It's a natural reaction, for an owner to want to do everything possible for a dog suffering from the pain of hip dysplasia. But can a device such as a dog hip support brace or dog hip dysplasia brace help or might it do harm?
Please note, the following article is my personal opinion. To my knowledge there have been no clinical trials that study the benefits of items such as the dog hip dysplasia brace, and therefore the pros and cons are open to debate and a matter of opinion.
As the name suggests, devices such as a dog hip dysplasia brace is an orthopaedic support designed to apply pressure to the hip joints to press them into place. They are usually made of strong nylon webbing, fastened by commercial grade velcro, and fitted with side-squeeze buckles and stainless steel hardware. Some models also have a pad that fits over the hip joint to apply extra pressure.
The idea is the brace applies external pressure to the hip, pressing the head of the femur (the ball part of the hip) firmly into the receiving socket (the cup part of the pelvis) and stop it rattling around.
According to the manufacturer's of the dog hip support brace, the indications for use include:
Note the "mild to moderate hip dysplasia" as being suitable for a dog hip brace and the omission of "severe hip dysplasia". Why is this?
Hip dysplasia is a term that implies a poorly fitting hip joint. Instead of a smooth ball-and-socket joint, the hip is more like a square peg in a round hole. Each step causes bone to rub against bone, which causes inflammation and pain.
In the early stages of hip dysplasia, the lameness is due to pain. These hips often 'subluxate' or partially pop out of position. Giving these joints some support, may stop them popping out and there is an argument a dog hip dysplasia brace may be of some benefit.
But over time this changes. As the months and years pass, inflammation causes new bone to be laid down, making the hip even more misshapen. This causes a mechanical lameness, where trying to push the hip back into the joint is like trying to push two mis-matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. If pressure is applied to the joint this could cause pain rather than relieve it.
Let's think more deeply about the young dog with early, mild hip dysplasia and the implications of wearing a dog hip brace. Think about how a brace works by putting gentle pressure on the joint, but the knock-on effect is reduces the amount of work the muscles do. When it comes to muscle bulk it's "Use it or lose it", as anyone who has taken a prolonged break from working out can attest.
Muscle wastage matters because the big butt muscles support the hip and are Mother Nature's equivalent of a hip brace. If these are allowed to grow weaker, it seems reasonable to assume the dog becomes more dependent on the dog hip brace and enters a downward spiral of dependency on the brace.
A better option for the young dog with mild hip dysplasia would be to work with a veterinary physiotherapist to develop exercises that strengthen the hip muscles, and to look at other factors that can slow the deterioration of hip dysplasia such as an appropriate diet and controlled exercise.
OK, so a dog hip dysplasia brace may not be helpful, but there are orthopaedic supports that are off benefit.
A dog with severe hip dysplasia has hips that are so stiff that it's difficult to get up from lying down or to use steps or stairs. Indeed, they may even struggle to squat to toilet, which results in them tumbling over. This is where a special harness or sling can be useful.
These slings come in different designs, but the general idea is the same. There are two popular designs:
The owner then holds the handles in such a way as to take some of the dog's weight to help them stand or support the dog as they squat. This can also give the dog confidence to use steps and stairs, free from the fear of falling.
A hip brace for dogs does have its uses.
Subluxating hips are those prone to popping partially in-and-out of joint. This can be due to mild hip dysplasia or to stretching of the ligaments that stabilize the joint. It may be that a young dog will grow out of the problem, in which case a brace may support the growing joint and reduce the risk of damage.
For these dogs it seems sensible to use the brace when the dog is exercising, but try to avoid use in the home (unless advised differently by their vet) to reduce the risk of muscle wastage.
If a dog dislocates a back leg and the vet manages to pop it back in place, the joint remains weak for a while afterwards. This is because the ligament has often snapped, whose job it is to hold the hip in place. The use of a hip brace for dogs may offer some support and hold the hip in place whilst scar tissue forms to anchor it more permanently.
Whilst a hip brace may sound a good idea and they are readily available to buy, always speak to your vet before using one. They may be beneficial to a small number of dogs, but there's a greater potential to cause harm.
For the owner eager to do everything possible for a dog with hip dysplasia, then physiotherapy, surgery, diet, nutraceutical supplements, weight control, and careful exercise are all major factors that can make a real difference and keep those hips in the best shape possible.