This post is sad for me to write but I think it’s important to share our story so that hopefully, others can learn from it. We were hoping against all hope that our dogs would never suffer from hip dysplasia but we recently learned that our Riley is not among the shorter list of lucky dogs who are free from this disease. A couple of weeks ago Riley was diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. His condition is bilateral which means it is affecting both hips and currently his left hip is worse than his right. (This is not a photo of our Riley – but it’s very close and probably resembles the way he’ll look as he gets older).
Hip dysplasia is an extremely painful, progressive and crippling disease which can affect any dog, but most often affects larger breeds. It’s not breed-specific, although some breeds are more prone to it than others and as many people know — German Shepherds are well known for having hip dysplasia. Although Riley’s a rescue and we’ll never know his heritage or genetic background, we are very confident in the many comments of people such as German Shepherd breeders, show people and others experienced with the breed that Riley is definitely of show quality German bred descent. Furthermore, we learned that it’s more often the American bred German Shepherds who suffer from hip dysplasia which gave us have high hopes that we’d never have to deal with this in him. On the other hand, we also knew this was not a guarantee that he’d never suffer from it. Hip dysplasia is all over the German Shepherd breed and unfortunately, our Riley has not been spared.
When I started noticing that something didn’t seem “quite right” I never seriously entertained the thought it might be hip dysplasia, but it was hidden in the back of my mind. I would be a very irresponsible German Shepherd Mom to just flat out believe neither of our dogs would ever be afflicted by it.
I thought I started noticing that he seemed to occasionally be a little slow and have a little bit of difficulty getting up from a laying position. Because these incidents were rare and always seemed to happen after an active romping and stomping adventure in the field I just figured he was just a little stiff and sore. Heck, I would be too if I didn’t get a lot of regular physical activity and was suddenly cut loose in a field to run like the wind and wrestle with my sister. Being a bit on the paranoid side, I told myself several times that I was just imagining things. When I mentioned it to my husband he told me he never saw what I saw — so in my mind it was then just my paranoia. Looking back, this may have been nothing more than “truth avoidance” on my part for which I feel tremendously guilty for not taking it more seriously the very first time I thought something was off with him.
Most experienced dog owners know that dogs are experts at hiding pain or illness. About three weeks ago he started a couple of new behaviors that I could not ignore. He stopped wanting to come up the stairs at bed-time. If you know anything about the German Shepherd breed, they do not want to be away from their family. In this same time frame, we visited our field for a much needed and usually very welcome romping and stomping session. Riley would have absolutely nothing to do whatsoever playing with Nissa. He ducked single one of her many play invites and he wouldn’t run — only walk next to me and wouldn’t even venture a few feet away. I knew at that point it was time to go see the vet and when we got home, the first thing I did was to make an appointment.
Having learned that my vet would sedate him for the x-rays I balked and went looking for an alternative. I thought it was ridiculous to sedate a dog simply to x-ray him and I was bound and determined to not have him sedated. However, before the vet visit happened he got a little worse and so when we went our vet told us we could try it without sedation. BIG MISTAKE! Riley is 5 years old and in all that time I have never heard him scream in pain like he did when our vet tried to do the most important x-ray that would best show any problem. Nissa had been put in a room next to us in a pen and Riley’s screams scared her so much that she pee’d in the pen and I was nearly in tears. I called an immediate halt to the x-ray session but he was in quite a bit of pain the remainder of the day. It was now all to obvious why the vet wanted to sedate him in the first place. It’s so they can manipulate the legs and hips to get the best x-rays without causing pain. If I’d have been thinking straight I’d have asked why they would sedate him instead of just balking at the idea. So, that’s another guilt trip on me.
The x-rays our vet was able to get did show what we needed to know, but she did tell me to get a consult with the specialist. She gave us some pain meds and a glucosomine supplement and we went home. A few days later we followed up with the specialist who was able to take new x-rays with no sedation and no pain for Riley. He concurred with our vet”s diagnosis — severe hip dysplasia worse on the left side than the right.
The specialist told us we had three options:
1) Put him on pain meds and supplements and see how it goes. This would entail giving him pain meds for the rest of his life which can cause liver failure. It certainly would not cure him and the disease would only continue to progress eventually crippling him and causing us to have to euthanize him at a much younger age than would be his normal time for him to leave us forever. In our opinion this was not an option.
2) Get him a total hip replacement at the UW vet teaching clinic to the tune of $5,000 to $5,300 per hip! Do the math = $10,000 to $11,000! Why didn’t I get pet insurance?
3) The third option (which actually turns out to be the middle option) is called FHO surgery which is the short version of femoral head arthroplasty, ostectomy or femoral head excision. This surgery involves removing the round “head” of the femer bone that fits into the surrounding cartilage and then allowing (and helping) the scar tissue to form a new connection from the femur to the pelvis.
The vet showed me a plastic model of the hip and pelvis area and how a normal ball-joint is round like a ball and fits smoothly into the socket. Then he showed me how a ball-joint affected by hip dysplasia is all bumpy and prickly looking (really large prickles!). It also showed me how an affected hip does not fit into the socket and explained how every move Riley makes is bone on bone and epainful for him because there is nothing there to cushion it and it doesn’t fit into the socket. It hurts my heart to hear his occasional moans and whimpers when he moves wrong and the pain stabs at him.
Would we like to get him brand new hips? Of course! That would be our very first choice. But we are not rich people and we must think of Nissa as well. Where would we come up with the money for one dog’s total hip replacement surgery let alone two should she ever become afflicted with this? The FHO surgery is less than half the cost of the total hip replacement. We settled on the FHO surgery for Riley and will be having Nissa’s hips x-rayed when I take Riley in for his left hip surgery tomorrow so that we know where she’s at. Hopefully, she will not have this disease and she’s currently not showing any indications at all of pain or discomfort. Our Nissa loves to run and when I take her to the field this girl just goes nuts running with no visible pain afterward.
We’re not totally happy with what we are facing and we are worried. The FHO surgery is known to have better results for smaller dogs weighing less than 40 or 45 pounds. However, the specialist that will be doing the surgery has a lot of experience and has told us that they frequently do this surgery on large dogs. In fact, they’ve done it on dogs that weigh up to 120 lbs and that they do a large number of German Shepherds.
He’s also told us that he’s had German Shepherds he’s performed this surgery on to go on to do well at things like Schuhtzhund and other dogs perfectly able to hunt and participate well in other active sports. This particular clinic does FHO surgery on dogs that come in from all over the country because of their expertise. This doesn’t take away all our worry, but it does give us hope that after Riley fully recovers he’ll be very close to normal and not walk with too much of a limp. He has a very striking proud walk and there is the possibility that his body lines and his walk will be somewhat affected. It’s my understanding that sometimes this surgery shortens the back legs slightly and so he may not have that straight German heritage back-end that he’s got now. We’ll still love him to pieces but we’ll miss this about him if it happens. The object is to relieve his pain and give him as normal a life as we possibly can.
I’ll have my work cut out for me during his recovery because he’ll need some serious physical therapy which I’m hoping the vet will teach me to do for him so that I don’t have to take him to a physical therapist. He’ll have to be kept quiet for several weeks — have you ever tried to get a self-appointed guard dog to remain quiet? Then there’s the fact that the vet’s told me that although he’s not overweight by any means, it will be easier on his hips if he loses about 10 pounds. Keeping a dog lean is very important for this kind of thing. I’m not looking forward to people telling me to go home and feed my dog because he will look too thin at 10 pounds lighter and I really do hate to see ribs on a dog even if they’re not underweight. I really love looking at Riley’s physique – he’s very handsome and has a very attractive figure the way he is. But, because it will be better for him, we’ve already started to cut down on his meal portions slightly. I really hope that someone doesn’t turn me in for animal cruelty once he loses some weight!
I so wish that we’d just had both dog’s hips x-rayed when they were puppies so that we could have taken steps at that point in the right direction. We will do this for any and every dog we may ever have again. We’re going to make it a part of their early check-ups and if the vet says they need to be checked annually or whatever, we will. To my knowledge this condition is genetic and there is no cure but we certainly would have taken whatever steps the vet suggests for caring for them appropriately should hip dysplasia be found in their early years. As I understand it, we would not have been able to prevent the disease but maybe we would have been able to keep it from getting severe enough to require surgery.
If your dog or a dog you know personally has had FHO surgery, we’d really love for you to share your experience with it. Good or bad we want to know how it went, whether it helped your dog or not, and how is your dog now? Would you do it again or not? If you have any good links to websites on FHO surgery, please post them for us.
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