5 Common German Shepherd Health Concerns

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A tan German Shepherd lays down in green grass

Dr. Erica Irish author of 5 Common German Shepherd Health Concerns

German Shepherds dogs (GSDs) are one of the most popular dog breeds around the world. They are intelligent, loyal, and eager to please. German Shepherds are excellent working dogs and serve various roles in our communities, from service animals to canine cops.

When considering a German Shepherd for your family, it is important to be aware of certain medical predispositions. Not every GSD will develop these problems, but knowing about them in advance can make it easier to identify the signs early!


Hip and elbow dysplasia

Dysplasia refers to the abnormal development of a certain part of the body. In German Shepherds, it is possible to develop abnormal hip and elbow joints, or hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, respectively. Because these are genetic issues, GSDs with confirmed orthopedic problems should not be bred.

The hip joint is comprised of a ball-and-socket joint on each side. The socket oracetabulum usually covers about 50% or more of the ball orfemoral head. When the acetabulum is too shallow and/or the femoral head is rough and thickened, this is usually because of hip dysplasia.

Mild cases may not show any signs of pain and can be managed with joint supplements plus oral pain medications. Severe cases may require surgical intervention, and there are some surgical procedures that can be performed in young puppies with hip dysplasia for better results once they’ve matured.

Elbow dysplasia refers to a problem with the elbow joint where part of the bone does not fuse at the time of growth plate closure (united anconeal process) or where a small fragment breaks away (fragmented medial coronoid process). As a result, it becomes painful when walking on the affected joint. This is even worse for overweight dogs because 60% of body weight is distributed on the forelimbs. Like with hip dysplasia, surgical intervention is necessary for moderate to severe cases.


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Epilepsy

Seizures are the sudden onset of electrical disturbances in the brain that lead to convulsions. They can occur in dogs for several different reasons. Low blood sugar, liver disease, toxin ingestion, and cancer are all causes.

Epilepsy is a condition where dogs develop seizures for unknown reasons. On average, epileptic seizures can start anywhere from one to six years of age.

Epilepsy can present as a focal seizure or a generalized seizure. With focal seizures, only one body part is typically affected. These are seizures like “fly-biting” or “star-gazing”. Generalized seizures affect the entire body, and some can be quite violent. Dogs may stumble and fall over, paddle their legs, and chew or drool excessively.

Diagnostics are important to help rule out an underlying cause for the seizures. If there is no obvious evidence, epilepsy is the most likely diagnosis. Dogs experiencing more than one seizure a month or dogs who experience cluster seizures may need to take oral anti-seizure medications long term.


Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency  

EPI is a disease of the pancreas that affects a dog’s ability to digest fat, proteins, and carbohydrates. The pancreas is responsible for the production of enzymes to help digest these nutrients. In dogs with EPI, they are unable to produce these enzymes, leading to poor nutrient absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. 

GSDs with this illness end up being very thin as they gradually lose weight. They might also have pale, fatty stools which are known assteatorrhea. Treatment involves feeding a low-fat diet long term and involves life-long supplementation of pancreatic enzymes to assist with digestion.


Pannus

Pannus is an autoimmune condition that affects the eyes. It starts out as pink tissue that stretches across the surface of thecornea, or the clear part in the front of the eye. The tissue eventually thickens and becomes inflamed, resulting in a pigmented or scarred cornea, and mucoid discharge may also be visible.

If treatment is not instituted as soon as possible, your dog may lose his eyesight. Eye tests are performed to rule out other ocular conditions, and a combination of topical steroid and immune-modulating medications like ophthalmic cyclosporine can help. Since pannus can be caused by UV-ray damage, GSDs who work outside should have their eyes protected by wearing Doggles.


Degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a spinal cord disease that gradually worsens over time, starting with the hind limbs and then moving up towards the forelimbs. It primarily affects middle-aged to older dogs, and German Shepherds are one of the most common breeds affected. Researchers are still unsure of the exact cause but have isolated a genetic mutation that seems to be a big risk factor.

When a dog cannot feel his hindlimbs, he may start to knuckle his paws under, and he is unable to bear weight on his hind paws because he does not haveconscious proprioception. He may also appear uncoordinated orataxic when he walks. It may look like he is painful at first, and it can be easy to confuse DM with hip dysplasia. Therefore, testing is necessary to rule out other underlying conditions.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dogs with degenerative myelopathy. Some studies discuss the benefits of using special medications like acetylcysteine and aminocaproic acid while steroids and vitamin supplements might also help. GSDs with degenerative myelopathy will eventually become wheelchair-bound and need assistance going to the bathroom.


Gastric Dilatation Volvulus

Gastric dilatation-volvulus isn’t quite a genetic condition, but it is definitely worth mentioning when discussing German Shepherds. GDV is a type of illness that rapidly becomes a surgical emergency. Deep-chested breeds like the German Shepherd are more prone to developing it.

This is when the stomach becomes greatly distended or bloated due to lots of air, fluid, or food. The stomach can then flip backward on itself which occludes the openings on both ends. Thisvolvulus part of bloat is extremely dangerous because toxins build up in the wall of the stomach, causingnecrosis of the stomach wall and possible rupture of the stomach.

GDV patients will have difficulty breathing and appear extremely painful or uncomfortable, and owners may notice a large or distended abdomen. GDV is an immediate surgical emergency, and failure to intervene right away will increase the chances that a patient will not survive.

A preventive procedure known as agastropexy can be performed to tack the stomach to the abdominal wall so that the stomach cannot flip if bloat ever occurs.

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German Shepherd dogs can help their humans with companionship and important life tasks, so it is important for us to help them when they are sick. Knowing the signs of various illnesses can help you quickly intervene, especially in cases like GDV where time is a critical factor.

When purchasing a German Shepherd, make sure to look for a reputable breeder who can ensure that many of the most common genetic diseases affecting German Shepherds have been eliminated from their breeding stock.


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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish author of Can German Shepherds Be Service Dogs?

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine