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Let’s have an honest discussion about Hip Dysplasia in Labradors

I recently was visiting a Labrador Forum where yet another Lab from OFA tested parents had just been diagnosed with dysplasia.  Nestled in amongst all the replies from forum members expressing their condolences was one post that jumped out at me.

“Why are so many Labradors STILL being diagnosed with hip dysplasia even though their parents were OFA certified?”

That is a really good question and I began thinking about creating this very page on my website because of how good a question it was.

Over on another thread I saw this:

"I would NEVER buy a puppy whose Sire or Dam had a fair result from the OFA on their hips!"   

and then this:

"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".  

Before our Angus was diagnosed with dysplasia, I might have said the same. I know for sure that I THOUGHT the same. After all, I had chosen a breeder whose Bitch was certified “Excellent” on her Hips who had chosen a Stud who was also “Excellent”. And Angus’ breeder gave me a health warranty good for two years on Angus’ own hips. I had done everything possible to ensure that I didn’t have a Labrador who would suffer from HD. Right?

The answer is no. The honest answer anyway.

It is the honest answer because there is currently NO genetic test that can be given to ensure that two Labradors will not ever produce a puppy that will develop dysplasia.  Despite decades of searching for a "gene" that would identify which dogs will get dysplasia, one has not been found, nor has any combination of genes been deemed as responsible.   So breeders rely on subjective readings of x-rays and certification of those x-rays to determine which dogs might increase the odds that puppies will NOT develop dysplasia. Twenty-two years ago, Breeders were asked to be patient and allow several generations of selective breeding to eliminate canine dysplasia, we are still waiting. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 210(10):1474-9 · May 1997

No is also the honest answer because I did not provide the proper environment for Angus.  I over fed him and over exercised him.  I allowed him to play on stairs, jump as often as he wanted, allowed unsupervised play with older dogs with more aggressive play styles. I allowed the OFA certification of his parents and a breeder's health warranty to give me a false sense of security.  Although his breeder honored the Hip warranty and refunded our purchase price, that was little consolation to me as I watched Angus struggle while we found the tools to manage his pain. 

The heartbreak of Angus' diagnosis at 10 months of age with mild dysplasia in one hip, moderate in the other, and elbow dysplasia at 18 months sent me researching to help prevent this happening to any other dog I brought home or sent home to another family.  I rather quickly found that the trust placed in those OFA certifications and Hip and Elbow Warrantees had led other owners of Labradors to experience that same heartbreak and guilt. 

Before we go any further, let’s explain OFA ratings

NORMAL Hips are rated as Excellent, Good, or Fair but ALL are considered normal. The variance is in changes to the joint.  The OFA reports that 19% of over 270,000 OFA tested Labradors are ranked as Excellent. (OFA doesn’t report the percentage of Good and Fair ratings although the dogs are given a certification number.)

Borderline Hips means the dog does NOT have dysplasia but has changes that indicate that it may develop later onset dysplasia / arthritis. (Again, OFA doesn’t report the percentage of dogs that receive this rating.)

Dysplastic Hips are rated as Mild, Moderate, or Severe. The OFA reports that 12% of over 270,000 OFA tested Labradors are “dysplastic”. (Again, it doesn’t report the percentage of mild, moderate, severe or even bilateral or unilateral results.) 12%!

Note:  The percentages given above (19% / 12%) are found on the OFA Trend Report for Labradors; it is interesting to me that we are never given percentages for "good", "fair" or "borderline" in these trend reports.  67% of the Labradors tested will have been certified within one of those results, yet we are not given the percentages.  Would those percentages show us that "borderline" is the natural state of a genetically predisposed large breed dog and that it is ENVIRONMENT that determines hip and elbow health far more often than inheritance?  

So, now let's look at how the OFA goes about certifying breeding dogs; there are two levels of testing performed.  A preliminary (primarily done to determine if a dog will certify as normal to re-home as a companion if the dog fails OR to breed a bitch at the heat nearest her second birthday) and final certification at two years of age. 

Preliminary (before the age of two years) X-ray of hips is read by only one radiologist, while those done for certification after age two is read by three.   Final certification is determined by the following (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 radiologists 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

As is easily seen, the process is subjective:

  • Radiologists can see the same X-ray and have different opinions.
  • A resubmitted or new x-ray will sometimes have a different result

It is important to note that the majority of dogs certified by the OFA are owned by breeders and not by the non-breeding public. This means that the majority of dogs tested are the offspring of dogs who were themselves tested prior to breeding. The x-rays of most Labradors diagnosed with a degree of dysplasia will never be sent to the OFA for certification.

Also of import is the fact that breeders often have preliminary x-rays done before the age at which the OFA will “certify” results and choose not to x-ray at 24 months any dog that received a low normal rating (fair), a borderline rating (no evidence of dysplasia but with “changes”) or a dysplastic rating. Breeders are also unlikely to submit any x-ray at any age, which clearly shows dysplasia to the OFA for certification. After all, the process costs hundreds of dollars, why spend that money for a dog that will not be in your breeding program?  And few buyers/owners of companion pets will take the extra step of sending off the X-rays done by their Vet or an orthopedic Vet to the OFA not to mention that companion dogs who never limp or go lame will never be X-rayed for dysplasia. 

Logic should lead one to understand then that the actual percentage of dysplastic Labradors produced by certified “Normal” Labradors is higher than 12%.  

Think back a minute to the dog I mentioned in the opening paragraph. It had just been diagnosed with dysplasia. It came from a responsible breeder who had certified the Dam and Sire prior to breeding. That dog’s x-rays were not certified by the OFA so it was NOT included in the OFA reported 12% of Labs certified as dysplastic. Angus’ dysplasia results were never certified by the OFA; an Orthopedic Vet diagnosed him; he is also not represented in that 12% figure.

While no one can deny that there is a upward “trend” in the number of Labradors certified with “Excellent” hips and an apparent downward trend in those certified as dysplastic, one has to acknowledge that this is shown mostly in dogs owned by breeders and to question how much of that is a result of breeders education and experience in reading x-rays prior to sending them off for certification.  Again, the process costs hundreds of dollars and if you already know you are not going to breed that dog, then why spend the money?

And since selective breeding in Labradors has not eliminated dysplasia in the breed as shown by a database made up mostly of dogs who were selectively bred, it is obvious that there is more to understand about the disorder.

  • Selective breeding through the use of subjective certification of "Normal" hips is just one part of the battle to end dysplasia
  • Education of the Puppy Buyers regarding the relationship between the genetic predispositions, rate of growth and the environment the puppy lives in once it leaves the Breeder is of extreme importance in the fight to end dysplasia.

Genetic Predisposition + Environment (Housing/Exercise/Nutrition)

Labrador Dysplasia is believed by a growing number of researchers to be 30% Genetic Predisposition and 70% Environment. 

A genetic predisposition is a genetic (unseen) characteristic, which influences the possible phenotypic (seen) development of an individual organism within a species or population under the influence of environmental conditions. The AKC acknowledges this in the following statement:

“Factors such as excessive growth rate, types of exercise, and improper weight and nutrition can magnify this genetic predisposition” (to dysplasia).

Although it said that dysplasia is "inherited", the reality is more likely that that inheritance is because of traits of the breed rather than passed from a parent to offspring; in other words, every Labrador has the potential to develop dysplasia and how they are raised will determine whether they do or not. Even dogs certified as Excellent at two years of age may STILL develop late onset dysplasia. 

What predisposes every Labrador to dysplasia?

Rate of Growth: The average Labrador weighs about 1 pound at birth; they double their weight by 2 weeks of age and by 8 weeks weigh on average between 12 and 16 pounds. By 8 months of age, they are nearly at their adult weight which can be anywhere from 65 to 100 pounds and are at about 80% of their adult height. All parts of the Labrador do NOT grow at the same pace which creates weaknesses in areas that may lead to injury which may lead to issues within the hip joint or elbow.

Temperament traits: Labradors - especially as puppies - are high energy, high drive dogs.  When they play, they play full out.  When they run, they run full out.  This high energy continues until they are at least 2 years of age and with some Labradors, until they are 3 years of age!  Many owners will seek to find outlets for this high energy that are inappropriate for the growing puppy – excessive leash walking on hard surfaces like pavement; excessive retrieving where the puppy is jumping to catch a ball, stick or frizz bee; activities like agility training where consideration is not given to age appropriate training – all are contributors to the development of dysplasia. Bred to retrieve game in freezing water temperatures, they have a high pain tolerance and don't always show they are injured exposing them to the dangers of repeated trauma to a vulnerable area.

Weight is a factor in the development of dysplasia. Labradors are known as the "always hungry" breed and have been known to gorge themselves when allowed to free feed. Take our Kona for example. The morning after delivering her first litter, I expected her to be as I had read other Dam’s were, uninterested in eating. So I placed 8 cups of food in her dish for her to nibble on throughout the day next to her whelping box and water bowl and left the room to feed the rest of the pack. When I returned to check on her and the new litter about 15 minutes later, the entire 8 cups had been devoured and she was back in the whelping box nursing her new puppies. The next day, I divided her daily ration into four servings. Labradors who are allowed to eat as much as they want causing excess weight on their growing muscles, tendons and bones have influenced the development of dysplasia at a young age.

Proper nutrition is critical to a managing the growth rate of a Labrador puppy and numerous studies have revealed that a proper calcium to phosphorus ratio is needed and that over supplementation of multi-vitamins to a puppy eating a well balanced commercial dog food can cause more harm than good.

Those studies that go above and beyond the OFA ratings have found the following:

  • Labradors who are given forced periods of crate rest on a regular basis have less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are farm raised spending their free time walking and playing as they traverse the farm with their owners have far less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are not "weekend warriors" have far less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are kept lean have far less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are held back from activities like jumping (for ball/frizz bees or off docks, out of trucks) have far less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are not exposed to stairs for the first three months of life and have limited access till 2 have far less dysplasia
  • Labradors who are fed diets that allow for a slower, more balanced rate of growth have far less dysplasia.
  • Labradors who are spayed and neutered early are more susceptible to joint issues.

In Conclusion:

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 does NOT eliminate the risk for the offspring and along with Breeder Health Warrantees, provide a false sense of security to far too many Labrador owners.  

Responsible Breeders acknowledge that analyzing/certifying hips and elbows is not enough and are doing more: Many environmental studies are 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; and they advise their Buyers of the need for non-slippery surfaces during the first 12 months of life.   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 in addition to a health warranty that acknowledges the reality of environment on the health of a Labrador's hips and elbows. (A breeder's warranty that requires you return the dog to be euthanized before terms are honored, is not a real warranty to someone who has raised and loved the dog nor is one which requires you to give a specific multi-vitamin for terms to be honored. Getting your money back is little consolation as you watch your dog suffer the pain of dysplasia!)

How can you protect your puppy?  

1.  Choose a Breeder who doesn't base their entire breeding program on subjective OFA testing; 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 12 and 16 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 12 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 by providing a safe environment. 


At Aisling, we provide educational material to each puppy's family before the puppy leaves us so that there is time to begin the preparations before the puppy comes home and life becomes a bit crazier...!  

Together, Breeders and Buyers can tackle this issue of dysplasia in our Labradors.  By understanding that despite the emphasis put on certifying breeding dogs for "normal" hips and elbows, the disorder is more a genetic predisposition triggered by environment and nutrition than an "inherited" disorder, we can help protect every puppy from every litter.  

Further reading to prepare for the new Labrador Puppy in YOUR life: (NOTE: if the link doesn't take you to the exact title, copy and paste that title into the search field of the landing page.)

OFA rankings of breeds - Labrador Retriever ranked 98th in Breeds with dysplasia 
The #1 and #2 common injury factors for puppies - it's not just about hips and elbows