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Five German Shepherd health issues you need to know about

German Shepherd health issues
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Are you aware of the German Shepherd health issues? Everybody wants to bring home a healthy dog, but many purebreds are prone to conditions. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a reason not to get a German Shepherd, potential owners should look for good breeders who have done everything they can to reduce the chances of the puppies being affected. They should also be aware of the signs of these common health issues in German Shepherds so they can be prepared.

The German Shepherd breed

The German Shepherd (also known as a ‘GSD’ or ‘Alsatian’) is a large dog with a thick coat that became popular after the First World War. In fact, the name ‘Alsatian’ came about because the British didn’t want a dog named after their then enemy – the Germans.

They’re strong dogs, in need of lots of physical exercise. As a high-energy working breed, they also need mental stimulation or can become prone to neuroticism, anxiety, and nervous aggression. They are generally easy to train and enjoy competitive sports like agility, obedience, and herding.

German Shepherds usually have a healthy lifespan of 12+ years, but they are prone to many hereditary issues that can limit their quality of life and be expensive to treat. So, what German Shepherd health issues should you be on the lookout for?

1) Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia in dogs is common to many breeds, but one study found that German Shepherd Dogs had five times the risk of Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers. Hip dysplasia is a condition where the ball and socket joint of the hip doesn’t form correctly, leading to pain and arthritis. It affects dogs as they mature, with most dogs being diagnosed before two years of age. However, mildly affected dogs may not show signs until later in life, when arthritis sets in.

To prevent hip dysplasia, buy from responsible breeders who have had both parents hip scored. Environmental factors, such as early exercise, can be a factor – your vet will be able to give you advice to try to avoid this. Look out for any stiffness when walking or a strange gait – whilst treatment won’t fix the problem, it can slow the onset of arthritis. Some severely affected dogs require surgery, such as a hip replacement, to maintain their comfort.

2) Canine Degenerative Myelopathy

Canine degenerative myelopathy (DM) is the main cause of early euthanasia in German Shepherds. It’s a neurological condition starting with mild wobbliness on the hind limbs and progressing to full paralysis of the back legs. It usually occurs in mature adult or senior dogs (8 years or more). Euthanasia is usually necessary 9 to 18 months after diagnosis.

DM is thought to be an autosomal recessive gene, meaning both parents must have a copy for the offspring to be affected. Buying a puppy from a breeder who has taken care to match parents to prevent DM in the litter is the best way to prevent it.

German Shepherd health issues

(Image credit: Dave Harfield)

3) Anal Furunculosis

Anal furunculosis (AF), also known as perianal fistulas, is a severe inflammatory disease that causes holes and pus-filled ulcers to appear in the area around a dog’s anus. GSDs make up 80% of all cases. It’s thought to be inherited, and possibly an auto-immune condition, although deep infections are also common. It’s extremely painful, especially when dogs defecate.

We don’t yet know exactly how AF is inherited and how much of it is down to the immune system, rather than the low tail carriage of this breed. There is no way to know whether a dog will become affected, so it’s an important disease for GSD pet parents to be aware of. Lifelong treatment with immunosuppressive drugs is usually necessary to prevent recurrent flare-ups.

4) Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a complex and poorly understood disease. The pancreas is an organ responsible for the production of enzymes for digestion. In EPI, these enzymes are not secreted in adequate amounts. Undigested food then moves through the guts, causing changes in the microbiome, and passing as diarrhea. Feces are often foul-smelling, yellow, and fatty in appearance, and dogs are often chronically underweight and hungry.

EPI is thought to be an inherited condition, but studies are still ongoing to identify which genes are responsible and how they’re inherited. Even puppies from affected parents don’t always develop the disease. There are no methods to prevent EPI currently, but the treatment involves supplementing with pancreatic enzymes and feeding diets with limited fat.

5) Epilepsy

Epilepsy can happen in all breeds, but German Shepherds have been found to have nearly twice the risk compared with crossbreeds. It’s not currently clear why epilepsy of unknown origin (i.e ‘idiopathic’ epilepsy) affects GSDs more than some other breeds. Symptoms include partial (focal) seizures, such as vacancy or biting the air, or full (generalized) seizures, involving collapse, paddling limbs, salivating, and loss of bowel control. Diagnosis involves ruling out other causes of seizures such as organ failure, poisoning, and brain damage.

It’s not possible to prevent epilepsy, as we don’t yet know what causes it. Luckily, medication is effective at controlling the symptoms in most cases. German Shepherd owners should ensure they know what to do if their dog has a seizure.

Buying a healthy German Shepherd puppy

Responsible breeders will screen both parents before breeding to reduce the risk of hereditary diseases being passed on to the puppies. German Shepherd parents should be:

  • Hip scored: an x-ray is taken of the fully grown GSD’s hips and sent to specialists to assess for hip dysplasia. Dogs are given a score out of 106. German Shepherds should only be bred if their score is less than average for the breed (14).
  • Elbow scored: As for hip scores, elbow scores are given to adult GSDs after taking an x-ray. Dogs should only be bred if they have a score of 0.
  • DNA tested for degenerative myelopathy and hemophilia.
  • Eye screened: a specialist ophthalmologist looks for common signs of eye problems and labels dogs as ‘clinically affected’ or ‘clinically unaffected’. Affected dogs shouldn’t be used for breeding.

In addition, any puppy should be raised in an environment with lots of social interaction with humans, regularly wormed, and vet checked before purchase. Using the Puppy Contract can help you to find a responsible breeder.

German Shepherd health issues – conclusion

It’s no secret that German Shepherds have health issues. But buying a puppy from a responsible breeder and knowing the signs of common conditions to look for can help to ensure that your GSD lives a long, healthy, and happy life.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.