When you collected your pedigree puppy from the breeder, you were most likely not advised about the risk of bone disease and what you can do to prevent it. One of the realities of modern breeds is that many years of consistent selection and inbreeding to create the "perfect specimen" has brought with it the risk of bone conditions such as hip and elbow dysplasia. These are painful and debilitating conditions, which in severe cases may necessitate corrective surgery or even euthanasia. In the article below, you will see some of the common conditions associated with, or developed during, your puppy's first year of growth.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

The image on the left shows a typical picture of hip dysplasia. You can clearly see how the ball of the femur bone doesn't have a decent socket to move in. Instead there is a practically flat surface along which the femur can slip back and forth placing severe strain on the connective tissue (ligaments). This also causes a lot of friction, which erodes the cartilage which covers the joint surfaces in short order and leads to painful arthritis.

Normal canine hipsIn contrast, the x-ray on the right of a normal hip shows what the hip joint should look like.

Similarly, various forms elbow dysplasia are malformation of the elbow joint, resulting in lameness and are extremely painful.


Conditions that are mostly preventable involve posture. Have a look at the image of the Boerboel puppy's front paws. See how it is walking on its pasterns and the toes are way in front, not bearing any weight? The hind leg is also in an unnatural position, probably in an effort to balance its enormous tummy.puppy pasterns

This Boxer puppy displays a correct posture, where it clearly stands on its toes. Note also its correct weight. The transition from chest to loin is clearly visible.puppy toes

The parallel position of the legs on the left is correct. The image on the right depicts clear cow-hocks. Cow-hocks can be an indication of congenital hip dysplasia, which may either be alleviated or aggravated by the pup's nutrition, exercise, and environment. Puppies may go through phases where they display slight cow-hocked legs during growth spurts. This is due to uneven growth in different parts of the body. This is normal and will correct itself as the rest of the body catches up. cow hock

What causes puppies to maintain a bad posture for extended periods of time? There are three major causes:
  1. Existing conditions - if your puppy has an already existing condition, such as congenital hip - or elbow dysplasia, it may cause, or contribute to bad posture. In such cases it is important to ensure that the condition is not aggravated by the factors mentioned below.
  2. Tiled floors or other slippery surfaces - Dogs' feet are not made for slippery surfaces. When confronted with tiled floors, puppies quickly learn that turning their paws outward and dropping onto their pasterns (thereby increasing the contact surface) helps them stay on their feet. Maintaining this posture over prolonged periods can have lasting effects, just as bad posture can have lasting effect on us humans.
  3. Food - A body that's too heavy for the soft, growing legs to carry will have exactly the same effect as a slippery floor. Now it's not a slippery floor, but a body that's threatening to fall over at any minute... The weight of the body may be enough to bend the legs at the growth plates and damage joints and ligaments. This is specifically the case in large breed dogs that grow at extremely fast rates during the first few months of their lives.

Bone Development

To understand these conditions, we need to have a look at how a puppy's bones develop. The following illustration from Wikipedia.org will serve to explain briefly.Bone growth

The left-most image represents embryonic bone, consisting entirely of cartilage. The image on the far right represents teenage bone, where only the Epiphyseal plate (growth plate) and the joint surface consist of cartilage. The images in-between represent the various stages of growing up. What is important to note for our purposes, is:

  1. that the bone grows from the inside out, gradually replacing the cartilage (grey), and
  2. that the bone structure on the ends of the bone is soft and spongy

Why is this important? Let us look at cartilage: Because cartilage is soft and pliable, it adapts to the shocks and pressures it is exposed to. That is a good thing, because it prevents the puppy from getting hurt in its daily rough and tumble activities.

It has however also a down side. If for some reason, it maintains an unhealthy body posture for extended periods of time, bone will start growing in that unnatural/unhealthy posture as it replaces the cartilage. This can lead to badly fitting joints, i.e. dysplasia, malformed bones, badly developed (stretched or shortened) connective tissues (ligaments), and a number of other muscular and skeletal conditions. Too exuberant jumping and shocks to its bones can injure the spongy bone in the joints, again potentially leading to malformed joints.

Preventive Measures

The things you can do to dramatically reduce the risk of developing the above problems are surprisingly simple:

  1. When you have a tiled floor, lay down some rugs or carpet strips along the direct routes between points your puppy visits, such as the bedroom, kitchen, dining room and lounge.
  2. With large breed dogs it is important to carefully manage the intake of high-protein food from about four to five months. High-protein puppy food can contain as much as 30% protein and a high fat content, which may contribute to accelerated growth. To regulate growth in order to reduce pressure on the legs, reduce the protein intake to between 20 and 23%. At lower protein content the growth rate is slowed down to the point where the growth rate of the bones can keep up with the body weight, thus significantly reducing the risk of causing bone damage. At this stage a puppy should be fed two meals per day and correct bodyweight relative to the puppy's size should be carefully monitored. The transition from the last rib to the loin should be obvious, but the ribs shouldn't be visible. Another method to check, which is effective for dogs with thick fur, would be to check that the spine is felt when your hand is run along the puppy's back, but it shouldn't be visible.
  3. You can supplement with fruit, grated carrots, finely chopped leafy veggies, whole raw eggs (the shells are good source of calcium), chicken fat, heads and feet, and raw bone. All in moderation, of course. Bone should always be given raw as raw bone does not splinter and is easily digested. It is best to give best to give joints which have soft bone, in portions that cannot be swallowed whole. Do not give your puppy (or grown dog) your braai bones, cooked chicken or turkey bones, and mutton bones. Mutton bones are generally extremely hard and thus not suitable for your dog. Cooking bone changes the chemical structure of the bone, making the bone splinter rather than crumble, as is the case with raw bone. Fruit and vegetables to be avoided are grapes, onions and garlic, potatoes, veggie of the cabbage family, and all types of beans.
  4. Don’t over exercise. Let the puppy do what its capable of, don’t run it for 1okm because you can.
  5. Don’t pick up its front legs and walk it on its back legs
  6. Always support the back legs when you pick up your puppy
  7. Playing outside with your puppy is very good as exercise combined with sunlight creates good bone density.
  8. Don’t let your puppy play for long periods of time on slippery floors. This puts a lot of stress on the hip and shoulder joints and may cause dysplasia and deformity.
  9. Don’t allow your puppy to become overweight. In saying that don’t allow it to be to thin either. You need to see the shape of the rib cage but you must not be able to see the individual ribs and hips.
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