Orthopedic Problems in Bichons

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

Bichons are relatively free of orthopedic problems with one exception. The major problem is patellar luxation. Others that may be found in lesser numbers are degenerative spinal disk, hip dysplasia, Legg-Calve-Perthes (sometimes misdiagnosed as hip dysplasia) and to some degree, malformations in the front assembly. We do not have adequate numbers on shoulder problems to name that as a major problem but suspect that it may occur. However we do know that elbow dysplasia shows up in a limited number of Bichons, at least 2%. The first step in ruling out these problems is to seek a puppy that comes from a line of Bichons screened for these problems. You will learn more about screening and registration of parents further down in this article.

The patella is the knee of the dog, that point at which the rear leg bends. A detailed article can be found on this site that gives more information about luxation. Luxation refers to the shifting position of the knee due to looseness of the ligaments that hold the knee stable. When the dog is active, he is quite likely to stretch these weakened ligaments to the extent that they tear. Statistically it has been noted that the majority of dogs suffering one torn knee ligament will have a similar event within a year in the other knee! It pays to repair the knees early before a tear occurs and to repair both if they are loose! As stated earlier, this is by far the most frequent orthopedic problem and surgery in Bichons. It is an inherited trait.

If you note that your dog skips when he is walking, has rear legs that seem unstable and has one leg that he favors more than the other, odds are that he has patellar luxation. You need to have him examined specifically for that condition and to seriously consider repair if diagnosed.

A second condition, also covered in another article, is spinal disk degeneration. This is the second most common event for Bichons and is more likely to occur in heavier dogs, a strong reason for watching his weight. The tendency to disk degeneration is considered to be genetic. Because of the specific body type that most often has the disk degeneration, we hope that it is being eliminated by breeding away from the Bichon that is long in body, has short legs and is heavy for his size. They do make wonderful pets but you do a disservice to the breed when you perpetuate that condition by breeding them!

A sign that may alert you to developing degenerative disk would be weakness in the rear of the body, indicating that muscle strength is not sufficient to support his or her rear legs. This happens when there is pressure on nerves connected to those muscles, possibly affecting their performance. Vascular and chemical changes will lead to paralysis if not treated. These signs of an impending problem can occur months earlier and may be ignored by both owner and veterinarian.

Legg-Calve-Perthes is a disease of the hips, sometimes confused with Hip Dysplasia. HD is seen more often in large breed dogs and LCP is a disease primarily of small breeds. They are two separate and distinct conditions. The first sign for either may be lameness. Either can be diagnosed by radiograph.

Legg-Calve-Perthes usually shows up early in life, starting around 4 months in some and almost certainly will be symptomatic by the end of the first year. There is lameness, pain and increasing disability due to poor vascular (blood) supply to the bone. If not treated, the bone will suffer death of the bone cells for lack of blood to nourish tissues.

In milder forms, it can sometimes be treated by total rest (crating full time) and the use of non-steroidal (anti-inflammatory) drugs. If this does not result in improvement, the next option may be surgery. The dog is in pain, chooses not to use the affected leg to bear his weight and soon the muscles begin to waste from lack of exercise. More exercise is NOT the answer as this will only worsen the problem. As the pain worsens, the dog will become completely lame and will be suffering.

It is at this point that surgery must be considered as the ONLY option to improvement. The surgical procedure involves removal of the femoral head, that larger portion at the upper end of the bone where it fits into the hip socket. This removes affected bone and, through the process of healing, a new “false joint” is formed. There will be physical therapy involved and the healing process is not immediate but a young and otherwise healthy dog can have a very good and long life.

Hip Dysplasia occurs when the bony head of the femur does not fit properly in the hip socket, whereas the bone dies in LCP, described above. Hip dysplasia is a developmental problem, considered a genetic inheritance issue, where the hip socket is badly formed. Because the hip is not properly formed, the head of the femur cannot fit snugly in the socket. The two conditions, while similar in causing lameness, are different. Recently the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals separates the two in reports of hip diseases. Again surgery may result in better life for the affected dog but it is important to distinguish between the two problems with proper veterinary examination, diagnosis and treatment.

While it seems to affect fewer Bichons than the problems discussed above, elbow dysplasia has to be addressed in any article on orthopedic issues in Bichons. Lameness is again the first sign the owner may observe. Lameness may just seem to be “a funny way of moving” or it may be an obvious misstep of one or both front legs. It may start early in life, if severe, or later in many dogs. Being overweight will make the condition worse as the front of the dog has to support more weight than it has the ability to carry. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals has this description of what may be observed in the front action:

“Subtle changes in gait may be characterized by excessive inward deviation of the weight on the outside (lateral) aspect of the elbow joint away from the lesions located on the inside of the joint. Range of motion in the elbow is also decreased.”

A more easily understood description would probably be to look for a stiff-legged gait as the dog tries to compensate for limited mobility and to ease his pain. In any case, this is a condition that is complex in that it may be from several congenital problems affecting formation of the front assembly, all of which are probably of genetic origin. Diagnosis is by radiograph and examination.

There are several mentions in this article of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, found at www.offa.org. This is the registry for animals that assigns numbers to dogs, male or female, that have been screened by selected procedures and whose owners have sent proof of screening to the organization. These numbers will appear on the pedigree of ancestors who have passed such screening. It is the appearance of OFA numbers and CERF (eye registry) numbers that will be your proof of healthy ancestry in previous generations. It is the health of these ancestors that will give you confidence that you can expect your own Bichon to have a long, healthy and pain free life. It will then be up to you to maintain that healthy start.

Again we need to stress that the Bichon Frise has much lower incidence of most of these problems than other breeds of dogs but these do exist and must be watched for in any Bichon with signs of lameness or skeletal pain.

Primary sources of information for this article are BFCA statistics and material supplied by the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals. It has been reviewed by Dr. Keller, certified staff radiologist at OFA, for accuracy.