German Shepherds are amazing, loving companions and faithful guardians who provide their families with years of joy.
However, they are also predisposed to a variety of health issues. Unfortunately, many of these health issues are genetic due to improper breeding practices to achieve a specific breed standard throughout the breed's history.
Of course, not every condition is genetic. Many health problems that plague German Shepherds are also related to their size, activity level, or merely being dogs.
Here are 20 of the most common potential health issues that affect German Shepherds, plus some steps you can take to help prevent them.
20 Common Health Issues in German Shepherds
#1 Dental Health Issues
German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) are prone to various dental health issues, including periodontal disease and gum infections.
According to veterinary dentists at Bond Vet NYC,
Periodontal disease in dogs is the inflammation or infection of the tissue surrounding the tooth. This includes the gums, the periodontal ligament (a structure that holds teeth in place), and the jaw bone.
Dental health issues in your German Shepherd can lead to tooth loss, pain, and jaw fractures in the most severe cases. If bacteria are allowed to grow in your dog's mouth unchecked, they can enter the bloodstream and damage your dog's vital organs, including his heart and kidneys.
The first sign of dental health issues is bad breath, followed by inflamed or bleeding gums. In severe cases, the dog may drool, have difficulty eating and swallowing, and grind their teeth as a reaction to the pain. If you notice any of these symptoms, it's time to see the vet.
Brushing your dog's teeth at home regularly helps prevent tartar and bacteria buildup on the surface of your dog's teeth. But, over time, tartar and bacteria can also build up under the gumline where you can't reach with a toothbrush.
Providing regular dental checkups and professional cleanings are the best ways to prevent periodontal disease.
German Shepherds are prone to certain types of cancer, especially in their senior years. Here are some of the most common:
- Adenocarcinomas/Leiomyosarcomas: These are cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract, often accompanied by liver and bladder issues.
- Melanoma: A type of skin cancer that's relatively common in this breed.
- Lymphoma: Cancer of the lymph system.
- Osteosarcoma: A kind of bone cancer occurs in the elbows, knees, and hips of GSDs.
Providing a healthy diet and lifestyle and choosing a dog with good genetics may reduce your dog's risk of contracting these cancers. If your dog does get cancer, early detection can significantly improve their prognosis.
#3 Nose Infections
Nose Infections are relatively common in German Shepherds. Mild cases are uncomfortable, but severe cases can be quite painful and lead to serious complications.
Rhinitis is the most common type of nasal infection, caused by inflammation inside the dog's nose. Typical symptoms include frequent sneezing, lack of appetite, and a runny nose.
Sinusitis is also fairly common. It involves inflammation of the sinus passageways inside the dog's nose. It causes similar symptoms to rhinitis but may also include coughing.
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection that affects the nose of German Shepherds. Symptoms are similar to other nasal conditions but are usually more severe and may include bleeding from the nose, swelling of the nasal area, and pain.
Other than providing a healthy diet and lifestyle, there's no way to prevent these infections. Treatment usually requires antibiotics and supportive care.
#4 Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, can have various contributing factors, but ultimately, they're the result of bacteria in the urinary tract.
The dog's genitals often come into contact with residue, debris, or feces that contain bacteria. The bacteria enter the dog's urethra, and the immune system isn't strong enough to fight off the infection.
Here are the most common symptoms to be on the lookout for:
- Cloudy urine
- Changes in the smell of the urine
- Frequent urination or straining to urinate
- Dribbling urine or accidents in the house
- Pain, discomfort, or sensitivity when urinating and in the genital area
- Blood in the urine
Cleanliness in the genital area, a healthy diet, and proper hydration can reduce UTIs' likelihood.
#5 Bladder Stones
Bladder stones are relatively common in GSDs. They are extremely uncomfortable at best and severely painful at worst.
Larger stones are hard for the dog to pass, and if they're left untreated, they can result in serious complications, including bladder and kidney damage.
The cause of bladder stones is from a buildup of crystalline residue in the dog's bladder. Typically, the urine is acidic enough to dissolve the stones and pass them through the urinary tract.
If that doesn't happen, the condition requires veterinary treatment to dissolve the stones, possibly even surgery in severe cases.
Feeding a species-appropriate raw diet can help prevent bladder stones and a variety of health issues.
#6 Thyroid Issues
Issues with the endocrine system, especially the thyroid, are widespread among German Shepherds.
Being vigilant and catching these issues early-on is crucial for preventing these issues from becoming severe or even life-threatening.
If you notice that your GSD is fatigued, has thinning hair, and has unexplained weight gain, it's time to get his thyroid tested.
Pancreatitis is simply an inflammation of the pancreas. It's usually caused by sudden changes in the dog's diet, especially eating overly fatty foods. Stress and anxiety can also contribute to this issue.
The key to preventing pancreatitis is to keep your dog on a healthy diet and avoid sudden changes, especially feeding fatty people food.
Skin allergies related to diet or environmental allergens are common for GSDs. Pollen and grass can lead to seasonal allergies, while food allergies to things like wheat, corn, soy, rice, and chicken lead to allergy symptoms year-round.
Switching to a grain-free diet can be a huge help, but if that doesn't help, it's worth scheduling some allergy testing to see what's causing the allergy symptoms. Then you can prevent future issues by removing the allergen from their diet or environment.
Sometimes called “wandering lameness” or “pano,” panosteitis is similar to what we call growing pains in humans. It usually presents when the dog is between five and 14 months old, and it's characterized by unexplained lameness.
The condition can is diagnosed by x-ray, and thankfully it's not permanent or congenital. Because GSDs are a large breed that grows fast, they often experience pain due to their rapid growth.
Although the dog may experience soreness in puppyhood, the condition disappears when the dog is around a year and a half to two years old.
If the dog doesn't grow out of the condition, the lameness is likely due to something else, and further testing will be necessary to determine the cause. German Shepherd puppies should not run excessively or participate in other activities that can stress their joints until they're fully grown.
#10 Degenerative Disk Disease
German Shepherds are prone to spinal issues as they age. Some genetic lines are more prone to this issue than others, and they may experience problems even when they're still young.
Responsible breeders avoid breeding dogs with these issues because to prevent passing these genes onto offspring.
There's not much that can be done to prevent degenerative disk disease because it is genetic. But, proper treatment, diet, and exercise can relieve pain and slow down the disease's progression.
Diabetes is somewhat common in GSDs due to their large size and their tendency to overeat. Symptoms include swelling of the feet, excessive urination and thirst, and fatigue. Some dogs have the condition in puppyhood, while others develop it later in life.
Proper diet and exercise may reduce the likelihood of diabetes, but not always because it can be genetic. That said, proper diet and exercise and veterinary treatment can significantly reduce the severity of diabetes.
Sadly, GSDs who descend from specific, inbred genetic lines are more likely to be born with a condition called hemophilia A. In dogs with this condition, the blood cannot clot properly, making even the smallest cut or injury much more serious.
The only way to prevent this disease is with responsible breeding practices. It's incurable, but dogs with hemophilia can still live long, happy lives with proper care.
Epilepsy is more common in humans than in dogs, but German Shepherds seem to be more prone to the disorder. The condition is genetic, and there is no way to prevent or cure it, but it is treatable with medication.
Stress is the most common trigger, so avoiding stressful situations can reduce the likelihood of seizures and allow the dog to live a comfortable, happy life.
#14 Bloat/Gastric Dilation-Volvulus (GDV) and Torsion
Bloat happens when a dog eats a large amount of food too fast and then becomes physically active right away. This combination causes excessive gas to build up in the dog's stomach, leading to breathing issues and even causing shock.
In some cases, if the dog rolls or jumps around a lot after drinking or eating, the stomach can turn, which is called gastric torsion. These conditions are characterized by pain and unproductive heaving, and they're both life-threatening to your GSD. They require immediate emergency care.
The best way to prevent these issues is to feed small meals several times a day instead of one large one. After eating, restricting physical activity is also crucial in dogs, like German Shepherds, who are prone to these conditions.
#15 Elbow Dysplasia
Elbow dysplasia is a congenital disorder that affects large breed dogs. German Shepherds are more prone to the condition due to irresponsible breeding and bad genetics. The issue involves the degeneration of the elbow joint and can be very mild to very severe.
Unfortunately, mild cases often worsen with age and can make even walking uncomfortable. The best way to prevent elbow dysplasia is with ethical breeding practices. Once the dog has the condition, the best treatment is to provide supportive care through good nutrition, massage, hydrotherapy, and pain medication as needed.
#16 Hip Dysplasia
Hip dysplasia is one of the most common health issues in German Shepherds. It is a congenital disorder, just like elbow dysplasia, but it affects the hip joints. The condition causes a malformation of the hip's ball and socket joint, which leads to instability. Laxity and osteoarthritis are common components.
Hip dysplasia is preventable with ethical breeding practices that put the dogs' health first by not breeding dogs who have this issue. The condition becomes extremely painful as it progresses and may require surgery.
Maintaining a healthy weight and excellent nutrition and allowing only gentle exercise is crucial for maintaining the dog's quality of life for as long as possible.
#17 Perianal Fistula
Perianal fistula is a disorder that is common in GSDs. The disease presents with drainage openings in the skin around the dog's anus. A dog with this issue will strain to defecate. He may also have diarrhea, bloody stools, or lick the area frequently.
A foul odor in the dog's bedding is one of the first signs pet owners notice. Unfortunately, secondary infections in this area are very likely. Because the anal region has so many nerves, the condition can be excruciating and significantly impact the dog's quality of life.
There may be a link to food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease, so feeding a proper diet may prevent this problem. Unfortunately, the practice of breeding German Shepherds for the characteristic low carriage of the tail is a major contributor that can only be corrected with ethical breeding practices.
Megaesophagus is a congenital issue that affects German Shepherds. The condition is characterized by an enlargement of the esophagus, which causes it to become limp and affects its ability to carry food to the stomach when the dog swallows.
The first signs of megaesophagus often begin to show when a puppy is weaned and begins to eat solid foods. The puppy will often vomit, become malnourished, and fail to thrive. Unfortunately, there is no way to cure or prevent this problem since it is genetic.
The condition requires careful management for the dog's entire life, including feeding a liquid diet and elevating the dog's food bowl during feeding.
Due to injury or normal wear and tear in this large-breed, active dog, middle-aged and senior GSDs are often affected by osteoarthritis. An affected dog may show lameness signs, but usually, they seem to slow down and become less active due to discomfort in the joints.
Proper nutrition may prevent osteoarthritis, or at least slow its progression. Supplements that reduce inflammation, such as fish oil and curcumin, can also be very beneficial.
#20 Degenerative Myelopathy
This neurological disease is another genetic disorder that affects German Shepherds. It's most common in middle-aged to senior dogs, and it affects the discs of the spine. It causes progressive weakness in the rear legs that can eventually lead to paralysis.
How to Reduce the Risk of Health Issues in Your German Shepherd Dog
Sadly, more than 50 hereditary disorders affect German Shepherds and are preventable through responsible breeding. However, the risk and severity of many health issues can be reduced with proper care.
Here are some critical steps you can take at home to reduce the risk of significant health issues in your GSD.
- If you are considering purchasing a German Shepherd puppy but haven't taken the leap yet, you can avoid many genetic issues by finding a responsible breeder and avoiding puppy mills.
- Obesity contributes to many chronic health conditions, so maintaining a healthy weight is essential. If you're unsure about your dog's weight, check with your vet to see if they need to lose a few pounds.
- Avoid heavy impact and overwork of the joints until your dog is fully grown. Large breeds mature more slowly than small dogs, and overworking their bones when they're still growing can lead to major issues later in life.
- Provide daily walks and exercise. They're crucial not only for physical health but for mental health as well.
- Provide socialization from a young age for good mental health.
- Provide regular checkups so your vet can catch health issues early.
- Feed a high-quality, species-appropriate diet.
One of the most important things you can do for your dog is to pay attention at home. Learn the signs and symptoms of the most common conditions that affect German Shepherds so that you can act quickly at the first sign of an issue.
Remember, you know your dog better than anyone else, and you see him every day, so you're likely to notice the subtle signs of a problem much sooner than your vet. If something seems even just a little off with your GSD, give the vet a call. It's better to be safe than sorry, even if it's just for your peace of mind.
And acting quickly can dramatically improve the prognosis of many life-threatening illnesses, as well as save your dog from unnecessary discomfort or pain.
About the Author
Nicole is a die-hard animal lover who has worked in pet care for years. She is a former vet technician, a dog mom to her two rescue pups, and she grew up living and working at her family's pet boarding facility.
She loves using her writing talents to share the insight she's learned throughout her career in the hopes that her knowledge can help other pet parents out there!