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Hip and Elbow Dysplasia are 30 - 50% Genetic Predisposition and 50 - 70% Environment.  

I recently was visiting a Labrador Forum where another Lab had just been diagnosed with dysplasia.  One of the posters asked "Why are so many still getting dysplasia from responsible Breeders who are testing hips and elbows of their breeding dogs?"

She was asking a very important question ..... and the answer is clearly this... If the condition was purely genetic, rather than a combination of a genetic predisposition and the environment the dog is raised in, the decades/generations of testing would have eliminated it from the offspring of those dogs bred responsibly.  

On that same forum, I also read and saw several posts that went something like this..... "I would NEVER buy a puppy whose Sire or Dam had a fair result from the OFA on their hips!"   Read a bit further and I soon saw.... "MY breeder gave me a warranty on my puppy's hips and elbows and I will get my money back if my dog gets dysplasia".  

As a breeder, I cringe every time I see one of those types of comments because I know that the writer doesn't have a real understanding of canine dysplasia or that OFA certification of high normal is not a promise of perfectly healthy offspring (a FAIR rating is still a NORMAL rating!). I didn't understand all of this before our Angus was diagnosed! After all, my Breeder had certified his Dam and chosen a Sire who was also certfied - both with Excellent hips and Normal Elbows - AND I'd gotten a Hip and Elbow Warranty.  I didn't have to worry about Angus developing dysplasia...or so I thought.

Once Angus was diagnosed with dysplasia in both hips and elbows, I spent many hours researching the subject to do everything in my power to avoid having this happen to Kona, Dreama or any other puppy we may bring into our lives or to any puppy we bring into this world.  This page is the result of that research....

There is currently NO genetic test that can be given to ensure that two dogs will not ever produce a puppy who will develop dysplasia.  Dysplasia is not PREVENTABLE like CN or DM or PRA or EIC (all diseases for which there is a test that will prove that two dogs won't have puppies affected by one of those diseases).  Despite decades of searching for a "gene" that would identify which dogs will get dysplasia, one has not been found.

According to several studies I have read, approximately 15% of dogs fail the certification by the OFA, most of them being certified as "Borderline" (no evidence of dyplasia, but with "changes" in the bone or joint). MOST of these dogs who are deemed "borderline" or with some level of dysplasia came from parents rated on the high side of "Normal" on their Hip Certification. This 15% failure rate is after nearly six decades of responsible Breeders breeding only Dogs with Normal ratings from the OFA.  Surely, if breeding selection were the answer to this disorder, the failure rate would be far less than 15%!

The reality is this....Medium and Large breed dogs are genetically predisposed to dysplasia (and other joint and bone issues) due to their rapid growth and the length of time it takes for all the growth plates to close (18 - 22 months on average for a Labrador Retriever). 

We've had nearly six decades of research and testing and still no one knows exactly what causes dysplasia but it is becoming increasingly clear that rate of growth + environment + genetic predispostion ALL are contributing factors.  

Genetic testing is just one part of the equation and health warrantees give a false sense of security - what is required is more education of the Puppy Buyers regarding the relationship between the genetic predisposition, rate of growth and growth plate closures and the environment the puppy lives in once it leaves the Breeder. Let's start with the certification process itself: 

Understanding OFA Preliminary and Final Certification: 

NORMAL Hips are rated as either Excellent, Good, or Fair but ALL are normal.  

The Borderline rating means the dog does NOT have dysplasia but has changes that indicate that it may develop later onset dysplasia (environmental in most cases).  

Dysplastic ratings are Mild, Moderate, or Severe.

The ratings are subjective in nature: The preliminary (before the age of two years) X-ray of hips and elbows is read by only one radiologist, while those done for certification after age two is read by three.   The ratings can differ between the three radiologists doing the certification. The following is from the OFA website:

Once each of the radiologists classifies the hip into one of the 7 phenotypes above, the final hip grade is decided by a consensus of the 3 independent outside evaluations. Examples would be:

  • Two radiologist reported excellent, one good--the final grade would be excellent
  • One radiologist reported excellent, one good, one fair--the final grade would be good
  • One radiologist reported fair, two radiologists reported mild--the final grade would be mild

The certification process, as seen above is subjective; radiologists can see the same X-ray and have different opinions. And a new x-ray resubmitted can sometimes have a different result....because it depends upon the opinions of the particular radiologists reading the x-rays!  

Any study that is using only OFA ratings is subjective as well because it is relying upon the opinion of radiologists rather than a standard rating scale or genetic test; furthermore, environment and diet are not usually part of these studies!

Breeders Can Improve the Odds for Puppies but cannot prevent the disorder entirely:  A determination of "Normal" Hips and "Normal" Elbows by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals is done to improve the odds that the puppies have the best possible start on the journey through the rapid growth stage - but it does NOT eliminate the risk for the offspring.   Our Angus was born of two parents with Excellent Hips and Normal Elbows - yet, his rate of growth and our false sense of security due to the OFA certification of his parents led to dysplasia of hips and elbows! 

Responsible Breeders acknowledge that certifying hips and elbows is not enough and are doing more: Many studies are now stating that there is a correlation to the surface during the first 8 weeks of a puppy's life and future hip and elbow health. Responsible breeders provide non-slippery surfaces from birth for the puppies to learn to walk on. While introducing puppies to various surfaces is needed, an informed breeder will limit it to introducing the slippery tile or linoleum and not having the puppies live on those surfaces.   Additionally, although people love a "fat" puppy, breeders who keep up to date on the most recent research understand that it is far better to try to keep puppies as close to a "2 lbs per week of life" rule of thumb from the very beginning and to teach that rule of thumb to their puppy families.  

Responsible Breeders offer EDUCATION: Most Health Warrantees offer nothing but a false sense of security. Any warranty on Hips and Elbows that requires you to euthanize your dog (or have the Breeder do it) in order to get a refund or a replacement dog is no warranty at all! How many people are going to euthanize the dog they love or return it to the Breeder to be euthanized?  And getting your money back doesn't stop the pain your dog will endure! Breeders who offer a warranty that makes you jump through hoops like keeping your dog on the food they require or on the expensive vitamins that puts money in their pocket every time you purchase a refill, are offering the same false sense of security. While these Breeders may have lowered the risk that your puppy will be dysplastic, they have covered their own risk through the terms in their warranty.   And without educating you on the reality of dysplasia risks, they have eliminated much of the value of having tested the parents!

How can you protect your puppy?  

1.  Choose a Breeder who doesn't stop at OFA testing of the dogs they use in their Breeding program; ask about the surfaces they are raising the puppies on and what they are exposing them to during the first 8 weeks of life.  Puppies should have limited exposure to slippery surfaces and stairs especially in the first 12 weeks of life.  At Aisling, our puppies are raised on Lambs Wool pads for the first 3 - 4 weeks of life; from then until they leave us, they are on indoor/outdoor carpeting or K-9 Kennel Grass.  They use a ramp to enter and exit our home. For socialization purposes, they are taught to climb up and down our stoop stairs but are not using them on a regular basis. They are also introduced to tile, wood flooring, concrete, and pebbles, but again, are not on these surfaces on a regular basis. 

2.  Understand that while fat puppies are cute, they are also more likely to suffer from hip and elbow damage from carrying excess weight!  An 8 week old Labrador puppy should weigh on average between 14 and 18 lbs {2(+/-) pounds per week of life} If your puppy comes home over-weight, adjust the food and exercise to slowly get to the proper body condition. (Each puppy is an individual so puppies weighing less than 14 lbs are not unhealthy - larger litters will usually have lighter puppies and smaller litter heavier puppies - it should all equal out as they age). At Aisling, puppies are weighed several times each week once weaned to ensure a slow weight gain and are fed on an individual basis as needed. 

3. Prepare your home for the Puppy's homecoming.  At Aisling, we provide educational material to each puppy's family before the puppy leaves us so that there is time to begin the education and preparations before the puppy comes home and life becomes a bit crazier...!  Some of what is included in the material is as follows:

  • Use gates to limit access to stairs (carry them up and down until 3 months of age and limit use until 2 years). 

  • Have area rugs down on uncarpeted flooring to provide secure footing until 18 months of age or older.

  • Understand that constant jumping and rough play cause repetitive trauma to your puppy's joints. During the rapid growth phase (3 - 10 months) have two "forced rest" periods of two hours each where your puppy is crated to allow your puppy to benefit from the healing and recovery only achieved during sleep. Crate your puppy at night.  Don't let your puppy jump on or off furniture or in and out of your vehicle (especially trucks). 

  • Research appropriate activities for your puppy at each stage of its development to develop good but not over-developed muscle tone.  Agility training too young is dangerous, retrieving too many times may cause damage, jumping for balls, sticks and frizbees every day may cause damage.  (Free play is not dangerous - your puppy is controlling it's own stops, starts and turns...) Use the "5 minutes per month of age rule" in your exercise routine.  Roll a ball to avoid jumping in the air to catch it; allow a stick to hit the ground before giving the "retrieve" command.

  • Consider keeping your puppy on the food used by the Breeder, there is a reason they have chosen that particular food for their own dogs. If you want to change foods, first educate yourself on the appropriate calcium and phosphorus ratio and the importance of a food being feed tested rather than just formulated to the AAFCO recommendations.  Understand that rate of growth plays a part in healthy joint development.  If your puppy is growing too fast, change to an adult food immediately. More information of feeding is on our Puppy Care page.