia occurring in their dogs by breeding only from hip dysplasia free adult dogs. This does not eliminate all chance of Hip Dysplasia in the resulting offspring, but it does help stack the deck in your favor. The more generations of Hip Dysplasia free dogs in the pedigree, the lower the incidence of Hip Dysplasia. Just because the breeder gives a "Hip Dysplasia Guarantee" does NOT mean your puppy can not get Hip Dysplasia, it just outlines what the breeder is willing to do if your puppy does develop Hip Dysplasia.

Any German Shepherd can produce Hip Dysplasia, even though it shows no evidence of the problem in it's own x-rays. Virtually all large breed dogs carry the potential to produce this problem. What separates a 'good producer' from a 'bad producer' is not whether or not they have ever produced Hip Dysplasia, but whether or not they produce LESS DYSPLASIA THAN THE AVERAGE FOR THE BREED.

Just how bad is this problem in the German Shepherd? According to statistics compiled by the OFA on American German Shepherds, the average ratio of Hip Dysplasia from 1974 to 1984 was 20.7%. Roughly 1 out of 5 the hip x-rays SUBMITTED were found to have Hip Dysplasia. Please remember, that many people do not send in the x-rays and pay the fee for having OFA grade the x-ray. If the Veterinarian taking the x-ray can tell the owner the dog has Hip Dysplasia and will not pass for certification, there is no real reason to pay a fee to find out what you already know. Therefore, the projected ratio of Hip Dysplasia, if all German Shepherds were x-rayed and all x-rays were submitted, would be about 30-50% according to a report by Cornell University in their Hip Dysplasia research report published in April 1985 in their Animal Health Newsletter.

There is no AKC or German Shepherd Dog Club of America requirement to have breeding stock x-rayed for Hip Dysplasia. It is done on a voluntary basis. In 1984 there were 60,445 German Shepherds of age to be eligible for hip certification x-rays in the USA. Only 2,151 hip x-rays were submitted according the the report in the JAVMA October 1985 report. While the ratio has improve a bit over the years, it has not changed significantly. Due to this, the current ratio of SUBMITTED hip x-rays to the OFA on our American German Shepherds is still 19.4% Hip Dysplasia...not a significant improvement over the 20.7% ratio of SUBMITTED hip x-rays in 1974!

Germany instituted  MANDATORY Hip Dysplasia x-ray submission for German Shepherds before they can ever breed or show for a Championship, beginning back in 1966. All German Shepherds in Germany must be tattooed by an official of the SV before the puppies can leave the breeder at 8 weeks of age. This tattoo must be checked, and recorded on the hip x-ray to eliminate 'swapping' of hip x-rays on dogs. One of the many requirements in Germany that must be met BEFORE you can breed your German Shepherd is that it must be hip certified.

The rate of growth directly affects the hip joint status. Puppies that grow too quickly are doing so because they are being feed too much. The chart below shows how free feeding (letting the puppy eat all it wants) GREATLY affects how many puppies develop hip dysplasia. It is likely that the same percentages would also apply to elbow dysplasia as well. In nature, puppies NEVER get to eat as much as they want. They are always hungry. The pack may have a good meal one day, and not even get to eat the next. This is why the puppies are genetically programmed to 'wolf down their food', as in the wild they never know when  (or if) the next meal is coming. Do not feed your puppy more just because it acts hungry!!!! The results of the study are shown here. We at Grunenfeld advocate feeding the puppy carefully monitored amounts of food so the puppy grows more slowely, and we advocate the addition of Glucosamine to the diet to encourage healthy joint development. A good source for this supplement can be found at:


Group 1
Free feeding as much as the puppy wanted to eat any time

Group 2
Allowing only 75% of the daily food amounts eaten by the others that were Free fed

Dysplasic Normal % Normal Dysplasic Normal % Normal







 What is the ratio of Hip Dysplasia in "German" German Shepherds? In 1966, when the program was started, the Dysplasia ratio was 26%. At first glance it might look like they had a higher ratio of Hip Dysplasia than the American dogs, but in Germany the x-ray MUST be submitted for grading. The owner has no choice, as the Veterinarians permitted to do the x-rays are REQUIRED to submit ALL x-rays taken. When you add this to the fact that a greater number of the eligible dogs do get x-rayed in Germany (remember, they can't breed or enter a show with out hip certifications, so a higher percentage get x-rayed), the German dog started out in about the same place as the American dogs.

What is the ratio for Hip Dysplasia in the "German" German Shepherd today? The current ratio is 7%!  The average "German" German Shepherd will show 10 to 15+ generations with EVERY dog in the pedigree certified against Hip Dysplasia. While no breeder can eliminate all risk of Hip Dysplasia, the Germans have done a much better job than the Americans due to the mandatory x-ray requirement.

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