Hip screening system offers at-risk dogs a better chance

Dr. Gail Smith says science will eventually prove PennHIP advocates right.

Dr. Gail Smith says science will eventually prove PennHIP advocates right.

After developing an effective new way to screen dogs for hip dysplasia in 1983, Dr. Gail Smith figured his colleagues in the veterinary world would accept what he believed was obvious: His method worked.

Instead, Smith and his followers have for the past decade been forced to make the case that their screening method is, in fact, the best way to determine whether a dog is at risk for hip dysplasia. And, more than 20 years after his discovery, Smith is still working to sell an idea he believes should be selling itself.

“It’s just a matter of waiting for people to understand the science,” said Smith, who established the Penn Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP) in 1993, a decade after developing his screening technique. “You can’t ram this down people’s throats.”

The screening method Smith created—now known as the PennHIP method—uses three different X-ray views to accurately predict whether a dog is at high risk for developing Canine Hip Dysplasia (CHD). CHD affects up to 50 percent of all dogs in certain breeds, especially large breeds like German Shepherds, and can lead to hip pain, stiffness and diminished quality of life.

Despite years of effort, breeders have been unable to eradicate the condition. But with the use of PennHIP screening, they at least have a better chance.

Given diagnoses from a PennHIP-trained veterinarian, a breeder will know which of his dogs are most prone to the disease, and can then attempt to breed the defect out of his stock. Meanwhile, individual dog owners can take steps to prevent CHD from taking hold in their dog—Smith’s research has already proven, for instance, that keeping dogs thin can significantly reduce the onset of CHD symptoms in at-risk dogs.

Still, despite the fact that scientific evidence has proven the PennHIP screening method to be more accurate than the standard X-ray method—endorsed by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)—the OFA method remains more prominent.

“We’ve had a tough time,” Smith says. “For 20 years, we’ve been trying to get into a position of opening eyes to the idea that this method is better.”

While the PennHIP network now includes about 1,500 vets worldwide, more widespread acceptance still has not been achieved. The PennHIP method is used on about 8,000 dogs a year, while the OFA method is used about 45,000 times.

To change that, PennHIP participants are compiling a database of information to back up their claims. They also, Smith says, are continually publishing new research.

Eventually, he says, the scientific evidence will prove what he’s been saying for the past 20 years.

“The science will pull us through,” Smith says. “It will happen eventually. It just may have to wait a generation.”

For more information on PennHIP, go to www.pennhip.org.

Originally published on November 18, 2004