German Shepherd Health Issues
German Shepherd Dogs, as with other breeds, are susceptible to several health problems, some of a genetic nature, others viral. The following is a listing of some of the more common health problems that have been seen in the breed:
- Orthopaedic Problems (Including Hip & Elbow Dysplasia, OCD, and others)
- Heart Disease
- Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)
- von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD)
- Eye Problems
- Additional References/Resources
Hip & Elbow Dysplasia
Canine Hip Dysplasia afflicts millions of dogs each year and can result in debilitating orthopaedic disease of the hip. It is caused when the femoral head does not fit properly in the hip socket, causing instability of the joint. Over time, this malformation can cause degenerative joint disease which causes increased pain and immobility.
Elbow Dysplasia may be due to different growth rates of the three bones making up the elbow. In affected dogs, the joint is lax or loose and, in mildly affected dogs, leads to painful arthritis.Severely affected dogs can develop osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), fragmented medial coronoid processes and united anconeal processes resulting from the stress in the joint.
Through selective breeding strategies, veterinarians and breeders are attempting to eliminate Canine Hip Dysplasia. All breeding dogs should be x-rayed and certified clear by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and/or by the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP).
German Shepherds, as with many large breeds, can suffer from Hip Dysplasia. In addition, German Shepherds also have a particularly high incidence of elbow dysplasia.
Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD)
OCD is a degeneration of bone underlying the cartilage layer of joints. It can affect the shoulder, ankle or elbow joint and almost always shows up during the growth phase — between six to nine months of age — of larger breeds. It may start as an intermittent limp in one leg. Many young dogs with OCD run and play as though nothing is wrong but when they slow down they realize the limb hurts and the limp returns. Contributing factors to OCD include both environmental and genetic factors. Dogs whose parents had OCD are much more likely to also suffer from this disease and physical trauma to the joints may also cause the already weakened cartilage to chip and crack.
(Also known as “long bone disease,” “wandering lameness,” or “pano.”) Most commonly seen between the ages of five to 12 months, and for unknown reasons, is common in the German Shepherd breed. Pano is caused by excessive bone production on the long bones. Normally, a dog affected by this condition will grow out of the problem, but it is painful.
Diet is thought to be a contributing factor in the development of Pano. High protein puppy diets may make the puppy grow too fast and increase the chance of the pup experiencing Pano which is also sometimes described as “growing pains.” Pano can also show up in any leg and may come and go without warning. Puppies usually completely outgrow Pano by the age of 18 months and it rarely goes beyond two years.
Aortic Stenosis is a narrowing of the outflow channel between the left ventricle and the main artery of the body, the aorta. This can occur at the level of the aortic valve (valvular); above the aortic valve, in the aorta (supravalvular); or below the aortic valve, in the ventricle (subvalvular) — this is the most common. The cause of Aortic Stenosis is believed to be genetically inherited. Certain breeds are at a higher risk of developing this condition, including the German Shepherd breed.
Symptoms can vary from no signs at all to sudden death. In most cases, an abnormal sound of the heart (a systolic murmur), detected by stethoscope, is the only finding. This sound is loudest on the left side of the chest at the level of the heart base. Some dogs may show signs of exercise intolerance.
Atrioventricular Valve Dysplasia
This is a congenital abnormality of either the mitral or tricuspid valve which separate the ventricles from the corresponding atrial chambers. Many different anatomical abnormalities can occur and tricuspid dysplasia may also be associated with a defect (hole) in the wall of the septum separating the two atria — called an Atrial Septal Defect.
Affected animals have an abnormal heart sound when listened to with a stethoscope. Signs of Atrioventricular Valve Dysplasia usually occur before the age of one year; however, the signs are not specific to the disease, but rather, typical to right-sided or left-sided heart failure.
The disease is believed to be hereditary and is most frequently seen in large and giant breed dogs including the German Shepherd. The only form of long-term treatment is open heart surgery and replacement of the affected valve.
Pulmonic Stenosis is a congenital narrowing in the region of the pulmonary valve which lies between the right ventricular chamber of the heart and the pulmonary artery. This artery carries deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs and the narrowing impairs normal blood flow into the artery.
Usually, there are no external signs of the disease and it is frequently diagnosed during routine examination of the heart with a stethoscope. However, if blood flow is seriously impaired, signs may be seen including poor exercise tolerance and feinting. Sudden death may also be possible.
Pulmonic stenosis is one of the most frequently recognised congenital cardiac abnormalities in dogs, estimated to occur in 1/1000 puppies. There is, however, some confusion about which dog breeds are most susceptible to the disease.
Most dogs with Pulmonic Stenosis do not require treatment. Those showing clinical signs of heart failure are treated with diuretics. Severely affected dogs can be treated using a relatively new technique called balloon valvuloplasty in which a catheter with a small balloon on the end is guided to the position of the narrowing, and the balloon is then inflated to open the constriction.
Most commonly seen in large breed dogs, including the German Shepherd Dog, and usually seen in young adult male dogs (between the ages of four and six years.)
This condition can be present for a long time with no obvious symptoms. The clinical signs often start suddenly and include typical signs of heart failure, difficulty breathing, a cough, feinting, exercise intolerance, a swollen abdomen, loss of apetite, and weight loss.
Unless a specific underlying cause of Dilated Cardiomyopathy can be determined, treatment can only be symptomatic and is the same as those treatments commonly used to treat heart failure.
This is one of several forms of heart muscle disease which commonly affects cats. Although the condition is rare in dogs, the German Shepherd Dog is cited as being the breed most likely to be afflicted with this disease. The cause is unknown.
Characterised by the gross thickening of the muscle in the walls of the heart which makes the walls stiff and less compliant, resulting in poor filling of the heart chambers with blood during the diastolic phase of contraction, and inadequate output of blood during systole. The clinical signs of this condition are those of heart failure.
Inherited Sudden Cardiac Death
Ventricular arrhythmia is one of the most common cardiac arrhythmias seen in dogs. In most cases there is either a structural abnormality within the heart such as the change in cardiac muscle structure which occurs in cardiomyopathy, or there is a systemic problem affecting the heart’s performance.
The irregular rhythm is usually detected during routine physical examination in young dogs from four to twelve months of age. Most dogs are outwardly normal before they die suddenly and there is usually no history of exercise intolerance or feinting. Death most often occurs between the age of four to eight months, and often during sleep or a resting period after exercise.
In North America, a syndrome of inherited sudden cardiac arrest and death has been reported to occur in German Shepherd Dogs. Genetic inheritance has been confirmed but the precise mechanism has not.
Bloat or Gastric Torsion (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV))
This condition is caused by a twisting of the stomach and thus trapping the stomach contents and gases resulting in a rapid swelling of the abdomen accompanied by pain and eventual death if untreated. It is a true emergency, requiring immediate veterinary action. This condition is most often found in large deep chested breeds. Anyone owning a deep chested breed, susceptible to Bloat should be prepared to handle the emergency procedures necessary, including having readily available the name and phone number of emergency clinics and/or who to call after hours.
Symptoms can be subtle. You should learn to recognize them:
- Continuous pacing and/or lying down in odd places
- Salivating, panting, whining
- Unable to get comfortable
- Acting agitated
- Unproductive vomiting or retching (may produce frothy foamy vomit in small quantities)
- Excessive drooling, usually accompanied by retching noises
- Swelling in abdominal area (may or may not be noticeable)
If ANY combination of these symptoms are noticed, CALL YOUR VET and get the dog there as fast as possible. Bloat is LIFE-THREATENING.
For more information on what you can do in the case of a Bloat emergency, see First Aid for Bloat in the Health & Nutrition section of the Canada’s Guide to Dogs website.
Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)
Although DM has been reported in other large breeds, the disease is relatively frequent in the German Shepherd breed, suggesting that there is a genetic predisposition for German Shepherds in developing DM. The age at onset is 5 to 14 years. DM is caused by an autoimmune disease attacking the nervous systems leading to progressive neural tissue damage. In many ways, DM is similar to what has been discovered about the pathogenesis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in humans. In fact, DM is now known as MS in dogs.
von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD)
vWD is a blood disorder, a deficiency in clotting factor VIII antigen. This substance is called “Von Willebrand’s factor.” Dogs affected by the disease do not effectively utilize their platelets for blood clotting and therefore are more likely to have excessive bleeding episodes upon injury. This is similar to hemophilia in humans.
vWD is a common inherited disorder. Certain breeds, including German Shepherds, have a higher than normal incidence of this disorder.
The main symptom of vWd is excessive bleeding, generally occuring after an injury or surgery. Dog’s with Von Willebrand’s disease may also develop nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums; bleeding in the stomach or intestine may also occur; and some dogs may have blood in their urine. Symptoms similar to those of arthritis may also occur if bleeding is into the joints.
A form of cancer that originates in the endothelium, which is the lining of blood vessels and spleen. These tumors are highly malignant and can be found almost anywhere in the body. The spleen, pericardium and heart are prone to be affected.
These tumors are most common in medium-sized or large breeds of middle aged or older dogs but can occur in any breed, including cross-breeds. German shepherds are reported to be more susceptible to this form of cancer than most dog breeds. The Golden Retriever also seems to have a higher than normal incidence.
Quite often there is little warning of the presence of these tumors before they cause severe clinical signs of the disease. An estimate of the average time from discovery of the tumor until death occurs in affected dogs is six to eight weeks.
The most common initial symptoms include visible bleeding, usually in the form of nosebleeds, and signs associated with blood loss, such as weakness, tiring easily, paleness to the mucous membranes of the mouth and eyes, increased respiratory rates, and abdominal swelling. In some cases, dogs just suddenly die with no clinical signs.
If a tumor in the spleen is found when it is small, it may be possible to remove the spleen or remove tumors found near the heart in order to prolong the dog’s life. However, most often these tumors have spread by the time they are identified. According to published papers, the average survival time in dogs with Hemangiosarcoma is only about three to four months.
Canine Epilepsy is a chronic condition characterized by recurrent seizures. Seizures are the result of muscle responses to an abnormal nerve-signal burst from the brain. The cause can be anything that disrupts normal brain circuitry:
Idiopathic Epilepsy, meaning “no known cause”, also referred to as Primary Epilepsy, is possibly inherited. Secondary Epilepsy can be caused by:
- Low blood sugar,
- low thyroid function,
- infections causing brain damage,
- ingestion of toxins,
- brain tumors, and
Most dogs with Idiopathic Epilepsy suffer their first seizure between the ages of one and five years. A genetic basis for Idiopathic Epilepsy is strongly suspected in several breeds including the German Shepherd.
For complete details on Canine Epilepsy, visit The Epi Guardian Angels — An extensive resource for information, support, treatments and solutions for veterinarians and owners of dogs with Canine Epilepsy.
Cataracts — Like humans, dogs can get cataracts. If the dog is in good health, cataracts can be surgically removed usually with good results.
Distichiasis — Eyelashes that are abnormally located in the eyelid margin which may cause irritation.
Ectropion — Conformational defect resulting in eversion of the eyelids, which may cause ocular irritation due to exposure.
Entropion — Conformational defect where eyelid margin inverts, or rolls inward, toward the eye causing eyelashes and hair to rub against the cornea resulting in ocular irritation.
Macroblepharon — Abnormally large eyelid opening; may lead to secondary conditions associated with corneal exposure.
Persistent Pupillary Membranes (PPM) — Persistent blood vessel remnants in the anterior chamber of the eye which fail to regress normally in the neonatal period.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) — PRA is a family of diseases involving the gradual deterioration of the retina. In the early stages of the disease, an affected dog becomes nightblind and cannot see well in dim lighting. As the disease progresses, daytime vision also fails. Provided that the affected dog’s environment remains constant, an affected dog can adapt quite well to this handicap. As the affected dog’s vision fails, the pupils become increasingly dilated, causing a “shine” to his eyes. The lens of the eyes may also become cloudy, or opaque, resulting in a cataract. It should be noted that while some breeds are affected early in life, others can develop PRA much later.
Retinal Dysplasia — This is an abnormality in the development of the retina. There may be no visual defect in affected dogs, therefore, will only be found when the eye is examined. It is a condition that is thought to be inherited in a number of breeds. The condition may also be acquired as an injury or due to viral infections, toxins and nutritional disorders.
All breeding dogs should be examined annually by a certified veterinary ophthalmologist. Most responsible breeders will register with the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) and receive a CERF number for their dog. If you are adopting a puppy, ensure that the breeder provides you with copies of certifications for both the sire and dam. In addition, you should ask to see a copy of the paperwork that was forwarded to CERF because the form may report on other issues that may not deny the dog a CERF number but could be of interest to you.
- Canine Inherited Disorders Database — German Shepherd Dog Breed
- Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)
- University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP)
- Hemangiosarcoma — Encyclopedia of Canine Veterinary Medical Information
- The Epi Guardian Angels — An extensive resource for information, support, treatments and solutions for veterinarians and owners of dogs with Canine Epilepsy.
Note: This is a partial listing only of some of the health concerns that have been seen in the German Shepherd breed and should not be considered as a complete listing. This section is provided as a source of information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional care. Always consult with your Veterinarian about health related matters.
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