“I believe that prevention is the name of the game. It is what medicine should really be about, whether humans or animals are involved.”
–Wendell Belfield, D.V.M.
Diagnosing Hip Dysplasia
Dr. Wendell O. Belfield, DVM, author of How to Have a Healthier Dog, was famous for his work in preventive veterinary medicine. One of the topics that he researched in depth was hip dysplasia in animals.
According to Dr. Belfield, “hip dysplasia can only be diagnosed by X-ray. The degree of severity, that is the joint of separation, is defined through a numbering system from zero to five. Zero means good, flawless hips. Five means the puppy has full on hip dysplasia.”
Hip dysplasia is an affliction of puppyhood marked by the sudden appearance of limping, often several hours after vigorous activity. Lameness in the rear legs, and usually one leg is favored. The dog may be in pain and whimper as it walks. It may drag itself up from the lying position. Appetite and activity often decline (p. 190).
Dr. Belfield writes about knowing breeders who, even before the X-ray was dry would ask the vet to put the dog down. So severe is the stigma around hip dysplasia, that breeders have historically been afraid to let it be known that their dame or their sire had produced dysplasic puppies. It was Dr. Belfield’s professional stance to refuse to euthanize any animal he felt could be helped. He felt most of the animals diagnosed with hip dysplasia can be helped.
Hip Dysplasia: Is It Genetic?
Dr. Gerry Schnelle, a radiologist in Boston, was the first to observe hip dysplasia. He published his findings in 1945 stating he believed the condition was genetic, caused by a recessive gene. Unfortunately, the content of these findings were inconclusive. Dr. Schnelle merely published an opinion that, unfortunately, was not based on evidence. It was from this inconclusive published article that the veterinary field based its processes on for the decades to come.
However, by 1977 Dr. Belfield’s began publishing his work. Based on the documented findings, he did not agree that hip dysplasia was solely the result of genetics. Instead, he concluded, “extra vitamin C, the same vitamin C these animals are supposed to produce themselves in sufficient quantity, stops hip dysplasia.”
He describes how collagen production in the body is dependent on ample amounts of vitamin C, and the hip joints are dependent on quality collagen. While a dog does make some vitamin C in his liver, Dr. Belfield says it is rarely enough for all of the normal stress and the growth a growing puppy goes through in his first two years. Therefore, supplementation of vitamin C is important.
Collagen is the intercellular cement that binds tissues, that makes tendons and ligaments strong and strengthens all other structures in the body. It was Dr. Belfield who first purposed that hip dysplasia is actually a condition related to deficient vitamin C and resultant poor collagen. This was based on extensive trials that will be discussed.
Genetic Theory In Question
In the sixties, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) came into existence. This organization was established to gather data on dysplastic dogs and issue certificates to non-dysplasic animals. According to Dr. Belfield, “it was intended to facilitate selective breeding and eliminate the problem. In an era of general acceptance of the genetic theory, possession of such a certificate greatly enhanced the marketability of a stud and breeding bitch and their offspring.”
The problem? It is not true. There is no guarantee at all. Dr. Belfield explained, “I was never able to find a genetic pattern. I saw males and females certified by OFA produce dysplasic pups and dysplasic parents produce normal offspring. My own experience was telling me that the genetic theory was wrong.” Instead, the data was pointing to dysplasia being an issue of nutrition. This was something veterinarians knew little about at the time.
Results from Vitamin C Trials
For the next several years Dr. Belfield acquired a number of breeders who had dysplasic dogs, and were willing to put them on a vitamin regimen and then breed these dogs. He wanted to test his own theory which was that hip dysplasia was a vitamin C deficiency problem and not a genetic problem. My idea, Dr. Belfield said, “was to fortify the bitch and the newborn puppies with vitamin C. I hoped in this manner to prevent hip dysplasia by building stronger collagen.” Below are some of those stories gathered from the trials.
The first dog in his experiment was a two-year-old female German shepherd with grade three hips according to the Seeing Eye Dog standards. She was bred and put on supplemental vitamin C containing 2,000mg of sodium ascorbate daily. There were no difficulties in pregnancy and whelping was quick and easy (another benefit of vitamin C supplementation according Dr. Belfield). The puppies were also supplemented after they were born and continued, although increasing in the amount, until they were two years of age. This same female was bred three different times giving birth to a total of thirty puppies, none of which developed hip dysplasia (p. 196).
Next were two other dams in which one or both of the parents were dysplasic or had previously produced dysplasic puppies. During a five year period doctor Belfield monitored these females and gave them supplements of vitamin C. During this five year span they had a total of eight litters. Not one of the puppies born to these mothers ever showed any dysplasia as determined by X-ray (p. 197).
The next story is about a breeder who bred tracking German shepherds. She had one particularly beautiful dog with grade 3 hips. She had already bred her twice to two different OFA-certified males and both times half of the litter developed hip dysplasia. The owner of the female was no longer going to breed her. Dr. Belfield talked her into breeding her one more time, but this time supplementing her diet and the puppies’ diet with vitamin C. She was successfully bred and gave birth to eleven healthy puppies. The puppies went to their new homes on a vitamin C protocol with the stipulation they had to keep the puppies on the vitamin C and bring them into Dr. Belfield for X-ray examination between eighteen months to two years of age. They were then examined a second time by a veterinarian at the Seeing-Eye-Dog center who couldn’t believe what he saw. All eleven puppies had perfect hips although the mother had grade 3 hips.
One breeder who raised golden retrievers and had a chronic problem with hip dysplasia in her young dogs decided to put them on a supplementation program in an attempt to stop the hip dysplasia. After several litters she told Dr. Belfield she had not only been able to eliminate the hip dysplasia problem, but now she was getting pups far superior to anything she had been getting before (p. 14).
There’s Hope for Hip Dysplasia
After fifteen years of clinical experience, involving over two thousand cases with supplemental vitamin C, Dr. Belfield concluded, “When given supplements, they [dogs] are much less likely to develop hip dysplasia, spinal myelopathy, ruptured discs, viral diseases, and skin problems. They live healthier and longer.”
Dr. Belfield went even further to clarify the following : “I have come to regard the crippling canine condition known as hip dysplasia as a symbol of chronic subclinical scurvy. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in ample quantity is necessary for the production, formation, and maintenance of collagen…because there is insufficient ascorbic acid, the production of collagen suffers. Weak collagen means weak parts” (p. 54).
He gives credit to the late James Lind, a naval surgeon in the British Royal Navy two hundred years ago who first observed that cadavers of scurvy victims (chronic vitamin C deficiency) had loose ligamints of the joints. “Hip dysplasia is a loose joint problem, ” summarized Dr. Belfield (p. 54).