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5 Common Health Problems in German Shepherds
By Mel Lee-Smith
Published: 07/10/2020, edited: 09/27/2021
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Clever, brave, intelligent, loyal — the list of attributes that the German Shepherd has to offer is as long as it is impressive. Perhaps that’s why the German Shepherd is one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States and in countries all around the world.
But just like any other breed, the German Shepherd can be prone to suffering from certain health problems. If you’re thinking of welcoming one of these gorgeous dogs into your life, it’s important that you understand some of the most common health problems in German Shepherds and what you can do to prevent them becoming an issue for your pet.
1. Hip dysplasia
Hip dysplasia occurs when the ball and socket of a dog’s hip joint don’t develop properly. This results in laxity (looseness) or instability of the joint, which over time can lead to the deterioration of the joint.
Hip dysplasia is a painful condition that can affect any breed, but it’s particularly common in large or giant breeds like the German Shepherd. There are several factors that contribute to the development of hip dysplasia, with genetics the main culprit. However, poor nutrition, too much exercise, and obesity are also contributing factors.
The symptoms of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds include reduced activity levels, lameness, a reluctance to jump or rise, a loss of thigh muscle mass, and pain. Surgery is often the best treatment option in severe cases, while sometimes the condition can be managed through lifestyle changes, anti-inflammatory medications, joint supplements, and physical therapy.
But prevention is always the best option, and there are a few simple things you can do to protect your pet against hip dysplasia:
Buy your puppy from an ethical breeder. Responsible German Shepherd breeders screen their dogs for hip dysplasia. Ask your breeder for proof that the parents of a puppy have had their hips evaluated.
Feed an appropriate diet. While still a puppy, your German Shepherd needs to be fed a diet specifically formulated for large-breed puppies. This will help promote the healthy development of joints and muscles.
Maintain a healthy weight range. Carrying around excess weight places additional strain on your German Shepherd’s joints. Keeping them in a healthy weight range will reduce the risk of hip dysplasia.
Use caution when exercising your dog. Finally, take care not to over-exercise your German Shepherd while they’re still a puppy — ask your veterinarian for advice on safe forms of exercise for your pet.
2. Elbow dysplasia
Elbow dysplasia refers to the abnormal development of the elbow joint as a puppy grows. This causes the joint to deteriorate over time, leading to symptoms like lameness, pain, and reduced motion in the joint.
Elbow dysplasia is another health problem that commonly affects German Shepherds as well as a number of other large- and giant-breed dogs. Genetic factors play a part in the development of elbow dysplasia, with German Shepherds predisposed to the condition, but it can also be worsened by obesity.
The German Shepherd Dog Club of America requires its breeders to screen the elbow health of their breeding stock — ask your breeder for proof before you buy a puppy. Keeping your pet in a healthy weight range throughout their life is also essential.
3. Degenerative myelopathy
Next on the list of common health problems in German Shepherds is a condition known as degenerative myelopathy. This devastating and debilitating disease affects the spinal cord and usually onsets in dogs between 8 and 14 years of age.
Initially, symptoms include weakness and a loss of coordination in the dog’s hind legs. As the disease progresses, paralysis of the hind legs can result.
There’s no cure, so treatment revolves around managing the symptoms. And as you can imagine, watching a dog suffer with degenerative myelopathy is incredibly distressing for pet parents.
The disease is caused by a genetic mutation, and a test for the mutation is available through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. When searching for German Shepherd puppies, check whether the breeder has their breeding stock DNA tested for degenerative myelopathy.
While the name of this condition doesn’t sound particularly worrying, bloat is an extremely serious problem that requires emergency veterinary attention. Also known as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), this condition occurs when the stomach fills with air and twists on itself. If the dog doesn’t receive urgent treatment, bloat can be life-threatening.
Dogs most at risk of suffering from bloat are deep-chested breeds and large or giant breed dogs, which of course include the German Shepherd. Symptoms include a swollen belly, retching, salivation, and abdominal pain.
The exact cause of bloat isn’t fully understood, but eating too fast, consuming one large meal a day instead of two, and stress can all play a part in its occurrence.
As a pet parent, the most important thing you can do is recognize the symptoms of bloat and seek urgent veterinary attention for your dog. The condition is an emergency and can’t be treated with any home remedies, so get your German Shepherd to the vet straight away.
Last but not least on our list of 5 common health problems in German Shepherds is a condition that can affect breeds of all shapes and sizes: osteoarthritis. But while any dog can experience the pain of osteoarthritis, it’s a particular problem for larger breeds like the German Shepherd.
There are several other factors that can also contribute to the development of osteoarthritis, including obesity, old age, poor nutrition, injuries, and genetics. The result is the breakdown of cartilage in joints, causing pain, swelling, and a reduced range of motion.
But as the proud pet parent of a German Shepherd, there are plenty of simple things you can do to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis for your pet, or help them live a full life if they do develop the condition. This includes:
Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce the strain on your dog’s joints
Monitoring your dog for any signs that they are experiencing joint pain
Taking your dog for annual veterinary check-ups, or more frequently if your German Shepherd is in their senior years
Consulting with your veterinarian about how to help your dog stay active with joint pain
Feeding a diet specifically formulated to promote joint health and/or adding joint supplements to your pet’s diet
Providing anti-inflammatory medication and other drugs as recommended by your vet
Although German Shepherds can be prone to a few health problems, don’t let that put you off welcoming one of these gorgeous dogs into your heart. From their intelligence to their loyalty, their athleticism to their protective instincts, German Shepherds are impressive in so many ways. When paired with the right human, they make wonderful companions.