Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Shake those hips – the foundation of a strong dog. Part II

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If you’ve spent any time on my FB groups or have spoken to me about dog breeding, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of closed registry breeding and conversely, I really like some forms of health testing.  Screening for hip dysplasia is one of those health tests I will always do – in fact, it’s smack dab at the top of my list.  This is despite the fact that clear screens on both parents is not a guarantee that the pups won’t end up someday with HD.  There are plenty of breeders who feel that it is unnecessary to screen their dogs, claiming both that they’d implicitly know if their LGDs had the condition and that the lack of guarantee for a HD free outcome for the pups makes it not worth the expense of testing.  While the former is highly debatable, given the stoicism and work ethic of the dogs in question and the fact that HD is a spectrum disorder that worsens with age, the latter is simply – in my opinion – a cop out.  There are plenty of things in life that we don’t have complete control over, but that doesn’t negate the need to stack the deck in our favor, especially when we are bringing animals into this world.  Canine hip dysplasia is so rampant in large dogs that if we claim to care about them, we cannot continue to afford to do otherwise.

As well as screening potential parents through OFA or PennHIP, what else can we do to reduce the chances that our dogs will develop HD?  The answer, like the condition, is multifaceted.

The first line of defense of course is to screen the parents, not only individually, but also familially.  The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals provides us with some guidelines to go by (information in brackets, mine):

  • Breed normals to normals {normal meaning those that pass screening}
  • Breed normals with normal ancestry
  • Breed normals from litters (brothers/sisters) with a low incidence of HD
  • Select a sire that produces a low incidence of HD
  • Replace dogs with dogs that are better than the breed average

Clearly, in order to follow these guidelines, breeders need to have access to and keep ongoing accurate records regarding not only their own dogs, but also about their families and entire litters that they’ve produced.  This type of record keeping, typically only reserved for dogs eligible to be registered with certain organizations such as the AKC and UKC, would have to become commonplace for the working LGD.

The Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University has this to say about the rates of HD in the litters of both affected and unaffected parentage.

“The knowledge that hip dysplasia has a genetic basis allows us to make decisions about breeding. Dogs that are known to be dysplastic should not be bred. The mating of two affected dogs produces an incidence of 75 percent in offspring – in other words, 3 out of 4 puppies produced by two dysplastic dogs will themselves develop hip dysplasia. In contrast, on average only 25 percent of offspring of a mating between two healthy dogs will develop hip dysplasia. There is clearly an advantage to a mating between normal dogs. By limiting the breeding population to only those dogs with healthy hips, we can lower the number of new cases of hip dysplasia that will appear in the coming generations.”

While an incidence of 25% may not be ideal, it is much better than the 75% produced by dysplastic parents, and may be able to be further reduced through management of the offspring (see below).  It is also no more than can be expected and is accepted from imported landrace LGDs or those from otherwise untested ancestry overseas.

Anatolian litter at Cheetah Outreach.

Anatolian litter at Cheetah Outreach.

After the litter is on the ground there is still a lot that can be done to try to avoid the development of HD in the individual pup.  The USDAA, a canine agility organization, has a great article outlining one of the most recent studies related to the prevention of HD.  Here are some of the highlights, however, it is highly recommended to read the full article and follow up with the links listed for a more complete picture.

  • the period from birth to three months is the most influential time for decreasing the manifestation of HD
  • litters born in the spring and summer, and those on a farm had a lower incidence of HD
  • low impact, self driven (not forced) exercise is beneficial
  • avoid jumping and daily use of stairs
  • avoid running for periods of time
  • “daily exercise outdoors in gently undulating terrain up to the age of three months is very helpful”

This study did not find a connection between growth rate and the incidence of HD despite the fact that previous studies have.  Such studies were undertaken at Cornell, where one 14 yr long study showed that feeding less and controlling the growth rate resulted in a significant decrease in the manifestation of HD, as well as increasing longevity and lowering the risk of developing osteoarthritis.  The findings are certainly significant enough to warrant the elimination of free feeding regimes, especially for dogs who do not limit intake on their own.

How else can we control diet during growth to reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia?  Susan Wynn, DVM, says that we ought to consider not only the type of food that we are feeding large pups, but also the level of protein, calcium and fat in the food.  In “Feeding Large Breed Puppies”, published by the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, she states:

“The most important factors in preventing developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) are rate of growth (which is proportional to the caloric intake) and dietary calcium level.

A common misconception found in many internet articles is the claim that dietary protein should be controlled in large breed puppies to prevent skeletal abnormalities. This theory was disproved some years ago (Nap, 1991). Most commercial puppy foods contain more protein than is thought necessary, but studies have shown that protein contents of 23% to 31% (dry matter) do not have a deleterious effect on growth. The effects of high dietary protein contents in the range of those found in raw diets have not been investigated, to this author’s knowledge.

An overweight body condition is an important risk factor for DOD, and feeding for maximum growth increases that risk. Commercial puppy and adult foods containing 10% to 25% fat (dry matter) are considered adequate for growth. Raw diets tend to range from 20% to 40% fat (dry matter) so it is particularly important to slow growth by maintaining a very lean body condition when these diets are fed. It has been shown that body fat is higher in puppies fed very high fat, low carbohydrate diets during growth.”

In other words, not only is the rate of intake by the individual pup important, it is equally important to consider what is in the food they are fed, and to keep them lean through to maturity and beyond.  Below is the generally referenced chart for assessing canine body condition.  It is important to note that an accurate rating cannot be given unless the assessor physically feels the dog with both hands.

Purina's Canine Obesity Scale (BCS)

Purina’s Canine Obesity Scale (BCS)


There is currently no cure for canine hip dysplasia, and no DNA screening available to pinpoint affected LGD dogs or carriers of the defective genes that lead to it.  Any therapies or surgical interventions involve great expense, pain, and heartache which is why this is truly a situation where prevention is paramount.   If we don’t do all that we can to give our dogs a solid skeletal foundation from which to operate, we cannot be said to be setting them up for success as LGDs.  Considering the labor and expense that goes into raising an effective Livestock Guardian Dog, it only makes sense to ensure that they are not predisposed to developing such a debilitating condition as hip dysplasia.

I recently bred my main LGD, Ivy, and had both her hips and elbows tested and evaluated by the OFFA.  If you go to the OFA database and look up Maremma, Ivy – you’ll see her results: Good.  I paid for testing of the sire’s hips as well; Gibbs, Great Pyrenees, results: Good.  While this does not give us familial information and does not ensure that no pups from the litter will develop HD, it does put us ahead of the game – preventing any undue stress on Ivy during the pregnancy and subsequent whelping, and reducing the risk of HD for the pups.  It also gives us information to build on in the future, to build the familial information necessary to reduce HD in future generations.  Hip dysplasia is not a kennel club problem alone, and those of us who breed mainly outside the system need to recognize our part in the perpetuation of it.


References in addition to in text links:

Baker Institute:

Effects of limited food consumption on the incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs (Kealy et. al, 1992):

Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

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