When we cross paths with very young dogs, we have a tremendous opportunity to make a positive difference to their physical wellbeing and indeed the course of their whole lives. Conditions like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and medial patella luxation all start developing early, and are massively impacted by the dog’s environment. We can shape home environments by educating owners, and so reduce the chances of these conditions developing – or at least reduce their severity.   

I think that the treatment of juvenile dogs is a niche that is under-appreciated and under-used, in the sense of the many opportunities such encounters present.  When we see a young dog, we have the chance to start building a lifelong relationship with dog and owner, and to have a long-term positive impact on owner, dog, referring vet and our own practice.

Megan and Tanya Grantham chatted about this subject in a recent podcast. These are the points that came up most strongly in their conversation.

The conditions we can impact at a young age

By far the most common condition we can positively impact is hip dysplasia, followed by elbow dysplasia and medial patella luxation. For hip dysplasia, we now know that a diagnosis can be made much earlier than a year of age with PennHIP evaluations. You may have had cases where a young dog was earmarked for surgery for hip dysplasia, but after six rehab treatments had so much improved that the surgeon no longer felt surgery was required. Early interventions can completely change the course of the dog’s life.

When it comes to hip dysplasia, our members’ portal is full of information. Just go to the small animal platform and type in the term in the search bar – you will find informative webinars by Sasha Foster and David Dycus. One of my biggest takeaways from their webinars is that muscular strength impacts the angulation of the joint. Strengthening and functional exercise, therefore, make a massive difference to the stability of the joint, and to the level of pain experienced by the patient.

Elbow dysplasia remains a tricky condition to treat, but early diagnosis will provide additional options in terms of treatment and better long-term outcomes. Being able to work together with a veterinarian and an owner to develop the best surgical intervention and rehabilitation programme can improve long-term outcomes for these patients.

Medial patella ligament luxation remains a tricky and slightly controversial subject. Lower grades of luxation can have a positive outcome when managed conservatively, and surgical interventions are not always successful at improving this condition. It is worth taking an experimental approach with these patients to see if they respond positively to non-surgical interventions before you elect for surgery.

What is feasible for the owner?

When it comes to the lifelong management of an orthopaedic condition, owner cooperation and compliance is key. We really need to play open cards with owners regarding the above three conditions. They need to be thoroughly aware of the paths that lie ahead in managing their pet’s condition. Find out what they can afford in terms of time, financial investment and energy. What risks are they willing to take and what risks are they not willing to take? What options are available if Pathway 1 doesn’t work out as planned? What lifestyle and environmental changes are feasible for them, and what is not? Only once all these aspects have been carefully considered can an owner make a well-informed decision on a route to take, and commit to it.

Reaching puppy owners

This is really the crux of the matter, isn’t it – reaching puppy owners early enough to prevent the above conditions from developing or worsening. How do we target new puppy owners? And how do we encourage vets to refer young dogs to us?

I see four main ways we might target this niche:

  1. Partner with local puppy schools. This is the easiest and most fun way to reach puppy owners. Puppy classes usually run over six weeks. Discuss with convenors whether you could add a short training session to the ‘curriculum’, in which you explain some of the warning signs owners should look for at different ages, and what to do about them. You could share some hind-limb awareness exercises to add an element of fun to the session. If you run a hydrotherapy centre, you might even offer to host the puppy graduation at your practice, having a fun introduction to the pool for their last puppy class.
  2. Reach out to breeders. There are many ways to reach responsible breeders, including through a breeders’ club. Offer a lecture at their next meet, spend time connecting with and getting to know them, and share how you can help ensure that their dogs have the best lives possible. Discuss the conditions their breed is most at risk for. You might even put together an information pack that new puppy owners take home with their puppy, covering the environmental changes to implement to ensure their puppy has a long and healthy life. Responsible breeders can be your absolute best friend!
  3. Increase your vet referrals. Offer CPD lectures to your vets, highlighting the effect you can have when you are able to treat dogs from as young as possible. Highlight the clinical reasoning and treatment options available, and the effects of each treatment. Whenever you treat very young dogs, keep excellent records so that these cases may be presented as case studies in the future, illustrating the success of early intervention.
  4. Niche down in your social media marketing. Young dogs are an incredible niche to focus on. I didn’t think my job could get any better until I considered puppies as a niche! We know that when it comes to social media, vet rehabbers already have a huge advantage because we post gorgeous dog pictures that everyone loves – and even more popular than dogs are puppies. So, if you’re looking to expand your reach into this market, consider narrowing the focus and pouring most of your efforts into reaching owners of puppies. You could enjoy the benefits of a lifelong relationship with dog and owner.

I hope these ideas have given you something to think about. Puppies, just like children, really benefit from early interventions that prevent bad habits from developing. We have here a tremendous opportunity to make a difference. A little thinking outside the box and some shrewd marketing can open a whole new avenue for preventative education and treatment.   

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