Your puppy is genetically predisposed to certain medical diseases. If you have a purebred puppy, you have an advantage, because you know the most common diseases to afflict your breed. If you don’t know which diseases to watch for, you can find out by going to your national breed club’s website, and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.

If you have a mixed breed puppy, you won’t have such a clear view of your pup’s medical future unless you know the breed of the parents, but you can still guess what will come your way based on your dog’s body type, size, and physical characteristics. Her genetic destiny is already determined, but how you manage her environment, feed her, and exercise her will affect how quickly she reaches that destiny. This is especially true in the case of orthopedic diseases.

You can also manage her behavior so that she is accustomed to the handling and care that will be necessary if she does contract a medical disease later in life.

Hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and patellar luxation are all common orthopedic diseases. These diseases are generally inherited, although environmental factors such as exercise and nutrition affect how quickly osteoarthritis can develop. The only way to prevent these diseases is to stop breeding the dogs that are carriers. How painful the condition is for the individual animal depends on the breed, individual tolerance for pain, and environmental factors.

The orthopedic diseases covered here eventually cause osteoarthritis, so supplements may be helpful to continue to provide the building blocks for cartilage and for reducing inflammation. There is not near as much research as we would like on the preventative value of supplements, so it is best to speak to your veterinarian about which supplement, if any, is best for your puppy. You can also slow the progression of hip dysplasia in particular by using the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race feeding strategy. To facilitate this, many veterinarians recommend feeding an adult food, or at minimum a large breed puppy food, starting at eight months. Puppy food should be discontinued at 12 months of age.

Regardless of which orthopedic disease ends up affecting your pup, you are well advised to reduce the load that your puppy will have on her joints. She should look like a lean, mean puppy machine. She should be a healthy weight, not chubby. Start non-weight bearing exercise such as swimming soon after you adopt her. This type of exercise will help her to stay lean and strong without adding concussion to her joints. She should play, run and romp as much as she wants, but don’t start jogging with her until she is about 18 months old.

Let’s start with hip dysplasia. This is a very painful, inherited disease, which eventually results in osteoarthritis. Large breed dogs are generally affected, but any size dog can develop hip dysplasia. The hip (coxofemoral) joint is a ball and socket joint. In order to work correctly, the ball (femoral head) has to sit tightly in the socket (acetabulum). It must have lots of cushion and should be well lubricated. If a puppy inherits this disease, her hips will develop in such a way that the ball doesn’t sit nice and tight in the socket. The laxity in the joint causes the cascade of events that lead to painful osteoarthritis.

Once osteoarthritis is present, there is no going back; it is there for good — unless your dog has one of a couple of surgeries to correct the disease. Affected dogs limp on one or both of their hind legs. When they run, they often bunny hop instead of placing each hind leg on the ground as an unaffected dog would. Affected dogs may stand very upright on their hind legs to shift weight to the front of the body, making the hind legs look straighter than expected. You might notice that your dog’s toes look splayed on one side when compared to the other as she shifts weight onto the less painful leg. As the disease progresses, the muscle mass over the hind legs shrinks, making the legs look skinny.

Next, let’s talk knees. The kneecap (patella) is supposed to live in the patellar groove. As your pup flexes and extends her hind leg, the patella smoothly glides up and down that groove. If your pup is affected by patellar luxation, the patella doesn’t stay in the groove. It moves (luxates) medially (to the inside) or laterally (to the outside) of the patellar groove. Medial Patellar Luxation is very common in small dogs. The more time the patella spends outside of the patellar groove, the more the bones around it become deformed. Over time osteoarthritis develops, causing pain and often limping on the affected hind leg. Another common sign is skipping while exercising. As the dog is running, she may pick up the affected leg for a couple of strides, making it look like she is skipping.

Lets move to the front of the dog to talk about elbows. Elbow dysplasia is used to describe a set of inherited diseases that cause osteoarthritis in the elbow. This disease hides out for a while in many dogs, becoming painful when they are older and when, unfortunately, there are fewer options available to help them.

If your puppy is lame on the front legs, take it seriously. Get her in to see your vet. Better to find it early and do surgery than to find it later in life when arthritis kicks in. Depending on how severely the dog is affected, there are various options for treatment of these orthopedic diseases, including pain relievers, physical therapy, acupuncture, supplements, exercise, weight loss, cartilage building injections, and surgery.

Your puppy will need the following skills in order to face evaluation and treatment with as little stress as possible. Start teaching these skills in puppyhood, not after she has been diagnosed:

  • Stand still for injections, examinations and physical therapy
  • Walk on a leash without pulling so that the veterinarian can assess her movement
  • Lie on her side for examinations, radiographs, acupuncture and physical therapy.
  • Take a pill in food
  • Swim

There are lots of ways to teach a puppy to stand still. For most pups, it is easiest to teach them to move their front legs. Start with your pup in a sit, put a treat at her nose and let her get interested in it. Slowly move the treat forward until she is in a standing position. When her body is upright, say "stand," and then let her eat the treat. Repeat this sequence many times until she is moving as soon as she sees your hand moving. If you like, you can work to fade the hand lure and then the visible treat, but you should continue to reward for every correct attempt for about 100 reps. You can also add a "stay" to this sequence. Then, you can put your pup on variable reinforcement (you sometimes give a treat and sometimes don’t).

Remember the science of learning — behaviors that are never rewarded will be extinguished. That means that you will always be rewarding your dog in some way for her compliance with your requests. In other words, when you stop expecting your boss to pay you for a job well done, you can stop rewarding your pup for her hard work.

To get your pup to lie on her side, start with her in a down. Most pups learn this exercise in small steps, so you will be rewarding her for small approximations of the final behavior. Observe which hip she is resting on or which side she is leaning toward. Hold a treat at her nose and let her get interested in it. Then, slowly move the treat to her shoulder causing her to flex her neck to that side and roll further onto her hip. When she gets onto her hip, let her eat the treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When she can easily roll onto her hip and flex her neck toward her shoulder when you move the treat, you are ready for the next step. Instead of giving her the treat when she rolls onto her hip continue to move the treat toward her mouth gently to get her to move her neck and head toward the floor. When she moves even a little, give her the treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Continue this way until she puts her ear on the floor. When her ear hits the floor, say "side," and let her have the treat. Repeat these steps many, many times until you can stand up and tell her to lie on her side and she does.

Once your pup can do these things well, she has to learn to do them at the veterinarian’s office when someone is touching her. Expect her to forget most of what you taught her at home. This is a new environment for which you have not prepared her, so a little loss of memory is expected and normal. Come prepared with your treats and let the veterinarian and technician know what you are doing. Watch out because they might hug you! We don’t get very many dogs that can stand still or lie on their side for exams! They will think they have died and gone to heaven!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Bine / via Shutterstock