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German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) consistently make the list of the world's most popular dogs, year after year. Known for their fierce loyalty and intelligence, this large-breed dog is strong and sturdy. Most of the time.
Years of in-breeding have resulted in a number of health issues that can make life difficult and painful for German Shepherds.
If you're considering getting a GSD or you already have one, here are 13 common German Shepherd health problems you should be aware of.
To be clear, not all German Shepherds will develop some or any of these conditions, but they are, as a breed, more prone to them.
Several of the most common health problems in German Shepherds are joint related.
Because most of these issues are congenital, you should only buy a puppy from an ethical breeder that screens for these diseases before breeding. (Or, use a rescue organization that will know about and prepare you for any health issues before you take your new GDS home.)
Hip dysplasia is a condition that causes a puppy's hips to form in such a way that the ball of one or both joints doesn't fit properly into the socket. The condition can be painful and, if left untreated, can cause severe arthritis and mobility issues later in life.
According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), out of 131,943 German Shepherds evaluated for hip dysplasia, 20.6% were found to have the disease.
That's one out of every five GSDs, making it the leading health problem in German Shepherds.
Several environmental factors can influence the severity of hip dysplasia, the OFA says, including caloric intake and weight, and level of exercise.
Anti-inflammatory supplements (like Veterinary Formula Clinical Care's Ultimate Joint Health once-a-day chew) can help, but German Shepherds with hip dysplasia usually require regular veterinary care.
Similar to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia is a congenital disease passed down from a parent to its offspring. Elbow dysplasia can take on several forms, but in all cases, it causes pain and lameness in the dog's elbow joints and will worsen over the dog's lifetime.
And, like hip dysplasia, it's one of the most common health problems in German Shepherds. According to the OFA, of 54,596 German Shepherds evaluated, 18.8% presented with elbow dysplasia.
A bit like the canine version of Lou Gehrig's Disease, degenerative myelopathy affects the spinal cord and results in progressive hind limb weakness and paralysis. Once the disease presents (usually between the ages of 8 and 14), it takes roughly six months to a year for a dog to lose all use of his back legs.
An inherited condition, it differs from dysplasia in that it's not painful.
Not quite as common as hip and elbow dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy is, nevertheless, one of the more common health problems with German Shepherds. Of 12,883 German Shepherds evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, 14.1% were found to have the disease.
Osteochondritis dissecans is a condition in which diseased cartilage separates from the underlying bone. In GSDs, it most commonly affects the shoulder, but can also affect the elbow, hip, and knee.
The cause of the disease is not known, but it does occur most commonly in rapidly growing dog breeds, like the German Shepherd. Onset is usually between 6 and 9 months of age and surgery is almost always required to fix the problem.
Panosteitis is a painful inflammation of one or more of the long bones in a dog's leg. It is often referred to as growing pains as it occurs in the puppies of breeds that grow quickly, and is quite common in German Shepherds.
The condition can affect puppies anywhere between the ages of 2 and 18 months. And it often occurs in more than one leg at a time, or jumps from one leg to another and back again. Though it is painful at the time, panosteitis resolves on its own once the puppy nears 2 years of age.
An anti-inflammatory supplement might help ease the pain, but depending on the severity of the flare-up, a prescription drug may be necessary to control the pain.
A few immune system related diseases also top the list of German Shepherd health issues, namely allergies and cancer.
German Shepherds get allergies. A lot. Particularly when it comes to flea bites and food-based sensitivities.
For most German Shepherds, their allergies will present as canine atopic dermatitis – or itchy skin. Dry, flaky skin, hair loss, sores and bacterial skin infections are not uncommon.
If you have a German Shepherd pay attention to your dog's face, ears, paws, sides, hind end, legs and stomach. These are the most common locations for an allergic reaction to manifest on a GSD.
(Learn more about common dog skin problems all dog owners should watch out for.)
Cancer can affect any dog, but some cancers affect certain breeds more than others. In German Shepherds, there are three cancers you want to be aware of.
This aggressive form of cancer is caused by the overgrowth of cells that line the blood vessels of various tissues in the body. It's most commonly found in the spleen, but can grow in other areas of the body. Hemangiosarcoma is most common in medium- and large-sized dogs, with German Shepherds among the breeds most at risk for developing it. The prognosis for dogs who develop hemangiosarcoma isn't great.
This bone cancer tends to affect large and giant breeds, and is particularly prevalent in dog breeds which see rapid growth in puppies, like the German Shepherd. Research indicates the cancer most commonly develops "at or near the site of growth plates."
And, in German Shepherds most commonly occurs in the hips, elbows, and knees. With treatment, dogs that develop osteosarcoma will live one to three years after treatment.
German Shepherds, particularly those 10 and older, are believed to be at a "somewhat elevated risk" of developing oral melanomas. Unlike skin melanomas, the oral variation of these cancers is not necessarily tied to sun exposure.
While German Shepherds are known for being strong and muscular, they're also known for having a weak gastrointestinal system.
Any dog with a deep, narrow chest is at risk for bloat. Along with hip and elbow dysplasia, bloat is one of the most common health problems in German Shepherds.
Bloating is when the stomach twists and fills with gas, cutting off blood supply to the stomach and sometimes the spleen. It requires immediate intervention and can be fatal with some studies estimating about 30% of dogs that develop bloat will die or have to be euthanized.
And, it doesn't take long. Death can occur in as little as 30 to 60 minutes if left untreated.
Bloat in German Shepherds can occur at any age, but according to a presentation given at the Tuft's Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference in 2003, the risk of developing bloat goes up 20% each year after the age of 5 for large breed dogs.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency is a degenerative disease of the pancreas that results in severe malnutrition. Affected dogs do not create the chemicals needed to digest and absorb nutrients from the food they eat. Basically, dogs with EPI starve (to death if not treated), even though they're eating.
According to the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of EPI cases studied in a 2003 report were in German Shepherds. In dog breeds that are prone to EPI, like GSDs, onset for the disease typically occurs before 2 years of age.
Treatment for EPI is lifelong and must be determined by a veterinarian. However, the addition of probiotics to the diet of a dog with EPI can help reduce the overgrowth of bad bacteria (and the resulting diarrhea) that can be caused by EPI.
Cataracts in German Shepherds is largely an inherited condition and can present in puppies as young as 8 weeks old and in adult dogs up until about age 4.
Older German Shepherds may develop age-related cataracts as well, but this is common for all dog breeds and not just German Shepherds.
You'll sometimes find hemophilia on the list of common German Shepherd health problems, but, in fact, it's a bleeding disorder called Von Willebrand's disease that is most likely to affect the breed. Most German Shepherds with the disorder have the milder Type 1 version, which can cause spontaneous or excessive bleeding but rarely results in death.