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Hip Dysplasia

Hip Dysplasia in English Setters

Hip dysplasia (HD) is the most well known of the common health problems in English Setters. HD is a problem in all types of English Setters, and is particularly prevalent in field lines.

We received an unwelcome early education into the effects of HD. Our first Ryman-Type setter, a male born in 1986, was mildly dysplastic. He ran hard and showed no sign of trouble for several years, but by the time he was 6 years old the disease had progressed enough that he could only tolerate very short hunts. He made it to age 14, but only through heavy use of pain medications and he did not have the quality of life he deserved. His career in the field ended way too soon.

Seeing what hip dysplasia can do to a great dog helped us realize that hips needed to be a major focus as we began planning our breeding program. At that time there were only a small handful of breeders who were trying to do anything at all about hips in field English Setters, and it was difficult to find any lines that were a good risk. Since then there has been progress on hips, particularly in some of the Ryman-Types, but not enough.

Progress has been slower than it could be, in part because too many breeders, including both large kennels and occasional breeders, still aren’t even screening. Improvements have also been limited because breeders who do screen rarely approach selection in the most effective way.

Another major problem is misinformation about HD and environment that serves to muddy the water and divert attention away from the real issue- that hip dysplasia is caused by a dog’s genes.

The more knowledge puppy buyers have, the better their chances of avoiding the experience we went through with our male. On this page we will touch on the main issues slowing progress, and also on what buyers can do to help reduce the incidence of the disease. We invite the reader to take some time to read about our hip program, which gives a much more comprehensive view of how to reduce HD.

Why Progress Isn’t Faster

Using currently available screening methods it is impossible to eliminate HD entirely, but by selecting breeding dogs using well known genetic principles it can be reduced to a low level. Among breeders who are making an effort to reduce HD, we see two major stumbling blocks that are limiting the progress being made, both of which are due to a lack of understanding of genetics.

#1- The majority of breeders focus on the individual dog’s OFA rating and ignore the hip status of the dog’s close relatives which is actually a better indicator of the genes the dog is carrying.
#2- Breeders fall for myths about environmental causes of the disease.

Correct Way To Select Breeding Dogs

The correct approach to controlling a polygenic trait like HD has been standard procedure among livestock breeders for many years, but is largely ignored by dog breeders. Livestock breeders know that the key to evaluating a potential breeding animal is to use selection methods that incorporate comprehensive data on the animal’s relatives- offspring, siblings, parents, etc. Dog breeders rely too heavily on the individual dog, particularly when considering traits like hips, and they rarely take advantage of the selection methods that have been proven effective in the livestock industry. The OFA has recommendations for breeders that follow this type of selection process:

  1. Breed normals to normals.
  2. Breed normals with normal ancestry.
  3. Breed normals from litters (brothers/sisters) with a low incidence of HD.
  4. Select dogs that have a record of producing a higher percentage of normals than the breed average.
  5. Choose replacement dogs that exceed the breed average.

You must know the hip status of a dog’s close relatives to have any idea what the real genetic picture is. For instance, an OFA certified dog that has several dysplastic siblings and/or dysplastic parents or grandparents is almost certain to produce a high rate of dysplasia in it’s offspring. When this happens breeders tend to proclaim the OFA method doesn’t work, when in reality the problem is their own ignorance of basic genetic principles. If they understood those principles, as outlined in the OFA’s recommendations, they would have expected the poor results.

Breeders who only follow recommendation #1 may lower their incidence of HD, but progress will be slow, and they could easily go backward. We have found that improvement can be much quicker if the other recommendations are also followed, particularly #3.

By learning which litters are strong for normal hips, and picking our breeding dogs from them, we have been able to dramatically lower the level of dysplasia we produce. Since 2002 378 pups out of our litters have been submitted to the OFA (as of 10/1/23), for either preliminary evaluations or final certifications, with less than 3% dysplastic, which is better than we once thought possible. The bottom line is that this approach works, and it has worked for every breeder we know of who has tried a similar program.

October Setters Hip Program
An in depth look at our selection process to reduce hip dysplasia.

The OFA Breeder’s Guide article has an outstanding illustration of how knowledge about a dog’s close relatives is critical in determining whether it is a good breeding prospect.

Environment and Nutrition

Breeders often use environment as a rationale for poor choices, like continuing to breed dogs that consistently produce dysplasia. Usually the supposed environmental culprit is either nutrition or exercise during growth. Most of these breeders genuinely believe some cases of HD are caused by the environment.

It is known that environment influences the expression of dysplasia genes, but exactly how is poorly understood. However, no studies to date have been able to show that environment can cause HD in dogs that are not genetically predisposed to it. It’s worth saying this again- if a dog does NOT carry the genes for HD, it will NOT be dysplastic.

Heritability- We often hear people say that HD is genetic only a certain percentage of the time, and the rest of the time the cause is environmental. The root of this belief is probably a misunderstanding of “heritability estimates”.

Heritability estimates are complex and difficult to understand. The very short version is that through statistical analysis, heritability estimates help predict the breeding value of an animal in regards to a specific trait. Heritability estimates are expressed as a number between 0 and 1.0 (0 to 100%). People tend to misinterpret these values as representing the percentage of the time a trait is inherited, which is not even close to correct.

There is really only one thing breeders need to understand about heritability estimates. The higher the heritability estimate is, the more effective selection for or against it will be. HD has a moderate heritability estimate in most studies, which means rapid progress can be made, but only if all of the OFA’s breeding recommendations are incorporated in the selection process.

The OFA’s publication Monograph: The Use of Health Databases and Selective Breeding is a good starting place for studying the genetics of HD. A simplified explanation of heritability estimates begins on page 8.

We also wrote a more in-depth article about heritability for
Hips and Dysplasia and Heritability, Oh My!

Nutrition- A popular myth is that hip dysplasia can be caused by improper nutrition during a puppy’s growth, or even prevented by feeding a certain way. Over the years a number of studies have pursued nutritional causes for hip dysplasia. Some of the earliest pointed to various factors related to nutrition that might cause HD, but those conclusions have since been proven wrong.

So far the only thing shown is that over-feeding a genetically predisposed puppy during its rapid growth phase may promote more severe and earlier dysplasia. Feeding the same puppy less food may delay the onset and promote a milder case of the disease. So caloric intake may influence the onset and/or severity of the disease, but it does not cause the disease.

The study that sparked the most excitement over nutrition was done by Richard D. Kealy, et al. 48 Labrador Retriever puppies from litters expected to produce high rates of HD were separated into two groups, one that was free fed, and one that was restricted to 75% of what the free fed pups ate. The initial results, which spawned numerous enthusiastic articles in the sporting magazines, seemed to show that the restricted group had lower rates of HD. However, the dogs were followed through their entire lives, and in the end what the study really showed is that restricting diet throughout life delayed the onset and reduced the severity of the arthritis that HD causes. Unfortunately the later results did not get the press the early ones did.

Some breeders illogically believe Kealy’s study proved that nutrition is the actual cause of HD, or that you can prevent dysplasia simply by under-feeding puppies. Remember, these Labs were from litters that were at high genetic risk for HD. Even if you could prevent all signs of HD in some dogs like these, restricting calories would only be hiding the genes the dogs carry. This would be a positive thing for the individual dog, but a poor strategy for a breeder to adopt.

Focusing on environment is a distraction which is counterproductive to making progress. Environment has been studied to death and there is nothing there. It is way past time for the focus to be where it should be- breeding dogs that aren’t genetically predisposed to HD. Then there is no need to be concerned with environment.

What Buyers Can Do To Help

First, at a minimum don’t buy a puppy unless the parents have OFA evaluations. Because most dysplastic dogs don’t show any visible symptoms of the disease until middle age or later it is easy for breeders to ignore- unless nobody will buy a puppy from them. Any breeder who says that hip dysplasia is not a problem in English Setters or that he has never had any trouble with it either hasn’t x-rayed enough dogs to know, or is not being honest. We highly recommend verifying information you are given from breeders (including us) with the OFA.

If a dog has an OFA certification you can confirm it with the OFA by phone or through their web site. Unfortunately the OFA does not make all preliminary results available to the public, so you will have to ask to see a copy from the breeder. Buyers can have a strong influence in reducing HD by insisting on purchasing dogs only from those breeders who follow the OFA recommendations. The best place to research this is the OFA web site, which has extensive information about every dog in the open database, including available data on ancestors, siblings, and offspring.

Another very powerful thing owners can do is have their dog evaluated by the OFA whether or not they plan to breed. It is especially important to submit the x-rays of dysplastic dogs and make sure they are in the open database so the results are available to the public. This is the single most effective step buyers can take to force breeders to address the hip problem in setters. We submit all of our dogs to the open/public database and encourage our customers to do the same.

If you have ever owned a dog that was diagnosed as dysplastic by the OFA you can retroactively have that dog moved to the public database by filling out the OFA’s Semi-open to Open Database form: OFA Applications  Before January 2000 abnormal results were never released to the public, which made it difficult to find out about problems unless breeders were willing to tell you about them. Since then the open database has been optional. We strongly recommend moving all dysplastic dogs into the open database so anyone researching the lines can get a more accurate picture of their hip strength.

Don’t believe it when someone tells you that the way you feed a puppy or other environmental influences will cause hip dysplasia. The only recommendations we make to our buyers are to use a high quality puppy food, and don’t let the puppies get fat or run them too hard (which are both bad for them on several fronts). We have no idea how many people actually follow our recommendations, yet we have been able to reduce HD. It’s all in the genes.

You can see a list of our OFA certified dogs using the OFA website’s Advanced Search. Enter October in the “Registered name/Kennel name” box, choose English Setter as the “Breed name”, and then click  the “Begin Search” button.

October Setters