German Shepherd Hip Dysplasia: What You Need to Know
By Emily Shiffer —
7 MINUTE READ
Breeds + Lifestyle
Reviewed by Emily Luisana, DVM
German Shepherd parents have a lot to brag about when it comes to their beloved pups. German Shepherds are loyal protectors who are known for their boundless energy and agility. That’s what makes them such great family pets and working dogs.
But those prized qualities are often threatened by the hip and joint problems common in German Shepherds — particularly hip dysplasia.
What is Hip Dysplasia?
Canine hip dysplasia is defined by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) as “a condition that begins in dogs as they grow and results in instability or a loose fit (laxity) of the hip joint…(causing) hip pain and limb dysfunction and progressive joint changes.”
This often debilitating condition is prevalent in German Shepherds. According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, over 20 percent of German Shepherds develop it.
It can be heartbreaking to watch a once-active German Shepherd struggle with joint pain and decreased mobility. The good news is that there are steps pet parents can take to prevent and manage hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. Keep reading to learn how.
What Causes Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds?
To understand what pet parents can do to help dogs suffering or at risk of developing hip dysplasia, it’s important to understand what causes it and why it’s so prevalent among German Shepherds.
“There are many different players involved. We know genetics play a big role, but there are also nutritional and environmental factors,” says Tailored Pet Veterinary Advisor Emily Luisana, DVM.
Research suggests that German Shepherds may have a genetic predisposition to hip dysplasia, possibly due to selective breeding practices for certain traits. That’s why “It is key to choose breeders who screen for hip dysplasia,” notes Dr. Luisana.
As it relates to diet, overfeeding German Shepherd puppies can cause rapid growth and weight gain, putting dogs at increased risk of developing hip dysplasia as adults. Obesity in adult German Shepherds doesn’t cause hip dysplasia, but it can make joint pain even worse.
“Dogs in the wild do not tend to have hip dysplasia,” says Dr. Luisana. “That may be related to slow growth and also malnutrition (i.e. dogs in the wild don't grow so quickly). This is why it’s so important as puppies to make sure growth is appropriate and not excessive in German Shepherds.”
Symptoms of Hip Dysplasia
Recognizing the signs of hip dysplasia in your German Shepherd is the key to proper diagnosis and effective treatment. According to ACVS, the most common symptoms of hip dysplasia include lameness (limping), reluctance to rise or jump, shifting of weight to the forelimbs, loss of muscle mass on the rear limbs, and hip pain.
However, symptoms may vary according to a dog’s stage of life. Dr. Luisana says hip dysplasia is most often diagnosed in two groups of dogs. Here’s what pet parents should watch for:
“Group 1 focuses on juvenile and young German Shepherds,” says Dr. Luisana. “These dogs have not yet developed arthritis, and show symptoms like: being slow to stand up, “bunny hop” jumping, hip clicking, and changes in exercise or gait.” These signs can start as early as 3 months of age and are usually pretty subtle, so they’re easy to miss.
“Group 2 consists of older dogs that have arthritis. Arthritis and hip dysplasia go hand in hand, as instability in joints can make you more flexible, but leads to arthritis,” says Dr. Luisana.
Diagnosing Hip Dysplasia
If you notice any signs of hip dysplasia in your German Shepherd, it’s important to reach out to your veterinarian promptly. The sooner the condition is diagnosed, the better your chances of avoiding more severe symptoms.
“There are different diagnostic tests that can be done that are extremely important,” says Dr. Luisana. Here’s what you can expect from a visit to the veterinarian if you suspect your dog has hip dysplasia.
The palpation method is called the Ortolani Sign and is most often used to diagnose hip dysplasia in younger dogs. This test requires sedation and involves a veterinarian manipulating your pup’s hips to check for a popping sound or feel.
The most definitive method to diagnose hip dysplasia is by x-ray, which can reveal the severity of hip laxity. According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), x-rays detect and assess hip joint irregularities and secondary arthritic hip joint changes. In this scenario, your dog would be placed on their back to get a full view of the hips and rear limbs, and the knees would be rotated internally while the pelvis is symmetric.
There are two main testing methods, as described in an article from the American Animal Hospital Association:
The standard OFA test is qualitative. It scores the results of a dog’s X-rays against a seven-point hip elasticity scale to determine whether or not they have hip dysplasia and how severe it is. The test can be used on dogs two years and older, and no sedation is required.
The University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PENNHip) test is a newer quantitative method that measures precisely how much a dog’s hip is “out of joint” and whether or not a dog is susceptible to developing dysplasia or osteoarthritis. The test requires sedation and can be used on dogs as young as 16 weeks old.
Treatment for German Shepherd Joint Issues
If your veterinarian determines that your pup does have hip dysplasia, there are many ways to treat it, ranging from non-invasive options to medical interventions, such as surgery. Often, the degree of severity will impact the course of treatment your veterinarian recommends.
Here are some of the most common methods for treating hip dysplasia in German Shepherds:
Your veterinarian may recommend a variety of lifestyle changes to help address your pet’s hip dysplasia. These include weight management, physical therapy, and simple (but effective) rest.
“The #1 thing is to make sure your German Shepherd is on an appropriate diet to prevent obesity,” says Dr. Luisana. This helps stem excessive growth in puppies and lighten the load on overtaxed joints in older dogs.
Other nutritional tips Dr. Luisana recommends: Try to keep any treats under 10% of your dog’s daily calorie consumption , as unaccounted-for treats add unwanted calories and fat. Also, make sure your German Shepherd is on a large breed puppy food while they are growing to ensure their calcium and phosphorus levels are correct.
A change in activity level may also help treat hip dysplasia. But whether your dog should move more or less often depends on your dog’s age.
“Excessive activity at a young age is a risk factor for hip dysplasia and other orthopedic problems,” says Dr. Luisana. “Make sure to avoid high impact or excessive activity until your puppy is skeletally mature (over 12-18 months of age).”
Another way to treat hip dysplasia from the inside out is through dietary supplements.
“Glucosamine and chondroitin can be helpful, and evidence has shown them to be seen as generally safe,” notes Dr. Luisana. Other supplements may include omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
To alleviate discomfort, your veterinarian may suggest joint injections or medications targeting inflammation and pain.
“Chondroprotective injections (like Adequan) could increase fluid in joints and decrease cartilage degradation,” says Dr. Luisana. “Other medications that can help include anti-inflammatories and pain medication to make them more comfortable and help restore mobility, which also helps increase muscle that protects the joints.”
Alternative treatments like acupuncture or laser therapy to decrease inflammation can be helpful in some dogs, notes Dr. Luisana.
In cases of severe hip dysplasia, there are several ways to correct the debilitating condition surgically by changing the way the femur and pelvic bone (or “ball and socket” of the hip joint) come together.
Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis (JPS)
This surgery is performed on puppies between 10 and 18 weeks old. It is a minimally invasive surgery that adjusts how a puppy’s pelvis develops, which encourages the hip socket and femur to become more stable as the puppy grows during the following 4–6 months.
Double or Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (DPO/TPO)
This surgery is another option for puppies ideally less than 8–10 months old. According to the ACVS, these involve “cutting the pelvic bone in two (DPO) to three (TPO) places and rotating the segments to...decrease hip laxity.”
Total Hip Replacement (THR)
This surgery is usually performed on dogs older than one year old. It involves “the replacement of both the ball and socket with metal and polyethylene (plastic) implants.”
Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO)
This surgery can be done at any age but is only appropriate for dogs weighing less than 60–70 pounds. It involves removing the femoral portion of the hip joint (i.e., the ball) to reduce the pain caused by wear and tear on the joint’s cartilage and soft tissue, according to the ACVS.
As with all surgeries, it’s important to discuss the options, risks, and possible outcomes with your veterinarian to ensure you understand the full impact of the decision. Depending on the surgery, “recovery may require extensive rehab, says Dr. Luisana. “That could, ideally, include the use of facilities with underwater treadmills and more.”
How to Prevent German Shepherd Hip Problems
Preventing hip dysplasia from developing in the first place is the best way to ensure an active healthy life for German Shepherds. Thankfully, there’s hope (and help) for pet parents like you.
Here’s what you can do in day-to-day life to help prevent your German Shepherd from developing full-blown hip dysplasia.
Dr. Luisana recommends early screening and diligent monitoring to help determine whether your German Shepherd pup is at risk of developing joint issues.
“Diagnostics vary, but catching hip dysplasia early is vital,” notes Dr. Luisana. “While vets do look at hip joints, mobility, and range of motion during exams, the signs can be so subtle. It’s important to keep an eye on your dog at home. Take a video if you notice any strange movements, and bring it up with your vet. Try to keep a log of potential clinical signs.”
Also, don’t underestimate the importance — and impact — of a proper diet. With the right guidance, nutrition can be surprisingly effective in the fight to prevent hip dysplasia.
Dr. Luisana recommends discussing your dog’s specific dietary needs with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist. And if one-size-fits-all dog food options don’t measure up, consider a customized diet that’s designed to deliver precisely what your dog needs — whether that’s weight management, nutrients that promote joint health, limited ingredients, or all three. Tailored Pet’s personalized quiz can help you discover the right diet to reduce your German Shepherd’s risk of hip dysplasia, along with a variety of other health issues.
Best of all, a customized diet is balanced and optimized to deliver the full benefit of the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals your dog needs. Supplements like extra calcium may sound appealing to pet parents worried about German Shepherd joint health. But supplements, especially additional minerals, can also unbalance your dog’s diet, says Dr. Luisana. To ensure your dog’s nutritional needs are being met, always check with your veterinarian when considering any dietary supplements.
Of course, even the most diligent prevention measures may not completely eliminate the risk of developing hip dysplasia. But awareness and early detection, combined with proper treatment and the right diet, can help your German Shepherd get the most out of life, despite the condition.
So if you’re concerned about your German Shepherd’s hip pain or mobility, contact your veterinarian to discuss your observations and come up with a plan. And regardless of the diagnosis, consider a custom diet from Tailored Pet to promote joint health and overall wellness for your beloved German Shepherd.
About the Author
Emily Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania and is a former online staff member at Men's Health and Prevention magazines. She writes for a multitude of publications, including Women's Health, Parade, SHAPE, and more. Emily loves all things antiques, cilantro, and American history. She grew up with two dachshunds and aspires to one day be a Doxie mom.