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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 when Breeders are only breeding dogs who have been OFA certified?" Now, understand that this was a board where many of the Labrador owners had done their due diligence and found a Breeder who certified hips and elbows! Her question is a very good one that I'm going to try to address here.

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 you will inevitably see "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. I didn't before our Angus was diagnosed! Once Angus was diagnosed, 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....

During the research, I read the contracts of those breeders who have lengthy warrantees on dysplasia but I didn't just read the line that said "Hip and Elbow Warranty" - I read the fine print.  Many of those breeders will require that you return the dog to them before getting a refund or replacement and they will euthanize the dog once you have returned it.  How many of you are going to try to claim your warranty when the puppy you have fallen in love with is going to die as a result?  (Angus' breeder DID NOT have that type of warranty but there are many who do!)

Far better that Breeders EDUCATE their puppy families on the reality of dysplasia than offer a false sense of security with a "money back guarantee"!

There is no test that can be given to ensure that two dogs will not ever produce a puppy who will develop dysplasia.  Dysplasia is not 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).  And 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 hip) - many of these dogs came from parents rated on the high side of "Normal" on their Hip Certification and the majority of them were raised by Breeders who took extreme care of those dogs for two years in order to get a passing score from the OFA....and this is after nearly six decades of responsible Breeders breeding only Dogs with Normal ratings from the OFA.  

The Labrador owner who asked "why" we still see puppies whose parents are OFA certified getting dysplasia was asking the right question....and the answer is clearly this... If the condition was 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.  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).

Decades of research and still no one knows exactly what causes dysplasia.  One study says that puppies born in the winter and summer seem to be dysplastic more often than those born in fall or spring; another says that those in warmer climates get it more often while those in cooler climates seem to get it less often. Still another says that puppies who are allowed to roam the farm going up and down gentle hills and developing muscles through simple activity seem less inclined to get it, which goes against the study that says that those born in summer who get more activity (crated or kenneled less) are more prone to the condition.  While most studies seem to indicate that the amount and type of food they are fed contributes to it, at least one study claimed that that had little to do with it. 

Despite the fact that a "genetic predisposition" has been sold to the public as dysplasia being "genetic" and therefore that testing parents will eliminate the risk of your puppy becoming dysplastic - Labradors from reputable breeders who spend two years raising potential breeders and spend hundreds of dollars to test both parents AND responsibly raise the litters are STILL producing some puppies are later diagnosed with dysplasia. 

Obviously, what is required is more education of the Puppy Buyers regarding the relationship between the genetic predisposition and the environment the puppy lives in once it leaves the Breeder. Most experts now believe that dysplasia is between 30 - 50% genetic predisposition and 50 - 70% ENVIRONMENTAL.  Read on to find out more....

If Dysplasia is as much as 30% genetic predisposition and 70% environment, why do Responsible Breeders still test Hips and Elbows? 

Final certification of "Normal" Hips and "Normal" Elbows at 2 years of age 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 entire risk for the offspring.  Breeders are doing more - they provide non-slip 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. Many studies are now stating that there is a correlation to the surface during the first 8 weeks of a puppy's life to their future hip and elbow health.  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.  

If you buy a puppy only from parents who both had "Excellent" hips, do you still have to worry about dysplasia?

YES! After your puppy leaves the breeder, the rest is up to YOU.

The condition of hips and elbows depends upon many factors; simply testing the parents is not enough.  Breedings in which the Sire and Dam both had: 

  • "Fair" hips have resulted in puppies certified as "Excellent" 
  • "Excellent" hips have produced dysplastic puppies - our Angus Demetrius is one such example
  • "Good" hips have produced "Fair", "Excellent", "Good", "Borderline" and/or dysplastic puppies
  • Affected parents have produced "Fair", "Excellent", "Good", Borderline and/or dysplastic puppies

For those lines that have multiple offspring tested, the bullet points above are easily seen on the OFA database. If any litter that was fully x-rayed and certified, one would likely find various levels of "normal", "borderline" and "dysplastic" dispersed amongst the litter depending upon both genetic predisposition AND the home environment.  

How can you protect your puppy?  

First, ASK your Breeder about the surfaces they are raising their litters on and not just whether or not parents were tested by the OFA. Second, remember that while fat puppies are cute, they are also more likely to suffer from hip and elbow damage!  If your puppy comes home over-weight, adjust the food and exercise to slowly get to the proper body condition.

Second, educate yourself on the appropriate foods and appropriate levels and types of exercise your puppy should have during the first two years of life.  You can begin on our Puppy Care page....

Understanding OFA Preliminary and Final Certification: They 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 final certification is read by three.  Preliminary OFA readings are used for two main reasons - first, a Breeder is investing love, time and money into raising a dog for their Breeding Program and a preliminary exam allows them to decide whether or not a dog has the potential to be used as a Sire or Dam.  A dog that is borderline or worse by 10 - 18 months of age is spayed/neutered and special care is taken to limit the extent of damage to their hips and/or elbows with the help of their Vet.  Second, preliminary testing of a Bitch whose body has reached its maturity allows her to have her first pregnancy as close to her second birthday as possible which is better for the health of the Dam and the litter - and - males can be bred earlier than two years of age after a preliminary.   

At two years of age, elbows are permanently certified as "Normal" or "Dysplastic"; hips are considered to be "Normal" when rated as Excellent, Good or Fair.   There is a "Borderline" rating where 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 (could be genetic, congenital OR environmental).

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 somewhat 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!

More about Breeders: How do Responsible Breeders determine which dogs to breed once the certification is done?

While choosing which dogs to breed together, responsible breeders consider not only the certified results of the dogs to be bred, they also study the relatives of the dog and the results of their hip and elbow scores and seek to improve the next generation by breeding to a dog with an equal or better hip rating within the normal range. This pedigree study can be done using the OFA database. 

Angus and our Dreama share an ancestor - Angus' Dam is Dreama's Grand Dam.  Rain had Excellent Hips, Dreama has Excellent Hips while Angus has mild dysplasia in one hip and moderate in another. Many of Rain's offspring have "Excellent" hips, some have "good" and some have "fair".  Of those dogs certified through the OFA that share this pedigree, only Angus has failed the certification....the only logical conclusion is that it was "environmental" as much as it was a genetic predisposition to hip and elbow dysplasia.  (Angus and Dreama have different Sires, but both Sires had "Excellent" hips and "Normal" Elbows.)

The reality is that the most responsible breeders can do is carefully choose breeding pairs with all information available to them; provide the proper environment during the 8 weeks or so that they have the puppies in their care, and educate their puppies families on how much environment and diet plays a part in healthy hips and elbows.  

Read the fine print in the health warranty from any Breeder who doesn't explain all of this to you when they present you with the OFA certification from the parents!

Conclusion: What can you do to improve the odds for your puppy?

Far too many times one will hear something like "my Breeder will give me my money back if my dog gets dysplasia" as if that absolves the owner of any responsibility to the final outcome of the dog's hips and elbows.  This is a very dangerous attitude to take.  

Once the puppy goes home, the responsibility falls on the family to ensure that during the rapid growth phase (3 - 10 months) the puppy is fed the appropriate amount and type of food, carefully monitored during exercise to develop good (but not overdone) muscle tone while avoiding repetitive activities like trick training, forced jogging or frisbee catching and limiting access to stairways and slippery surfaces or jumping in and out of vehicles/on or off furniture.  Although Labradors are retrievers, even too much of that activity during the first year or two of life can have horrible consequences on the joints of the dog which is why we require that our puppy families use the "5 minutes per month of age rule" in their exercise routine for our puppies.  Rolling a ball to avoid jumping in the air to catch it; allowing a stick to hit the ground before giving the "retrieve" command are all good ways to help protect your growing dog. 

This responsible raising of the Labrador continues until the age of 18 months - 2 years to ensure that the dog has the best possible outcome.  Relying on the Breeder's warranty and OFA results of the parents is a risky undertaking - doing so rather than providing the proper environment might get you your purchase price back or a replacement dog (depending upon the Breeder), but your dog will endure years of pain from dysplastic joints not because the Breeder didn't do their job, but because environment was ignored in the sense of false security provided by that warranty. Please read "Puppy Care" for more on this subject. 

While no breeder can promise that one of their puppies will never require additional Vet care for illness or disease, responsible breeders do the best they can to avoid that ever happening by testing against genetically inheritable diseases and careful pedigree research before selecting their breeding dogs.  The best we can do is to study pedigrees, learn as much as we can about health of lines we are breeding, and educate our puppy owners on what they must contribute to further improve the odds of a healthy and long life for their pet.