The dramatic rise in popularity of the German Shepherd Dog almost from its first introduction to the United States is perhaps the single biggest reason that this breed historically was known for fairly significant health problems. Thankfully a great many highly reputable breeders have been working diligently over the last thirty years or more to eliminate many of the problems found in the breed, and there are very well developed, healthy lines of German Shepherd Dogs found all over the country. The massive random breeding programs used in the early 1900's did cause some problems, however this is certainly not true today. As with any purebred dogs there are some health issues within the German Shepherd breed and a reputable breeder will explain these issues to you, as well as provide the necessary health records to allow you to decide if the puppy is right for you or not.
The use of many of the new genetic testing services as well as testing for hip and elbow problems has really strengthened the breed, however it is up to the individual breeder to use these services. Backyard breeders and puppy mills are certainly not recommended for any breed, but especially for breeds such as the German Shepherd which does have some fairly significant hereditary health conditions.
Skeletal development problems such as elbow and hip problems are common in most larger breeds, and the German Shepherd Dog is no exception. Breeding for overly crouched hind quarters has contributed to problems with hip dysplasia in some lines, so it is essential to require that a certificate for hips and elbows be provided for both parents in the breeding pair. Hip dysplasia is caused when the ligaments and muscles around the hip joint are not correctly formed and allow the joint to move in and out, resulting in wear on the cushioning layer between the ball and socket. Over time this banging and wearing causes bone damage as the two surfaces rub through the protective cartilage and gel layers. When this happens there is significant pain to the dog when moving, plus arthritis becomes a major factor. The same thing can also happen in the front legs with the elbow.
Both hip and elbow dysplasia are not fatal or life threatening, however they will cause movement problems and chronic pain for the dog. Treatments may include surgical procedures to tighten the ligaments and muscles, full joint replacements for hips, or treatment with anti-inflammatory to control the arthritis and pain. Special supplements as well as natural food diets may also help prevent the progression of these conditions. Any dog with either hip or elbow dysplasia should be removed from any breeding lines, as should the parents and littermates. Often the stiffness and pain doesn't become noticeable until the dog is over 5 years of age, however testing through OFA or the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals can be done when the animal is still a puppy, preventing any possible breeding issues.
In younger German Shepherd Dogs a condition known as panosteitis can also occur, which can sometimes be confused by owners with hip or elbow dysplasia. In this condition younger dogs, typically males between about 6 and 14 months of age have bouts of lameness and pain that rotates through the different legs. The condition may last for a few months or even up to a year. It is similar to growing pains in children, and will eventually disappear once the dog is fully grown. Pain medications, balanced exercise and specialized diets may all help manage this condition until the dog reaches maturity.
Von Willebrand's Disease is found in many types of purebreds as well as hybrids, and is similar to hemophilia in humans. The blood lacks the proper clotting ability and the dog may suffer from bruising, internal bleeding and bleeding around the teeth and in the mouth. For some dogs this is not a serious condition, however for others it can be fatal. Often the vet first notes clotting problems during a routine vet procedure such as spaying or neutering. There are genetic test available for testing for the condition, and there are medications that can be used to help manage those dogs that are significant bleeders.
Many German Shepherd Dogs have skin allergies, some which may lead to the development of hot spots. Hot spots, more correctly known as pyotraumatic dermatitis, are actually caused by a bacteria that is found on the skin's surface. The heavy double coat of the GSD provides a perfect growth area on the skin, keeping in the heat and moisture while keeping out the air that would kill the bacteria. If the dog has an allergy and starts to scratch, the bacteria can then easily move into the skin's surface, creating more itching and leading to more scratching. This vicious cycle can continue and rapidly spread, causing hair loss and overall poor health for the dog. Secondary infections can also become extremely problematic.
Routine grooming, bathing as necessary and treatment of any hot spots or allergies is essential and will prevent the condition from becoming serious. Typically avoiding over bathing is also very important with the GSD as the natural oils on the coat and skin also provide protection and keep the coat healthy and shiny. Since this condition is often more pronounced in some breeding lines than others, be sure to ask the breeder about any skin issues or allergies of either parent dog.
Any deep chested dog is prone to a very serious condition known as bloat, gastric torsion or more correctly as gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV). This is a potentially fatal disease where the intestines, usually just below or at the stomach actually twist, trapping all the stomach contents and gas release. The pressure rapidly rises, causing extreme pain and pressure on the heart and lungs. Without relief from the pressure death can occur within a few hours, so it is essential to know the signs as well as how to provide immediate assistance to the dog until the animal can get to the vet. Bloat can be found in any breed, but monitoring food intake, water intake and limited exercise for an hour after feeding is important as preventative measures. Feeding two or more smaller meals rather than one large meal can also help to prevent bloat from happening, especially with dogs that tend to gulp their food.
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