A Terrier's Holistic Recovery from Hip Surgery

canine canine injury dogs Aug 03, 2019

When Natalie was told that her three-year-old dog needed hip surgery, she was devastated. She wondered if her little terrier mix, Zoey, would ever be able to run, play and chase squirrels after femoral head ostectomy (FHO) surgery[1].

After being assured by her veterinarian and other experts that small dogs do especially well with this hip surgery, Natalie began to breathe easier. Everyone she consulted told Natalie that her canine companion would be running around again in no time!

After more than three months post-surgery, the terrier still wouldn’t use her leg.

But that was not the case with Zoey. While many vets say that dogs should be weight bearing two to three weeks after FHO surgery, Zoey was still not standing on her leg after three months!

Worse, the dog’s leg was stiff and her muscles were atrophied. Natalie, an experienced physical therapist, did rehabilitation exercises with her dog. She also took Zoey to swim therapy (canine hydrotherapy), which was very helpful in exercising Zoey’s repaired hip. But no matter what approach was tried, the little terrier still wouldn’t use her leg on land.

This was troubling. For one thing, Zoey was dangerously stressing her opposite leg and back. In addition, weight-bearing activities that build muscle are critical to the success of FHO surgery. Since there is no longer a true hip joint, the muscles around the hip needed to be strengthened so that they could support Zoey’s femur. For the little tan terrier to live a healthy, active life, she needed to start using that leg!              

Could Debono Moves be the key to the dog’s recovery?            

As time marched on, Natalie was becoming increasingly frustrated and stressed over her little dog’s inability to recover. Then fate intervened.

Three months after Zoey’s FHO surgery, I was in Los Angeles giving a presentation on how my signature approach, Debono Moves, helps humans and dogs move more easily despite injury, surgery, arthritis, anxiety and aging. Natalie happened to be in the audience. She contacted me after my presentation and I suggested that she check out my book, Grow Young with Your Dog.

Shortly after Natalie did Connected Breathing with Zoey, the little terrier began using her leg.

One of the first exercises that I teach people is how to use their breath and attention to connect deeply with their dog. I call this exercise Connected Breathing. This simple, yet powerful technique not only relaxes human and dog, but it can build an amazing bond.

Shortly after Natalie did Connected Breathing with Zoey, the little terrier began using and trusting her leg. After that exciting accomplishment, Natalie progressed to more of the hands-on techniques and exercises from my book to further improve her dog’s body awareness and movement.

Now that Zoey was using her leg, Natalie could take her for longer walks and incorporate other muscle-strengthening activities into her life. In no time at all, the little tan dog was running and playing normally. She even started chasing squirrels again!

To keep her dog happy and healthy, Natalie continues to do my hands-on techniques and exercises, especially when Zoey has had a very active day. Natalie enjoys the stress-reducing benefits that the exercises have on her too.

All that is wonderful news, but it may have left you with some questions. For example:  How in the world did a calming, breathing exercise help Zoey use her leg?  Please let me explain…

After a major injury or surgery, the body often goes into a fearful, protective state

When a major injury, surgery or emotional trauma is experienced, the individual may go into a fearful, protective state. The characteristics of this state include movement limitations, stiffness, discomfort, anxiety, guarding and holding onto harmful movements or inappropriate behaviors. A dog in a fearful-protective state may exhibit one or more of these attributes.


For a full recovery, dogs need to be in a confident, connected state

For a full recovery, dogs need to be in a confident, connected state. Dogs in a confident-connected state are usually receptive to exploring and learning new things. They are comfortable, curious and connected with others.  


The dog’s nervous system was still dealing with the trauma of the hip surgery

Three months after her FHO surgery, Zoey was still stuck in a fearful-protective state. It’s important to point out that the little terrier continued to be friendly and charming during this time. Other than not wanting to stand on her leg, she didn’t appear fearful or protective. But below the surface, Zoey’s nervous system was still dealing with the trauma of the hip surgery. This prevented her from gaining the confidence to use her repaired leg.


Health is achieved by gently guiding our dogs into a confident-connected state 

For Zoey to fully recover, Natalie first needed to “reset” or calm her dog’s nervous system. And Connected Breathing was an effective, pleasurable way to do that.

Calming the terrier’s nervous system allowed her to move from a fearful-protective state to a confident-connected state. This change can affect a dog’s physiology and behavior in a myriad of positive ways.

Calming the nervous system sets the stage for improvement to occur. The dog breathes easier. Anxiety dissipates. The dog realizes that it’s possible to feel differently. The vicious cycle has been interrupted.    

Once she was in a confident-connected state, Zoey’s brain registered that her leg could support weight. She started using her leg almost immediately.     

Zoey’s journey to full recovery is a wonderful example of how canine health is not achieved by treating parts of a body, but by gently guiding our dogs into a confident-connected state. In other words, a holistic recovery.  

Click here to watch a video of Zoey happily digging, spinning and playing after her recovery from FHO surgery. It’s nice to see her having so much fun!


[1] This procedure is also referred to as femoral head osteotomy. 


What is Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO) Surgery?

To understand FHO surgery, it’s helpful to know the parts of the hip. The hip joint is a ball-and-socket joint. The ball part is the head of the dog’s thigh bone (femur). The ball sits on a stem, which is called the neck. The ball fits into the hip socket (acetabulum), which is a concave portion of the dog’s pelvis.


In a FHO, the surgeon removes the “ball” and “stem” parts of the ball-and-socket hip joint.

In a FHO, the surgeon removes the head and neck of the dog’s femur (thigh bone). In other words, the “ball” and “stem” parts of this ball-and-socket joint are taken off. With these parts gone, the dog’s thigh bone no longer touches the hip socket. This can eliminate the pain that was caused by the bones of the hip joint abnormally contacting each other. For dogs with chronically aching hips, a FHO can give them a chance at a pain-free life.       


Many dogs, especially small ones, recover well from FHO surgery.   

Although this orthopedic surgery sounds alarming, it’s amazing how dogs can adapt to this radical change in their hip joints. During the healing process, the dog’s body will produce scar tissue which creates a “false joint.” In addition, the dog’s hindquarter muscles help hold the hip in place. Building strength in the repaired leg is vital for a full return to function. Fortunately, many dogs, especially small ones, recover well from FHO surgery.     


FHO is usually recommended when a dog’s hip cannot be repaired by any other means. 

Femoral head ostectomy is used in cases of painful hip dysplasia and arthritis, as well as dislocated (luxated) and traumatized hips. Dogs diagnosed with Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease may also be candidates for FHO surgery. Simply put, FHO is usually recommended when a dog’s hip cannot be repaired by any other means.