Health Issues Common In The German Shepherd Breed
The German Shepherd is a fit and healthy dog that boasts of a lifespan of 9 – 12 years, which is great for a large breed dog.
However, there are a number of hereditary conditions, as well as other health concerns that are prevalent in the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) breed, for which you need to be well aware of, especially if you are looking to purchase a dog from a breeder or adopt one from a rescue or shelter.
Below are a number of the most common health problems that can be prevalent in German Shepherd breed that are worth knowing, so you are well prepared when choosing to add a GSD to your family.
This is probably the number one most common health issue seen in German Shepherds. Hip dysplasia is an abnormal formation of the hip socket.
In its most severe form, it can result in lameness, as well as, severe arthritis of the hip joints. Hip dysplasia is a genetic trait that can be affected by several environmental factors.
It is normally caused by a femur that fails to fit properly into the pelvic socket. It can also be the result of poorly developed muscles in a dog’s pelvic area.
Large breed dogs including German Shepherds are more susceptible to hip dysplasia.
Some of its common symptoms include moderate lameness which may suddenly worsen, an uncoordinated gait, and or notable weakness in the rear limbs. The dog may also whimper due to the arthritis pain particularly when getting up from lying down, or going up and down stairs.
Depending on the severity of the hip dysplasia, surgery may be required correct the hips in order to prevent severe arthritis and lameness in the dog as it gets older.
This is a condition that involves multiple developmental abnormalities of a dog’s elbow-joint.
Most abnormalities are related to the disease of the joint cartilage, which is also referred to as osteochondrosis, which is the most common cause of this condition.
The signs consist of varying degrees of lameness in the front legs that worsens with normal exercise. Typically, the elbow is held outward from the chest and may appear swollen.
Depending on the severity of this condition, surgery may be required for the overall health and quality of life for the dog.
Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV) (a.k.a. Bloat)
This condition is typically referred to as Bloat. It is a rapidly progressing and life threatening condition seen in large deep chested dogs including German Shepherds. It is fatal if not treated immediately.
The condition is caused when gas swells the stomach causing it to “twist” and cut off blood flow to the stomach and other organs, which if untreated can kill a dog in under an hour.
There are many things thought to cause this condition, but a few most veterinarians agree on are;
- Dogs eating only one large meal per day (they should eat 2 – 3 smaller meals daily)
- Exercise within an hour before or after eating
- A dog that eats too quickly can cause them to gulp down air which contributes to bloat
- Stress can contribute to a dog bloating
Some of the signs of bloat are, unsuccessful attempts to vomit, a bloated abdomen, heavy salivating or drooling or mucus from the mouth, restlessness, pacing, excessive drinking and immediately vomiting it back up, etc.
Again this is a life threatening emergency that will require emergency surgery to correct, for if left untreated it is always fatal.
Additionally, dogs that have bloated are much more susceptible to bloating again, so if your dog does bloat be sure to have vet do a prophylactic gastropexy during the emergency surgery while correcting the bloat. What that means is suturing the stomach to the body wall to prevent the stomach from twisting again in the future.
This is a disease of the spinal cord and it is most prevalent in older dogs. It is an auto-immune disease that is very similar to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and Multiple Sclerosis in humans. It is also hereditary condition.
Recent research has identified a gene by the name superoxide dismutase 1 protein (SOD1) as a major risk factor for developing this condition. It largely affects the back legs and also causes muscle loss and lack of coordination. The affected dog will start wobbling when walking, drag its feet or knuckle over.
Most dogs with this condition will require a wheelchair or cart as the disease progresses. A wheelchair will allow the dog to remain mobile and continue a good quality of life.
Luckily there is a test that is available to see if your German Shepherd carries the gene. Here is the link if you are interested in ordering a Degenerative Myelopathy DNA test.
This is a type of joint disorder that normally involves one joint or more. Most dogs at some point in their lives will suffer from arthritis. The severity will depend on the dog and its health issues, life style, etc.
There are various forms of arthritis that affects dogs and humans as well. The most common causes of arthritis include inflammation in the joint or joints, age and infection. A German Shepherd dog with arthritis will sometimes limp while walking and exhibit discomfort, irritability and exclamation of pain.
There are a few treatments that will help your dog with its arthritis pain. One thing that often helps is Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements. These can be purchased over the counter from a pet store or from your veterinarian.
If the pain is a little more severe you will want to speak to your vet about prescription medications. Rimadyl is known to help significantly with inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.
Von Willebrand’s disease
Von Willebrand’s disease is a hereditary condition that can affect the German Shepherd Dogs as well as other breeds. It is very similar to hemophilia in humans. It makes it difficult for the dog’s blood to clot.
Its symptoms include prolonged or excessive bleeding when a dog is subjected to injuries, surgery, or when its nails are clipped. Other symptoms to watch for are easily bruising, spontaneous bleeding such as nosebleeds, blood in the feces or urine, bleeding gums, or bleeding from the vagina.
Treatment that may be required when blood loss occurs may include a blood transfusion or plasma transfusion.
Also known as Pano, is a common bone disease in growing young dogs which is characterized by bone remodeling and proliferation. It is commonly referred to as “growing pains.”
It is normally prevalent in large breeds of dogs, and male German Shepherds are more susceptible to panosteitis than their female counterparts. Dogs suffering from this condition normally exhibit lameness and pain in the limbs that often comes and goes.
Pano can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, and usually only occurs in dogs under 18 months of age when they are going through the large growth spurts while transitioning from a puppy to young adult dog.
There is currently no treatment for Pano other than pain management. There are many prescription pain relievers that your vet can prescribe to help with the pain.
Additionally there really isn’t much that can be done to prevent Pano. The only option may be feeding your large breed puppy, adult dog food instead of puppy food to help slow the dog’s growth. However, always discuss this with your vet prior to feeding your puppy, adult pet food.
Also known as the chronic superficial keratitis, pannus is a condition that affects a dog’s cornea. It normally affects middle-aged German Shepherds. This hereditary condition normally develops as the dog continues to age.
Some of the common signs of this condition include an appearance of an elevated pink mass on the cornea and swollen eyelids. If the dog isn’t treated early, then it risks losing its sight.
There are many treatments available depending on the severity, from simply daily eye drops to eye surgery, however there is no cure. This is a progressive disease that may eventually result in blindness even with treatment. To find out all the potential treatments, contact your veterinarian for their recommendations.
Cataracts are an eye condition that results from formation of an opacity in a dog’s eye lens causing the dog to have a blurry vision. Cataracts can be caused by old age, trauma to the eye, as well as inherited conditions.
The main symptom of cataracts are cloudy eyes. Older dogs alongside those with diabetes are more susceptible to cataracts.
There are a couple of different treatments to help with cataracts. One is nutritional supplements and antioxidants. The other is cataract surgery.
It is a disease of the cartilages and it can affect various joints in a dog. It largely affects large or giant dogs though it can affect small dogs at times.
It affects shoulders, knees or hocks although the shoulders are most commonly affected. The symptoms of osteochondritis dissecans are largely lameness in the affected leg or limb. Several factors such as trauma to the joint, rapid growth, genetics, nutrition, and hormone imbalances are linked with this condition.
Treatment for this condition is typically surgery, however if caught early enough there are some medications that may help stop further cartilage damage and degeneration.
This is the progressive disease of the heart muscle which is normally characterized by an enlarged heart that doesn’t function properly.
Dogs with cardiomyopathy have an enlarged upper and lower chambers of the heart, although one side is more severely affected compared to the other. It is one of the main causes of congestive heart failure in dogs.
Its causes are largely unknown, though nutritional deficiencies of carnitine or taurine have been linked with this condition. Some dogs are genetically susceptible to this disease, while male breeds are at a greater risk of this disease than their female counterparts.
Symptoms of cardiomyopathy include shortness of breath, abdominal distension, transient loss of consciousness, exercise intolerance, excess panting or coughing. Any of these symptoms require immediate veterinary care.
There are many different medication treatments depending on the type of cardiomyopathy and the severity of the disease, so treatments are personalized to your pet’s individual needs. However, there is no cure for the disease.
Hyperparathyroidism is a condition whereby a tumor located in the parathyroid gland leads to the secretion of parathyroid hormone in excess, hence increasing blood calcium levels by triggering the re-absorption of calcium from the bones.
Once the excess parathyroid hormone circulates in the blood, the dog starts exhibiting symptoms such as vomiting, increased thirst and urination, sluggishness and lack of appetite.
Its two main causes are a tumor in the parathyroid glands, or malnutrition. Treatments vary depending on the cause. If it is caused from a tumor in the parathyroid gland, then surgery is usually required with follow up medication as well as a potential specialized diet to manage the condition.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a syndrome that is characterized by a deficiency or lack of exocrine pancreatic enzymes and the ability to produce insulin, which makes it impossible for the dog to digest food properly.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is hereditary in German Shepherds. It occurs when pancreatic acinar atrophy (PAA) – which are the enzymes that aid the digestion of fats starch and proteins- fail to function properly.
Some of the common symptoms of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency include digestive problems such as diarrhea, weight loss despite normal or increased appetite, and coprophagia (a condition in which a dog eats its own poop.)
The treatment is a powdered enzyme that is mixed with your pet’s food. This enzyme will need to be given to your dog for the rest of its life.
This is an invasive type of cancer that occurs primarily in dogs. Hemangiosarcoma is a sarcoma that arises from the blood vessels’ lining. It is an incurable type of cancer that once detected is usually very aggressive.
Some of the common symptoms of hemangiosarcoma include weight loss, lack of appetite, lethargy, heart arrhythmias, and unfortunately sudden death.
Although the real cause of hemangiosarcoma has not yet been identified, it is believed that certain breeds of dogs are more susceptible to this condition than others, with German Shepherds being top among them.
The treatment currently available is surgery to remove the affected organ, and chemotherapy. However the typical lifespan of a German Shepherd once detected is anywhere from 90 – 180 days with surgery and chemotherapy.
I unfortunately have personal experience with this horrible cancer. My German Shepherd Vegas had this despicable disease. To read about my personal experience with her diagnosis –> Vegas’s Hemangiosarcoma Diagnosis or to read about the day she passed away –> Broken Hearted.
Osteosarcoma is the most common form of bone cancer that is found in dogs. It is extremely aggressive and has the potential to spread into other parts of a dog’s body.
Its symptoms are subtle and they can range from swelling, joint or bone pain to lameness. Typically by the time any symptoms show up the cancer has already spread and so the diagnosis for the dog at that point is very poor.
Currently, it is not known what causes this particular type of cancer.
The available treatment is amputation in the limbs where cancer is found, and then chemotherapy. With amputation and chemotherapy average survival rates are up to one year.
Also known as the cancer of the lymphocytes, lymphosarcoma is the third most common cancer in dogs. It normally affects dogs aged between 6-9 years although dogs of all ages can be affected as well. German Shepherds are among the breeds that are highly susceptible to lymphosarcoma.
The cause or causes of lymphosarcoma are yet to be identified. Some of the common symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, weakness, weight loss and loss of appetite, increase in drinking, and increase in frequency of urination.
The treatment options include chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants. Dogs can potentially achieve remission with both, with remission lasting on average up to two years.
Please remember that every breed of dog will have issues they are more prone to and unfortunately much of that is due to the irresponsible breeding that has happened throughout the many years since the breed first became popular.
Once the breed gained in popularity the demand for the German Shepherd exploded. To meet the demand good breeding practices became less commonplace. As backyard breeders and puppy mills became more prominent the breed developed health issues that were passed down through the generations.
I am very much an advocate of rescuing dogs by adopting GSD’s from shelters, and rescues, etc. However if you are determined to purchase a puppy be sure to only purchase from a reputable breeder.
Here is a great checklist from the ASPCA on how to determine if you have found a reputable breeder –> ASPCA Breeder Checklist.
I hope this article has helped arm you with the knowledge regarding the common health problems in German Shepherds.
With this knowledge I hope you are better prepared should you decide to add a German Shepherd Dog to your family, or if you already are lucky enough to have one or more as part of your current family.