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Preventing Future Bone and Joint Problems in Your Puppy

Written by FOTP Team


puppy jumping through mud

Bringing home a new family member is an exciting time, especially when they’re the four legged, bouncy and fluffy kind! There’s lots to consider, from puppy proofing the house, to buying all the essential (and probably a few not so essential) items. However, protecting your puppy’s skeleton from an early age to prevent future problems is perhaps something that you haven’t considered. 

Several common orthopaedic conditions in dogs such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and limb deformities are ‘developmental orthopaedic conditions’ meaning that they develop during growth. Other than being hereditary in cause, controllable management factors during growth such as diet and exercise are considered to affect their onset.  

Ultimately, growth sets the stage for later in life. Bone growth occurs at soft cartilage found at the end of long bones, such as the femur (or thigh bone) called growth plates (or more technically termed epiphyseal plates). They consist of several specific growth cells, allowing the formation of bones until the animal is skeletally mature. Once your dog is ‘skeletally mature’, growth plates ossify (harden into solid bone) and growth ceases. For most dogs, growth plates are closed at 12 months of age. However, in large or giant breeds, they remain open until 18- 20 months of age.

Before your puppy reaches maturity, growth plates are incredibly fragile and susceptible to injury. At this stage, something as simple as repetitive movements, jumping from a chair or a seemingly inconspicuous fall can spell disaster in the form of a growth plate injury. In many cases minor growth plate injuries heal well. However, damage to growth plates result in the abnormal functioning of associated growth cells, slowing down bone growth or even the premature closure of the affected growth plate. This may result in uneven limb growth or limb deformities such as bowed legs. Eventually, abnormal weight bearing, and gait abnormalities will affect the nearby joints, at which point the risk of osteoarthritis (if not already present) is extremely high. 

Growth rate is also important. Growth that occurs too fast results in larger, but less dense bones with reduced resistance to loading. Rapid growth can create abnormal stress on developing bones and joints resulting in non-typical bone remodelling. Aiming for a steady rate of growth is optimal, resulting in a healthier skeletal system and an overall happier dog! 

Sounds scary right? Luckily, through carefully managing the exercise and diet of your puppy, the risk of these complications can be drastically reduced.  

With seemingly boundless amounts of energy, it can sometimes seem like they just can’t get enough exercise. However, limits to exercise for puppies must be applied, as too much risks harm by increasing the probability of growth plate injuries. 

By no means should you be preventing your puppy from doing exercise. This would not only be detrimental to their mental development, but also their physical development. After all, skeletal tissues are living and respond to the forces applied to them. Correct types and amounts of exercise aid the strengthening of these tissues, keeps joints supple and reduces the risk of obesity.

Clearly, exercising your puppy is like a balancing act. The amount of exercise will vary between breed and dog, but a good rule of thumb (and backed by the Kennel Club) is that puppies should receive five minutes of exercise, twice per day, for every month of age. So, a 3-month-old puppy should receive no more than 15 minutes of exercise, twice daily. 

All exercise should be of minimal impact. Gentle walking is ideal, allowing plenty of time for sniffing and exploration of the environment. High impact activities should be limited, including, jumping (from sofas and stairs count too), games that include sharp turns (such as fetch) and tugging games should be very gentle (as the spine is just as delicate as limbs!). Puppies are also great at self- limiting their own activity, often with short bursts of energy, so ensure that your puppy has plenty of opportunity to play under their own steam.  

If you have an active puppy, the five-minute rule may sound too… little. It’s important to understand dogs and puppies can be exercised in more ways than just physically. Mental stimulation can be just as tiring. Examples include, 

  • Basic training 
  • Slow feeders and puzzles
  • Scent trails 

What you feed your puppy can directly impact growth rate, body weight and the risk of associated orthopaedic conditions. Research shows that developmental skeletal problems can be connected to mistakes in feeding at an early age, with key nutritional factors including energy and calcium being identified as important. 

Feeding Mistakes to Avoid: 

  • Not feeding for age: Puppy’s dietary needs change throughout growth and differ from adult dogs. Feeding your puppy food that is specifically formulated to meet their nutritional needs based on their age means that you can be sure that they are receiving all the nutrients and minerals that they need for healthy development!

  • Feeding more than the recommended amount: Although puppies require more energy than their adult counterparts, too much energy results in rapid growth. Rapid growth is not compatible with healthy skeletal development, leading to reduced bone density and abnormal bone remodelling. The additional increased body mass further places strain on the body. By feeding the recommended amount, you can be sure that your puppy is receiving the right amount of energy for their size, breed and age. 

  • Feeding extra calcium: Calcium is often associated with healthy bone growth and development. However, puppies have insufficient mechanisms to regulate calcium absorption from the intestinal tract, therefore your puppy’s diet should be comprised of no more than 1.1-1.5% calcium. Excess calcium intake can alter normal, healthy skeletal development. Additionally, excess calcium can bind to other nutrients such as iron, copper and zinc, limiting their absorption, leading to nutrient deficiencies.

A healthy, pain free life for your dog starts from puppyhood. Being proactive is always best and by carefully considering the exercise and diet of your puppy you can give them the best start in life. If you have any concerns about the health of your pup it is always best to consult your veterinarian- after all, that’s what they’re there for!