Bichon Leg Problems

By Catherine Troiano

If the snowy white powder puff appearance and bouncy, playful and cheerful disposition of the bichon frise has captivated your attention, be sure to have a conversation with your veterinarian and your chosen breeder about the potential health problems that can affect the breed. Like other small breeds, the bichon is especially prone to developing periodontal disease. He is also prone to skin infections, ear infections and bladder stones. Some genetic orthopedic conditions that affect the bichon's legs are of particular concern, as they can severely compromise the little dog's mobility.

Patellar Luxation

Patellar luxation, commonly referred to as trick knees, affects many small breeds and is common in the bichon. The kneecap, which is called the patella, normally glides along a natural groove in the femur bone at the knee joint. In a dog who has patellar luxation, the kneecap pops in and out of this groove. Patellar luxation can affect one or both knees. Dogs who have patellar luxation are at increased risk for developing early onset arthritis in the joint and for suffering painful cruciate ligament tears. Depending on the severity of the skeletal deformity that results in this condition, any of the following signs may be present:

  • When the patella pops out of the groove, the dog may hold up the affected leg.

  • The dog may appear to skip when he walks.

  • The dog's leg may tremble.
  • In rare instances, the dog may emit a quick yelp at the instant when the patella pops out of the groove.
  • The dog may take on a bow-legged stance.

Upon your bichon puppy's first examination with your veterinarian, the doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination that includes palpating the knee joints. A veterinarian usually can determine the presence of patellar luxation through this manual examination. In more severe cases, additional diagnostic testing may be needed, such as radiographs that must be taken while the dog is under sedation. The extent of the condition is identified as one of four stages of severity. At that point, a board-certified veterinary orthopedic surgeon can determine the most effective course of treatment, which may include surgical correction of the affected joint.

Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease

The exact cause of this painful condition is unknown, but it is an inherited disease. The condition primarily affects the femur, which is the long bone that runs from the dog's knee joint to his hip joint. Legg-Calve-Perthes disease presents as a disruption of blood flow to the affected dog's femoral head, resulting in the deterioration and dying off of the femur bone and its surrounding cartilage tissue. Consequently, the structural integrity of the dog's hip joint also deteriorates until it collapses and the dog can no longer bear weight on that hip. Early signs of Legg-Calve-Perthes disease usually occur in young dogs within their first year of life. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Lameness or limping on one or both hind legs.

  • Exercise reluctance.

  • Weakness and muscle wasting in the rear legs.
  • Irritability that presents with pain.
  • Cracking and snapping sounds that can be heard from the hip joint when the dog moves.

If your veterinarian suspects Legg-Calve-Perthes disease in your bichon based on age, breed and physical examination findings, radiographs of the hips will confirm the diagnosis. The most effective treatment plan to restore your bichon's mobility and comfort level can range from strict cage rest, physical therapy, pain management and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to surgical correction of the affected hip joint. With proper post-operative care and rehabilitation, the long-term prognosis for dogs who are treated surgically for Legg-Calve-Perthes disease is excellent.

Hip Dysplasia

Although often thought of as a large breed's health problem, hip dysplasia actually affects smaller dogs as well. Hip dysplasia is a degenerative condition in which the femoral head, which is round in shape, does not sit properly in the pelvic bone socket. The result is a decreased range of motion and body support. Over time, the affected hip suffers degenerative joint disease, or arthritis. One or both hips may be affected. Many dogs do not exhibit pain from this condition, but some signs of hip dysplasia that typically present include:

  • Awkward gait, such as bunny hopping or wobbliness, in the rear legs.

  • Difficulty ascending stairs.

  • Difficulty lowering to and rising from a sitting or lying position.

If you suspect that your bichon may have hip dysplasia, your veterinarian will be able to confirm a diagnosis once radiographs of the dog's hip joints are taken. Because the hip joints must be placed in an unnatural position in order to achieve radiographs of diagnostic quality, your dog will need to be anesthetized for the procedure. Once the radiographs have been evaluated, your bichon's hip dysplasia will be identified as one of seven grades of severity. The mildest cases of hip dysplasia may be managed with pain medications, weight control, joint nutrient supplementation and hydrotherapy. In more severe cases, one of three orthopedic surgical procedures may be recommended.

Degenerative Disk Disease

This debilitating condition tends to strike dogs who have long bodies and short legs, such as dachshunds and Pekingese. However, some bichon specimens exhibit this body type and can be afflicted. When the spinal column has to support the full length of the dog's body weight, the pads that sit between the spinal disks are strained and bulge, placing pressure on the spinal cord. This can result in paralysis, but other signs of degenerative disk disease may include:

  • Inactivity and exercise reluctance.

  • Weakness and trembling in the rear legs.

  • Unusual posture, such as extending the neck or arching the back.
  • Yelping in pain when shifting positions, when you lift the dog or when you run your hand along his spine.
  • Diminished coordination.

If you observe any of these warning signs, do not wait for paralysis to set in. Bring your bichon to your veterinarian as soon as possible for an evaluation. If the doctor suspects degenerative disk disease, a diagnostic imaging test called a myelogram likely will be recommended for confirmation. There are five stages of severity for degenerative disk disease. Conservative treatment options for a dog who is not yet paralyzed may include pain management, physical therapy and acupuncture, but a surgical procedure in which pressure is relieved off of the spinal cord offers the most favorable prognosis.

If you are considering the addition of a bichon frise to your household, you likely will be visiting a respected breeder to meet with their current available litter of puppies. Asking the breeder about the health of the litter's parents is advisable to obtain proof that they did not breed a dog that has any of the aforementioned problems. This will help to ensure a healthy puppy that will become a happy and playful companion for your family.