Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

Published May 28, 2024
A Shih Tzu runs through the woods.

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What Is Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs?

Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs is an orthopedic condition that primarily affects young pups—typically those less than 1 year old—while they are still growing.

The head of the femur—the long bone in a dog’s hind leg that connects to the hip—loses blood supply, which causes bone death and significant joint changes.

This may include a flattened femur, thickening of the cartilage around the joint, and ultimately osteoarthritis.

These changes are permanent and can’t be cured. This condition is very painful for dogs and results in movement issues, such as limping.

Usually only one hind leg is affected, but it can affect both legs in some dogs.

Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs is most common in small and miniature breeds—such as Yorkshire Terriers and Shih Tzu—although the disease is rare overall. Males and females are equally likely to be affected.

This condition is not necessarily a medical emergency, but since it causes significant pain and discomfort for dogs who have it, early treatment is very important.

Symptoms of Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

Symptoms of Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs include the following:

  • Lameness

  • Joint pain

  • Stiffness when walking

  • Reduced range of motion in hips

  • Muscle atrophy (wasting away)

  • Popping joint sounds

  • Shorter affected leg

Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease usually causes symptoms that get worse over several weeks. Lameness rarely occurs suddenly.

Causes of Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

The cause of Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs is currently unknown.

It’s thought that there may be an immune-mediated or genetic factor. Trauma or certain hormones may increase the risk of this disease, but more research is needed.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

A veterinarian begins with a thorough physical exam, including feeling the dog’s joints, checking range of motion, and watching the dog walk. When the veterinarian collects a history, the pet parent should mention when symptoms started and if their dog has had any recent trauma or injury.

If the veterinarian suspects a joint issue, an X-ray will be taken of the affected limb. This is a relatively quick test where radiation is used to create detailed pictures of the leg bones. Some dogs may need sedation to help them stay still and calm for radiographs.

If a dog has Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, the X-ray will show changes to the top of the femur that sits in the hip joint, such as deformed areas, breaks, or osteoarthritis. The patella (kneecap) may also be positioned abnormally.

Treatment of Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

In mild cases of Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs, pups will be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as Metacam®, and will have an exercise restriction for two months.

Dogs should be prevented from running, jumping, or bearing any weight on the affected leg. Pet parents may need to use a sling to help the dog walk for potty breaks.

Pet parents should be aware that the disease may get more severe and later need surgery if starting with  oral medications.  

Surgery may be needed to fix the affected leg, especially in severe cases. A type of surgery called a femoral head and neck ostectomy can be done to remove the diseased part of the femur so that it is no longer part of the hip joint. The hip joint can be described as a ball and socket, and this surgery removes the ball (head of the femur) while leaving the socket (part of the hip).

This surgery is typically done only for small-breed dogs. It’s not generally done for overweight dogs, as the extra weight puts unwanted stress on this unstable joint during recovery. A total hip replacement would be a better choice for large-breed or overweight dogs since the entire joint is replaced, providing more stability.

After surgery, physical therapy is needed to make sure scar tissue forms well enough to stabilize the joint, and that the dog’s mobility returns.

Recovery and Management of Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

Recovery is a slow process as scar tissue must form to stabilize the hip joint. This can take two to three months.

It’s important that pet parents bring their dog to all follow-up appointments, including physical therapy sessions, to make sure the joint is healing well.

If surgery was done, a recovery collar should be used to keep your dog from chewing at the incision (cut). Pet parents should follow their veterinarian’s instructions closely to make sure their dog is comfortable during recovery.

Pet parents should not allow their dog to run or jump during recovery. A short leash should be used for potty breaks, and dogs should not be allowed to play with other pets while they recover.

The outlook for most dogs is generally good following treatment.

However, it’s common for dogs to develop osteoarthritis in the affected limb.

For this reason, many dogs need long-term medications to control pain and inflammation (swelling). Options may include Previcox®, Metacam®, Rimadyl®, or gabapentin. Dogs with osteoarthritis benefit from orthopedic dog beds to cushion their joints as well.

Prevention of Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease in Dogs

Unfortunately, this Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease in dogs is not preventable because the exact cause is unknown.

Pet parents should mention any walking or movement abnormalities, such as limping or stiffness, to the veterinarian promptly for the right diagnosis and treatment.

If the disease does happen, early intervention will lower its severity and promote a better outcome for the affected dog. 

Brittany Kleszynski, DVM


Brittany Kleszynski, DVM


Dr. Brittany Kleszynski is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer who specializes in creating meaningful content that engages readers...

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