Physical Therapy for Hip Dysplasia: Tips and Techniques

Can physical therapy help your dog with hip dysplasia?

Physical Therapy for Hip Dysplasia: Tips and Techniques

What is hip dysplasia?

Lots of people think hip dysplasia is a tight, sore, arthritic hip.  However, it is really a hip that is too loose and lacks stability.

The hip consists of

  • a ball-and-socket joint formed by the head of the femur (ball) and
  • the acetabulum of the pelvis (socket)

These two hip structures are designed for movement. In a healthy hip, their shapes match each other perfectly with the socked surrounding the ball.

The dog walks on four limbs with the hip in a flexed starting position (as opposed to human beings who walk upright with the hip in a straight starting position), producing a large arc of movement during gait. It’s very important that the ball and socket make even contact to achieve the quality of movement the dog needs to walk comfortably.

Hip dysplasia a skeletal disease where the hip socket (acetabulum) is shallow and abnormally formed.

The lack of contact between the socket and the femoral head leads to further changes in shape.

This gets worse as the dog develops, the hip becoming loose and lax usually by age 2. 

Without early diagnosis and care, the continual wear and tear on the hip lead to arthritis and bone spurs.

Physical Therapy for Hip Dysplasia - What’s a Dawg Mama to Do?
JD getting hydrotherapy with Cookie for moral support

So to be clear, arthritis doesn’t cause hip dysplasia, but hip dysplasia can definitely cause arthritis!

What causes hip dysplasia?

What causes hip dysplasia to occur? It is a genetic disease having traits which are inherited, being passed to offspring through reproductive cells. 

This condition commonly affects large breeds with rapid growth and weight gain early in the development such as

  • German Shepherds
  • Labs, Rottweilers
  • and St Bernards

Signs of hip dysplasia

Dogs will show rear limb lameness during running, jumping, climbing, with a bunny-hopping gait. You might also hear a popping or clicking sound. The gait strides will be short and choppy, with the rear end waddling from side to side.  Dogs may pace instead of the normal left-right gait and have trouble negotiating turns and stairs.

Hip dysplasia diagnosis

Hip dysplasia is diagnosed by a physical exam and radiographs.

Testing methods exist from OFA and PennHip with documentation and registry of the disease, especially within the breeding industry.

How can hip dysplasia can be treated?

The first step is to learn about the various surgical options.

These include

  • triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO),
  • total hip replacement (THR)
  • dorsal acetabular rim arthroplasty (Darthroplasty)
  • and the femoral head osteotomy (FHO)

Next, have a good discussion with your vet, asking their recommendation on which method is best.

Always get a second opinion if you feel the need and consider seeing a board-certified veterinary orthopedic surgeon.

Surgery, followed by a recovery period and then physical therapy and rehabilitation, can yield wonderful results for your dog.

Conservative management

The reasons against surgery can be

  • financial constraints
  • medical issues which make anesthesia risky
  • immunosuppressive diseases that could invite sepsis or widespread infection, etc.

In these cases, it is essential to use conservative measures to help your dog such as:

Cold Laser

Cold laser treatment delivers bundles of light which decrease pain and reduce inflammation.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

Adhesive surface electrodes are placed around and on the hip, and gentle current is applied, to reduce pain.  A dog’s coat may need to be shaved to ensure good skin contact for the electrodes.

Targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy

Through a pad or loop, this treatment delivers a soothing wave frequency which reduces inflammation. 

An example of this is Assisi Loop. You can acquire it through your vet or therapist, and treat your dog at home, in 15-minute doses.

Moist Heat

To apply moist heat you can use

  • commercial hot packs
  • wraps, and sacks filled with gel, silicon, and sand

You can heat them by hot water immersion or microwave ovens. Before applying them over the hip, first place padding (such as a towel) to prevent burns.

Moist heat, as opposed to dry forms of heat, penetrates deeper.

Consult the vet or PT for specifics and precautions.


Massage increases blood flow to relax tight sore musculature around the hip.  Position the dog on its side (dysplasia side up), with a rolled towel or pillow placed between the thighs.  Stroking and kneading techniques will work best, gently, for 5-10 minute durations.

Range of Motion

Range of motion of the hip with manual joint compressions can be very effective. Only an animal physical therapist or a rehab-trained veterinarian can administer this treatment.

Therapeutic exercise

Therapeutic exercise includes

  • standing weight shifting and rocking front to back and side to side, using wobble or balance boards, weaving around cones
  • supported standing over a physio-roll

These exercises usually need a physical therapist but you can learn how to do some of them at home.

Regular, controlled leash walks, using a chest harness remains the gold standard.

For dogs who have greater difficulty walking, consider supporting with

  • a belly sling
  • 2-handled chest, and pelvic harnesses (such as the “Help Em Up” and ‘Walkabout”) harness
  • gait assists such as “Biko brace”
  • wheeled carts.

Swimming, standing in water and underwater treadmills offer a unique exercise medium, taking the pressure off sore painful hips.

Related articles:
Hip Dysplasia in Puppies: Top 10 Prevention and Management Recommendations

Further reading:
Physical Rehabilitation for Hip Dysplasia and Osteoarthritis

Share your thoughts