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The German Shepherd is an intelligent beautiful breed of dog, but they can suffer from a very long list of health problems.
It is critical that you become familiar with some of the most common German Shepherd health issues so you can effectively treat them and give your dog a healthy and happy life.
Historically they were bred for working roles such as herding, guarding, and for police and military work.
Later their increased popularity as guard dogs resulted in a call for them, to be bred bigger and bolder.
Cosmetic alterations have also further changed the breed, in some cases becoming more and more extreme.
Unfortunately, all these transformations have interfered with the health and function of the German Shepherd
Making them prone to problems and disorders.
In fact, many GSD health issues are more prevalent in them, than in any other breed.
Most are genetic and will affect GSD mixed breeds, not just purebred dogs.
However, not all conditions are due to breeding and can be caused by age or general wear and tear depending on the type of lifestyle the dog may have had.
Many signs of illness in the GSD can be non-specific. Not just related to one possible cause, but a possible indicator of other health issues.
If left untreated at an early stage, conditions can worsen and cause damage to tissues and organs.
Becoming familiar with different diseases and symptoms will help owners to identify problems and respond appropriately.
Regular routine health checks are also important, visits may uncover an issue or a potential issue unknown to the owner.
Seek veterinary advice if there are any concerns at all. Particularly if a dog goes off its food, vomits, has blood in the urine, or becomes lethargic.
Important guidance for a potential owner wanting a puppy is to obtain the dog from a reputable, ethical breeder and to spend some time researching beforehand.
We have a German Shepherd Puppies: Ultimate Buying Guide here for more information on this specifically.
Avoid buying from backyard breeders!
So today we will look at some of the most common health issues associated with the GSD breed.
Not all can be cured but many can be managed, allowing a dog to live a long, relatively normal, or more comfortable life.
Straight off the bat, it’s worth noting that ALL German Shepherd owners should invest in a dog DNA test, so they exactly what problems they could face with their dog and get ahead of them early, check them out here at EmbarkVet.com.
Without further adieu, let’s have a look at the 10 German Shepherd Health Issues that Every Owner Needs To Know.
1.) Diabetes Mellitus
Diabetes mellitus is a disease involving the pancreas and affects blood sugar levels. There are two known types.
- Type1 – Insulin deficient diabetes, pancreas unable to produce enough insulin
- Type 2 – Insulin resistant diabetes, cells in the body do not respond efficiently to insulin
The condition commonly affects German Shepherds since they are big dogs who tend to overeat, particularly too much fatty food.
Feeding them a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates will help with healthy weight maintenance.
The onset often occurs in later life usually between the age of 6-9 years. Although some dogs have it as puppies or it can be genetic.
Females are 3 times more likely to develop the disease due to hormones disrupting insulin levels.
Other causes may occur through Pancreatitis. Pancreatic calcium deposits. Underlying autoimmune disorders, or Cushing’s disease, plus some steroid medications.
The pancreas creates insulin that controls the amount of glucose that is metabolized from food and transported in the blood.
A dog with type 1 has beta cells that don’t function properly in the pancreas causing reduced or sometimes no insulin production at all.
Too much glucose then enters the dog’s bloodstream, resulting in hyperglycemia.
There is no cure for this condition but with proper treatment, the dog is able to live a long and healthier life.
If treatment is not given the dog will deteriorate and eventually die.
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination/accidents in the home
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Confusion/ disorientation
- Urine infection
- Progressed symptoms – shock, seizures, coma
Veterinary testing of blood and urine to determine glucose levels.
Owners will be taught how to administer treatment at home.
- Insulin injections ongoing to manage the condition or oral medication with food
- Supplements of vitamins C/ E and Brewers yeast
- Diet, providing one that is high protein and low in carbs. Ideally, one tailored for diabetic dogs
- Spaying, a recommendation for females.
- Exercise tailored to the dog’s capability and duration
2.) Haemophilia is one of The Most Common German Shepherd Health Issues
Hemophilia or factor 8 deficiency is very common in the German Shepherd breed due to genetics.
But not all dogs will develop the condition.
It is a blood disorder that affects the blood clotting process and is passed from mother to son on the X chromosome.
While females carry and pass on the gene, males will go on to manifest the disorder.
Male dogs will then pass the disease genetically via their daughters and so it goes on.
It is extremely rare for females to exhibit the condition.
The disorder arises from a severe deficiency of the coagulating protein F8, sometimes called Factor 8 deficiency.
This deficiency prevents the blood from being able to clot normally, resulting in excessive bleeding and the inability to form a scab. Selective breeding is the only way to prevent the condition.
Owners need to watch out for any signs of abnormal bleeding at home or out and about.
Wounds and cuts must be bound and the dog must be taken to a vet if the bleeding won’t stop
- Sudden death within weeks of birth
- Prolonged umbilical bleeding
- Bleeding from the mouth, particularly with puppies growing adult teeth
- Frequent/ severe bruising
- Sudden/excessive bruising
- Blood in feces often dark and sticky
- Frequent nose bleeds
- Stiff or swollen joints ( internal bleeding )
- Reduced or loss of vision
- Increased tiredness/weakness
- Postoperative bleeding
- Abnormal bleeding post-surgery / giving birth in rare cases of female
- Discolored / tiny spots on the skin
There is no cure for Haemophilia A, and puppies with the condition may have a reduced chance of recovery due to early internal bleeding.
With older dogs that have excess bleeding, this can also be fatal.
But if the dog receives treatment, they should go on to enjoy a reasonably long and healthy life.
An undiagnosed condition, particularly if severe will cause the dog to die.
- Blood transfusion/substitution therapy, using plasma or whole blood in more severe cases
- Blood products may also be given that contain clotting factors
- Gene therapy
Panosteitis is often known as Pano or wandering lameness is an inflammatory disease.
This affects the long bone shafts of young large breed dogs.
Especially the German Shepherd.
Genetics are not thought to be a cause, although they may still play a part.
It affects the fatty bone marrow.
Long bones are most commonly affected since they contain large amounts of bone marrow.
The fat cells in the marrow degenerate, and are replaced with fibrous tissue.
This then calcifies into spongy bone tissue.
Once the disease subsides the new bone growth is dissolved and fatty bone marrow regenerates.
It usually affects juvenile males 6- 18 months of age and begins to regress on sexual maturity. Occasionally this can affect a dog up to middle age.
The condition causes arthritis-like pain and lameness that often shifts from one leg to another. It can have an acute onset lasting for a few days or weeks, disappearing then reappearing again.
The infection may arise due to a virus, but this is unclear. Stress is a factor thought to bring about the condition, but there is no association with injury or trauma. Diet may also be a cause, due to high calorie, high protein commercial diets causing edema within cavity tissue. In this case, compressed blood vessels reduce blood supply to bone tissue causing inflammation.
- Sudden acute pain
- Lameness alternating one leg to another
- Reluctance to walk or exercise
- Loss of appetite
- Reluctance to have limb touched
- High temperature/fever
- Elevated white blood count on occasion
There is no known treatment at present.
A vet will take X rays if the disease is suspected, and compare the bone density of an affected limb with ones that are unaffected.
Pain killers can be given for pain relief until the condition improves.
Dietary advice is important and critical at a time when the dog has Panosteitis. Large breeds grow quickly and require the correct nutrients to develop future growth and health.
- Confine dog to a small area in order to limit unnecessary movement/exercise
- Try to keep the dog as quiet as possible for a few days
- Use supervised crating for limited periods of time if the dog won’t relax or calm
- Pain killers
- Seek dietary recommendation from the vet
- Stress avoidance
4.) Elbow Dysplasia – One of The Most Treatable German Shepherd Health Issues
Elbow dysplasia is a congenital condition that affects large breeds.
Especially the German Shepherd, symptoms normally show between 5-18 months and can affect one or both elbows.
Other causes may be due to the puppy growing too quickly (diet too high in nutrients) being overweight with increase strain on young joints, or through too much exercise with insufficient recovery time.
The elbow joint develops abnormally when it tries to overcompensate for some discrepancy. This causes increased pressure on the joints.
The increased pressure causes cartilage damage inside the joints and elbow dysplasia develops.
It can be mild or severe, but in time mild cases worsen making walking difficult. The condition causes pain and instability which can lead to arthritis.
A common sign of the condition is when the dog’s head bobs up and down while walking.
The head bobs down when the good leg steps forward, and back up with the bad leg steps forward.
There is limping due to pain caused by lameness or the joint feeling stiff.
Paws and elbows may appear at odd angles in an attempt to find a more comfortable position.The selected Optin Cat form doesn't exist.
- Bobbing head on walking
- Lameness after long periods of rest or mobility
- Elbows and paws at odd angles
- Painful stiff joints that are puffy and swollen
- Reluctance to go for walks or to play
- Pain killers, anti-inflammatory drugs
- Weight management / healthy weight, to reduce joint pressure and pain
- Diet, high-quality dog food – Check out MyOllie.com or Royal Canin for German Shepherds
- Nutritional joint supplements, Omega 3, glucosamine, or vet administered supplement injections
- Controlled exercise, short walks to prevent stiffness
- Surgery, this can involve bone realignment/attachment or removing parts of the bone that cause pain
- Orthopedic bed to reduce joint pressure and increase blood flow.
5.) Perianal Fistula
Perianal fistula otherwise known as furunculosis is a medical condition that commonly affects the German Shepherd.
Furunculosis are painful lesions that occur in the anal and rectal region.
They are ulcerative and foul-smelling, some are caused by a secondary infection.
Fistulas are regions connecting an area of infection/ inflammation deep under the skin with its surface.
The condition is very painful as the area contains many nerves.
There are several causes or possible causes.
One is anatomical and thought to be due to the trait of breeding GSD’s with a low tail carriage, the incidence of Perianal Fistula occurs more in GSD’s than in any other breed.
Dogs with a high density of sweat glands are also more prone and both combinations create poor airflow, excess moisture, and bacterial build-up.
Impaction or infection of the perianal sac and adjacent sinuses are often a common cause.
It may also be genetic or caused by an autoimmune disease or allergy.
The condition occurs mostly in un-neutered males and middle-aged dogs.
- Foul odor from the rear end
- Smelly bedding
- Behavioral changes – depression, withdrawal, agitation, and sometimes aggression
- Straining bowel movement with no feces present
- Blood in feces
- Pain in the rear end and on lifting the tail
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive licking or chewing of the area
- Reluctance to sit or wagtail normally
The condition can resolve after a long period of treatment, but there is a high recurrence rate.
Cases that don’t respond or are recurrent will require lifelong intermittent treatment and palliative care
- Medical management – drugs, topical treatment
- Hypoallergenic diet
- Surgery in severe cases
- Neutering intact males
Megaesophagus is a common congenital or acquired condition that affects German Shepherds.
The esophagus is a tube that connects and transports food from the throat into the stomach by contraction.
The condition is caused by an underlying nerve disorder preventing the esophagus muscles from contracting.
Therefore, stopping food from entering the stomach.
The esophagus enlarges and becomes a storage area for the food, which can move in the opposite direction entering the trachea and lungs.
In congenital conditions puppies born with Megaesophagus will show symptoms once they start on solid food.
In mild cases, a diagnosis could take up to a year to detect.
If acquired the condition can occur in young to middle-aged dogs with underlying health conditions, or it can due to a blockage from a foreign object.
Many cases of the condition are unpreventable.
Apart from ingestion of foreign bodies or poisons. Which may be prevented through owner awareness and environmental monitoring.
- Commencement of solid food in puppies (congenital )
- Failure to thrive
- Swallowing difficulty
- Weight loss
- Nasal discharge
- Bad breath
- Respiratory problems
If no underlying cause is found on an investigation,.
Megaesophagus is not curable and is often chronic requiring long-term treatment and monitoring.
With good care, symptoms can be alleviated and many dogs can go on to live a long and happy life:
- X rays, blood, and thyroid tests
- Treatment of other underlying illness
- Feeding changes at home, providing food that can be easily swallowed and given in a raised feeding bowl
- Prescribed drugs that stimulate abdominal movement
- Protein supplements due to undernourishment
Epilepsy is a recurrent seizure disorder of the brain.
It can be hereditary in German Shepherds with males being affected most often.
The reason for the condition is unknown.
A chemical imbalance responsible for electrical impulses is thought to be a possibility.
Other causes of epilepsy can be due to various diseases, toxins, or it can be acquired following a head injury with scar tissue damage.
It occurs as spontaneous and random electrical overactivity, in a small or large area of the brain. This can cause localized twitching or whole body seizures/ fits.
Large Breeds Suffer More
If the condition is idiopathic and there is no apparent cause of underlying injury or disease.
Seizures usually start between 1-4 years of age. The frequency and severity can vary individually, but they tend to be harder to control in larger breeds.
The seizure can be general or partial.
General is the most common and causes the dog to fall over and become unconscious, legs become extended and rigid, the back, neck, and head often arches. This is followed by paddling of the legs in a running motion.
They may have dilated pupils, vocalize, salivate and make a chewing movement.
Urination and defecation often occur with the loss of control.
Periods between seizures vary between individuals, they can come in clusters with long periods of normality.
While others come in a regular pattern.
Some dogs may show distress, fear, or be subdued days or minutes before or after a fit.
The disease will need lifelong management and 1/3 of dogs do not respond to treatment.
Seizures can be hard to witness for an owner, particularly early on when the condition is unfamiliar.
My family adopted a German Shepherd with epilepsy when I was growing up, who had cluster fits.
Usually, they started at 3am, so my parents kept him in their room at night and attended to him when needed.
He would have 1-3 fits in any one week, followed by weeks or months without any occurrence.
Apart from being subdued pre and post seizures, he was normal in every way and enjoyed a good few happy years with us.
- Subdued behavior, days before or after a seizure
- Mouth foaming or drooling
- Running motion
- Arched back, head or neck
- Seizures often at night when resting
- Chewing action, putting fingers near their mouth during a seizure
There are many causes of GSD seizure.
The vet will check a dog’s history and conduct physical checks to determine the trigger.
It’s an incurable condition and requires lifelong medication to control it although about 1/3 of dogs do not respond to treatment.
Anti-seizure medication is the only real treatment.
8.) Degenerative Myelopathy – One of The Worst German Shepherd Health Issues
Degenerative Myelopathy is fairly common in German Shepherds.
It is a chronic genetic neurological disease of the spinal cord nerves.
Causing gradual loss of mobility and feeling in the hind limbs, followed by the forelimbs. It is caused by an autoimmune disease that attacks the dog’s nervous system, eventually leading to neural tissue damage.
It’s a slowly progressive condition affecting the white matter of the spinal cord, starting at the hind end and moving forward.
The onset usually occurs in older dogs 8-9 years but is now showing up in younger GSD’s of 5-6 years old.
No pain is associated with the condition and over time complete paralysis sets in, eventually causing death. Euthanasia is usually chosen before that stage is reached.
- Slight drag in one rear foot at onset
- Loss of control in back legs
- Struggling to get up
- Incontinent accidents in the home
- No pain
- Organ failure
There is no cure for the condition and euthanasia, in the end, is the only option, once the back legs fail.
The condition can be managed for a while, before reaching that stage.
The one positive aspect of this disease is that it causes no pain for the dog since the nerves that control pain in the region have been destroyed.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Diet – high-quality food not over-processed, to assist with nerve health
- Vitamins and supplements to support nerve function
- Exercise is still beneficial and can be dictated by the dog’s pace
- Swimming/ Hydrotherapy
- Orthopedic bed
9.) Osteoarthritis is a One Of The Most Common German Shepherd Health Issues.
Osteoarthritis is a chronic degenerative joint disease that commonly affects larger breeds like the German Shepherd. It causes deterioration of joint cartilage leading to inflammation, pain, and bone spur formation.
Check out our post on 9 Tricks Pro Owners Use To Stop German Shepherd Joint Problems to learn more about what you can do.
Cartilage in healthy joint acts like a cushion and allows the joints to move smoothly.
Osteoarthritis breaks down the cartilage. This makes the joints grate together leading to pain, inflammation, bone spur formation, and decreased mobility.
Causes of the condition include :
- Obesity – Check out our post on 11 Proven German Shepherd Diet Tips to learn more.
- Poor nutrition
- Repetitive stress from athletic activities
- Infections i.e Lyme disease
- Decreased activity
- Whimpering or yelping in pain
- Stiffness, limping
- Reluctance to walk or lagging, reluctance to climb stairs, to play or jump
- Partial or complete lameness
- Weight gain
- Displaying changes in behavior i.e being aggressive or being withdrawn
- Pain when touched
- Loss of muscle over limbs/spine
- Trouble positioning for defecation/urination/accidents in the home
Osteoarthritis has no known cure and is a progressive disease. The condition can be slowed and helped by providing the dog with a high-quality diet and supplements to reduce inflammation and progression:
- Weight management
- Diet change suited to the condition
- Joint supplements i.e glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussel, and omega 3 fatty acids – Check out K9 SuperHeroes Maximum Joint Protection Supplement for German Shepherds here.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Low impact exercises, walking, swimming to maintain muscle tone and mobility range.
- Providing a comfortable, warm environment on chilly days/ nights, to prevent arthritic flare-ups
- Surgery in severe cases to remove damaged tissue or joint replacement
- Orthopedic Bed
The German Shepherd is prone to developing several different types of cancer.
These can affect the skin, bones, and other organs.
Some grow very slowly while others progress very rapidly.
All dog breeds suffer from cancer but this is one of the most common German Shepherd health issues born out of the way they are been bred.
Reacting ASAP in detection will give the dog a better chance of survival.
Therefore, precautionary testing is the best preventative. Annual veterinary health checks will give options for blood testing, x rays, or biopsies to check for cancer or the potential for it to develop.
Spaying or neutering the dog when young can prevent testicular and ovarian cancers.
The condition can affect many areas of the body, some common cancers include:
- Lymphoma, causing enlarged lymph nodes
- Abdominal tumors, stomach, gastrointestinal
- Melanoma, skin tumors
- Head or Neck cancer
- Lung cancer
- Mammary cancer
- Osteosarcoma, bone cancer
- Spleen tumor
- Hemangiosarcoma, blood vessel cancer
- Lack of appetite
- Trouble eating, drinking and swallowing
- Swellings or abnormal growths
- Lethargy and lack of stamina
- Weight loss
- Retained urine
- Labored breathing
With huge improvements in modern medicine and veterinary medicine, a cancer diagnosis does not mean an automatic death sentence for a pet.
But although some treatments are successful many types of cancer are incurable.
Different customized treatments and plans can be put in place for each dog as an individual. The following treatments or combinations can be offered:
- Surgery/ Cryosurgery
11.) Hip Dysplasia is One of The Most Common German Shepherd Health Issues Affecting 15-20% of Them.
Hip dysplasia is a congenital condition, commonly seen in German Shepherds. It’s a degenerative joint disease caused by an abnormal formation of the hip joint (shallow socket).
It can also be caused by excessive laxity in the general fit of the joint.
German Shepherds can inherit the condition and large breeds, in general, are more susceptible.
The hip consists of a ball and socket joint and in a healthy joint the femur head (ball) fits snugly into the socket. With normal development, the ball and socket function smoothly. With hip dysplasia deterioration causes the joint to grind, reducing the range of motion and causing pain.
Other factors can affect its development, such as diet and activity level. Check out our post on 9 Proven Tips To Stopping German Shepherd Hip Dysplasia to learn more.
The condition often sets in between 5-8 months, but other dogs can be mature adults before symptoms set in. Ethical breeding practices avoid the problem occurring in the first place.
- Back legs held close together, to compensate for poor balance
- Difficulty getting back up or climbing stairs
- Pain and soreness
- Muscle wasting at the rump
- Reluctance to walk or play
- X-ray is the only way to conclusively diagnose the condition
- Pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs
- Maintain healthy weight
- Diet, ideally high in calcium and protein, low in fats and grains, or a Raw diet
- Surgery, total replacement, or bone excision
- Supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM
- Natural treatment designed for hip dysplasia, Arthro-Ionx which can be added to the dog’s water bowl and has been shown to relieve symptoms.
- Orthopedic bed
Conclusion for German Shepherd Health Issues
Owners can’t change their pet’s genes, owners can reduce future problems by avoiding backyard breeders.
Purchasing from responsible and ethical breeders will ensure strong healthy puppies from sound breeding lines.
Plus a list of other benefits like health testing, temperament, trainability, and breed knowledge/ support.
On this subject, there is always a lot of emphasis on choosing the right puppy.
But not all owners opt for puppies and prefer to re-home an older dog.
Some older dogs, including many in shelters, will inevitably have existing health conditions.
In this case, not all potential owners will want, or can practically consider a dog with an existing chronic health condition. But some potential owners are willing to adopt and manage a special needs dog.
We can also see the importance of contacting a vet if a pet’s behavior changes or they start to show physical signs. Immediate action in some circumstances could save a dog’s life.
If you are struggling to get to the vets during the pandemic or for any other reason, consider checking out an online vet service such as Vetster, where you can get an appointment in the comfort of your own home. Check them out here.
As an owner are you worried about German Shepherd joint & hip problems? If so, get our FREE guide called ‘The Experts Guide to Avoiding Joint Problems in German Shepherds’ Here.
We also have another post on 10 More German Shepherd Health Issues you should check out here.
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Thank you for reading.