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German Shepherd 101: 7 Common Health Issues & How to Prevent Them

Keyana Beamon - Writer for DailyTails
By Keyana Beamon
Davor Štefanović - Editor for DailyTails
Edited by Davor Štefanović

Updated May 12, 2023.

Vet examining a German Shepherd for common health issues

Before you bring home a cuddly German Shepherd, wouldn't you want to know everything you can to keep them healthy and happy? German Shepherds are excellent companions, but like any other breed, they have specific requirements due to their predisposition to certain diseases and other health issues. With a bit of knowledge and care, you'll be well-equipped to give your furry friend the best quality of life as they grow older.

7 Common German Shepherd Health Issues

  • Hip dysplasia
  • Elbow dysplasia
  • GDV
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Eye issues
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Osteosarcoma

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1. Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a hereditary condition that is especially common in larger dogs like German Shepherds. It occurs when the head of the thigh bone and the hip socket in the pelvis do not fit perfectly together, resulting in bone spurs that cause pain in the hip joint and eventually wear it down. Some early signs of hip dysplasia include resistance to climbing stairs, limping, and a "bunny hop" gait. The condition can be diagnosed after X-rays at the vet. Additionally, excessive growth rate, improper weight, and unbalanced nutrition can make this problem worse.

How to Prevent Hip Dysplasia

To prevent hip dysplasia, consider feeding your German Shepherd a diet high in iron. Beef, chicken, and leafy greens are great choices. Additionally, dogs with more muscle mass may be less likely to develop this condition. So keeping your dog active can help them stay physically fit, reducing their risk of developing hip dysplasia.

2. Elbow Dysplasia

German Shepherd being treated for elbow dysplasia

Elbow Dysplasia, or humeral condylar osteochondrosis, is pretty common in German Shepherds. It occurs when the cartilage of the growing elbow joint fails to develop normally, getting too thick and damaged. This condition can cause moderate to severe arthritis leading to chronic pain.

How to Prevent Elbow Dysplasia

The best way to prevent elbow dysplasia is to take your dog to the vet regularly for check-ups. Joint supplements, not overdoing it with activity, a good diet, and anti-inflammatory drugs from the vet can also help prevent more joint damage and alleviate pain. In severe cases, surgery might be needed and can help reduce pain and get the joint working again.

» Wondering what common diseases can affect your dog? Find out here

3. GDV

Gastric dilation-volvulus (GDV) complex, also known as bloat, is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical and surgical intervention. GDV occurs when the stomach rotates on its axis, blocking the passage of food and water and cutting off blood flow to the stomach and intestines. As the stomach fills with air, pressure builds, stopping blood from the hind legs and abdomen from returning to the heart and sending the dog into shock. Symptoms can include drooling, retching, pale gums, restlessness, a swollen stomach, and the inability to lie down.

How to Prevent GDV

Pay attention to your German Shepherd's chest shape, as dogs with deep, narrow chests are more likely to suffer from GDV. Feed your German Shepherd smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, as dogs fed one meal a day are twice as likely to suffer from this condition. Plus, stressed dogs are more likely to bloat, so make sure they're calm and relaxed during mealtimes.

4. Degenerative Myelopathy

A vet examining a German Shepherd, looking for signs of degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy is a chronic spinal cord condition that is characterized by the progressive deterioration of the spinal cord, leading to progressive back limb weakness and paralysis. It is most commonly observed in middle-aged to older dogs, and the early symptoms can look like osteoarthritis

How to Prevent Degenerative Myelopathy

Sadly, since Degenerative Myelopathy is a genetic condition, it cannot be prevented. However, it's important to maintain muscle strength to minimize the risk of muscle atrophy. Regular exercise and a balanced diet are crucial in avoiding obesity and maintaining overall health. Additionally, physical therapy can help maintain muscle strength and minimize the risk of muscle wasting.

5. Eye Issues

Some common German Shepherd eye problems are:

  • Corneal dystrophy: This is a hereditary condition where fluids leak into the cornea and build up in deposits, which can result in ulcers or lesions. Symptoms include ulcers in the eye, eye pain, and inflamed eyelids.
  • Glaucoma: This condition causes dilated pupils that don't respond to direct light, redness in the whites of the eye, and a swollen or bulging eye. Your dog might rub or scratch the affected eye.
  • Pannus: Also known as chronic superficial keratitis, this autoimmune-related ailment is caused by blood vessels and scar tissue invading the dog's eye, which can obscure their vision with pigmentation. This condition has a genetic component and German Shepherds are the most commonly affected breed. Pannus is primarily found in dogs living in higher elevations. If left untreated, your dog can go blind.

How to Prevent Eye Issues

Corneal dystrophy is an inherited disease and cannot be prevented, but it can be managed with a low-fat, high-fiber diet.

There's no way to prevent glaucoma, but having annual check-ups at the vet can help catch the condition early.

Pannus can be managed well with immunosuppressant drugs or surgery. Your dog may also be prescribed sunglasses to protect against ultraviolet light.

6. Hypothyroidism

Professional veterinarian examining a German Shepherd for hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a common endocrine disease that affects older German Shepherds. The thyroid glands, small glands in the throat near the larynx, do not produce enough thyroid hormone, which slows down the dog's metabolism and can lead to a variety of symptoms.

Early signs of hypothyroidism can include:

  • Weight gain without an increase in appetite
  • Cold intolerance
  • Dry, dull hair and excessive shedding
  • Increased dark pigmentation in the skin
  • Lethargy

How to Prevent Hypothyroidism

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent Hypothyroidism. However, regular vet check-ups can aid in the early diagnosis of this disease. Early diagnosis is critical because treatment is possible through thyroid hormone replacement therapy, which can improve your dog's quality of life.

7. Osteosarcoma

Osteosarcoma is a common type of bone cancer in dogs that can lead to the malignant, abnormal growth of immature bone cells. It often develops in a dog’s front legs first, with common areas being the front knee/wrist, below the knee, and the toes. This condition is very painful and, if left untreated, can be fatal.

Early signs of this disease include:

  • Swelling in the ribs, legs, spine, or jaw
  • Severe pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Limping
  • Lethargy
  • Mass or lump on the dog's body

How to Prevent Osteosarcoma

Osteosarcoma is a genetic disease that cannot be prevented. However, if it's caught early, the cancerous limb can be removed with surgery to prevent the disease from spreading.

Loving Your German Shepherd Means Caring for Their Health

Having a German Shepherd as a pet can be super fun and rewarding, but it's important to know about the possible health issues they might face. As a responsible pet owner, it's important to stay informed about these health issues and take preventative measures whenever possible. One way to handle the costs of vet expenses is to think about getting pet insurance. This can help make sure your furry friend gets the care they need without causing you too much financial stress.

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