Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.
German Shepherd Health Issues
Because of inbreeding both in the early days of breed standardization and throughout this breed’s history, there are many common German Shepherd health problems. Of course, not all health problems are related specifically to inbreeding (though hip dysplasia is); some are simply related to the size of these dogs, the kind of work that they do, and simply to just being a dog.
Here are the most common health problems in German Shepherds, how to spot them, and what can be done to help with these issues, if anything.
- Hip Dysplasia
- Elbow Dysplasia
- Degenerative Disc Disease
- Thyroid issues
- Bladder Stones
- Urinary Tract Infections
- Nose Infections
- Dental Health Problems
Hip dysplasia is the number one problem related specifically to German Shepherd health. While there are other dogs that manifest this problem, especially other larger dogs, it is extremely common in German Shepherds, especially among litters in kennels where dog health is not a priority.
In general, dogs already exhibiting this issue are not supposed to be bred, but many breeders will ignore this and breed the dogs anyway, creating another litter of dogs who have this issue. It is painful for the dog and difficult to mitigate since it is a malformation in the joint of the hip. Dogs who are fed too much, exercised too hard, or injured when they are young can damage their hips.
Like hip dysplasia, this is a congenital condition that affects many large breeds but especially affects German Shepherds with a long line of badly bred ancestors. Instead of being an issue with the hip joint, this issue is with the elbow joint. Most often caused by bad genetics, this issue can be very severe, or it can be very mild.
Mild cases will often worsen over a dog’s life, making it very uncomfortable to walk. Because this is one of the most common German Shepherd health issues, ethical breeders will make sure that both parents are free of elbow dysplasia before they are bred. Once a dog has elbow dysplasia there is not much a breeder or an owner can do about it except make sure the dog gets the right nutrition to keep his joints lubricated and pain-free for as long as possible.
Bloat or Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (GDV)
You can usually see this happening to a dog with short or medium-length fur, though long-haired German Shepherds’ coats can hide this issue. Essentially, this occurs when the dog eats too much food too quickly and then does too much physical activity, which then causes gas to build up in the stomach. When this occurs and the dog cannot dispel the gas (through the usual methods), the pressure of the bloat can actually make it difficult to breathe and the body can go into shock.
If you see your dog eating grass or trying to vomit but cannot bring anything up, it is likely that this is the issue. This is a life-threatening condition! The dog should be taken to the vet immediately, otherwise, he could die. The best way to prevent this condition is to make sure that he neither eats too quickly nor eats too much all at once.
Feeding three smaller meals a day, instead of one large one, can also prevent this problem. Making sure that he does not do any strenuous physical activity after eating will also be necessary. If my German Shepherd has gastrointestinal problems I'm worried most often. I already lost one of our dogs at age 10 from bowel cancer and the stomach and bowel area seem to be a weak spot for this breed. A lot of the serious health problems in German Shepherd dogs are found there.
Though this condition is most common in humans, not in dogs, many people discover that their German Shepherds have this seizure disorder. This is a little ironic, considering that German Shepherds are often trained to be seizure detecting dogs for humans with epilepsy or other seizure-related disorders.
Though epilepsy is genetic and is incurable, there are a number of medications that help an Alsatian manage his symptoms. Most dogs will not even notice that they have this condition, especially if they are kept out of stressful situations and are allowed to live a happy, comfortable life with an attentive family.
It can be difficult for a dog with epilepsy to show in kennel club shows, for example, as this can be a high-stress situation, which may trigger his seizures. In some instances, epileptic dogs will want a companion who senses seizures, so they can notify the owner when the epileptic German Shepherd is about to have an attack.
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Not unlike European royalty, who bred amongst themselves so frequently that the recessive gene began to manifest itself in a large number of noblemen and women, German Shepherds who are descendants from a long line of inbreeding may be born with hemophilia.
Essentially, what happens with this disease is that the blood does not have the ability to properly clot, so a small cut can be a serious issue and a bump that causes a bruise may be worrisome. While not one of the most common health problems with this breed, hemophilia is more common in German Shepherds than it is in other breeds.
There is no cure for this disease, but these dogs can live happy, long lives with the right care. An owner of a dog with this condition will need to check the dog regularly for any lumps or bumps that may be blood pockets forming under the skin and will need to be extra careful when exercising this dog to make sure he does not do anything too strenuous or too dangerous.
Because of their large size and their tendency to overeat if they can get the food, diabetes is fairly common in German Shepherds. Like with humans, the symptoms are fatigue, dry mouth, excessive drinking, excessive urinating, and swelling in the feet.
All of these issues can indicate that a dog has diabetes, which can be with a Alsatian from his birth, or can develop later in life, even with proper feeding and exercise routines. This is sometimes a genetic disease and sometimes a disease that develops because of the environment—whatever the cause, diabetes can be easily controlled with the right diet and exercise. In some more severe cases, a veterinarian may prescribe a daily insulin injection to help with this disease.
Another condition that affects dogs as well as humans as they age, German Shepherds are particularly prone to cataracts in their eyes. Most owners can tell when this issue is starting to occur, not only by the slightly cloudy look in the dog’s eyes, but also because the dog does not seem as able to navigate news spaces as he once was.
You may even see him running into things that he once was able to avoid. While a little comical at first (it’s always a little funny to see your big, gangly dog crash into a chair that he usually is able to see and avoid), if cataracts are allowed to progress, they can make it very difficult for the dog to see anything.
While some dogs do not need their sight, especially if they have a companion dog and are very familiar with their home, surgery may help restore sight to an elderly dog who still relies on his eyes.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Like all large animals, humans included, German Shepherds can have serious problems with their spines, especially as they age. Some lines of GSDs are more likely to have this issue than others, which are likely to manifest when the dog is still young. Most breeders try to avoid breeding these dogs, since they usually pass on the issue to their offspring, just as they got the issue from their parents.
Dogs should be checked for spinal abnormalities when they are relatively young. Because this is a degenerative and genetic disease, there is not much a person can do to prevent this disease, but there is plenty an owner can do to prevent the disease from getting worse or hurting the dog. Treatment, proper diet, and exercise can all help a German Shepherd suffering with this health issue.
This condition is characterized as “wandering lameness” or sometimes just called “Pano” by veterinarians. It most often manifests itself in between five and fourteen months of age and is often called “growing pains,” by those who notice that their dog is only using three of his four legs or otherwise limping. While this condition is visible on an x-ray machine, it is not congenital, nor is it permanent.
Because German Shepherds are so large and they grow so quickly from being little puppies to being large adult dogs, they are expected to be have growing pains like other large animals. While this can be painful and sore for a young German Shepherd, it is by no means permanent and will disappear around a year and a half to two years of age. If the dog does not grow out of it, however, it may be an indication of a real illness that should be brought to a doctor.
German Shepherds are more susceptible to allergies than other breeds. These may come in the form of environmental allergies, such as being allergic to grass or certain kinds of pollen, or the allergies might be food-based. Common food allergies include chicken, corn, rice, and gluten.
Feeding your German Shepherd natural food that is specifically formulated for this breed is the best way to make sure your dog has the kind of nutrition he needs; make sure it is free of allergens. Not every dog will be allergic to everything, and some German Shepherds will have no allergies at all.
However, if you notice that his skin is red and irritated and he is itching often, it is likely that he has a serious condition and that you should start him on an allergy regimen. A vet can recommend what pills are best, but even Benadryl or Claritin formulated for humans can be given to a German Shepherd.
Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. This can happen just once throughout your dog’s life, or it can happen more than once, depending on the dog and his diet. This usually has an environmental cause, like eating dog foods that are too high in fat when the dog is not accustomed to eating this kind of food.
This is an issue that should be taken to a vet, especially if your dog is experiencing multiple bouts with this issue.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is also a common German Shepherd stomach related issue.
Thyroid issues are among the most common that German Shepherd owners will encounter with their dogs. For some reason, Alsatians have many problems with their endocrine levels. Having your dog regularly tested for these issues is one of the best ways to prevent these issues from becoming life-threatening.
German shepherds are, unfortunately, rather prone to developing urinary stones. The most common type is bladder stones are. They are at their mildest, quite uncomfortable. More commonly, however, they are very painful for your dog and can be very difficult to pass. If left untreated for too long they can result in serious chronic health issues, bladder and kidney damage being the most common.
A number of things can contribute to the development of bladder stones, which occur when there is a buildup of crystalline material in the bladder of your dog. Normally, if your dog’s urine is acidic enough, these crystals will dissolve and be passed through the urine.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Many dogs have a difficult time dissolving the minerals in their urine and will require some sort of treatment to help them work through the bladder stone or have them operatively removed.
One of the most common and effective ways to go about doing this is to get your dog some special bladder stone food. Many companies have produced foods that help to prevent the formation of crystalline substances that are known to build up in the bladder, thus greatly reducing the chances of your dog developing bladder or kidney stones.
Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are varied in nature — just like they are in humans. There are lots of things that could contribute to the development of a urinary tract infection in your dog, but ultimately all UTIs are caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract through the genitals.
- A lowered immune system can make these bacteria more likely to survive upon entering the urethra.
- If your dog comes into contact with the feces of another dog, they may be more prone to having bacteria enter their urethra.
- Having debris or residue come into contact with their genitals can cause a UTI if the material contains infectious bacteria.
Urinary tracts can cause a number of symptoms. If you notice that your German Shepherd is experiencing any of the following health problems, you may want to take them to the vet to see what kind of treatment is available.
- Blood in the urine
- Visible pain or discomfort when urinating
- Sensitivity in the genital region
- Dribbling urine or incontinence (being unable to hold their pee)
- Frequent urination or blockage
- Changes in the color or smell of their urine
- Visible residue in their urine, cloudy urine
German Shepherds are also fairly prone to developing nose infections, though not really much more than any other breed of dogs. Nose infections can be irritating and uncomfortable, and in serious cases, they can be very painful and could lead to more serious complications. It's not really one of the German Shepherd illnesses that is on my mind often.
One of the most common forms of nasal infection is referred to as rhinitis. Rhinitis refers to the actual inflammation of your dog’s nose. They may experience a running nose, a change in their appetite, or frequent sneezing.
Sinusitis is another fairly common form of nasal infection, marked by the inflammation of the actual sinus passageways in your dog’s nose. This can lead to similar symptoms: sneezing, discharge from the nose, changed appetite or coughing.
Some dogs may also develop a condition known as nasal aspergillosis, which is a fungal infection that primarily affects the nose region. Symptoms are similar to the previous infections, but they can be much more serious and include bleeding from the nose, pain, and swelling in the nasal area. Your German Shepherd may also have a discharge that contains pus.
If your dog is experiencing any of these health conditions then it could be a wise idea to seek help from a veterinarian.
Dental Health Problems
This breed is also prone to developing issues with their teeth and suffer from gum infections. This means that you need to be very cautious and take the time to brush your dog’s teeth from the time that they are young. These are German Shepherd health problems that can easily be avoided with good food and proper dental care.
If you’ve got a dog that has been owned by someone else for some time, you can see whether or not their teeth have been taken care of by looking for any blemishes. Observe the health of their gums.
Before beginning to brush your German Shepherd’s teeth, you should make sure that they’re comfortable having your hands in and around their mouth. One of the first steps that you should take is reaching out and beginning to massage the area around their mouth.
Once they are comfortable with this, you can open their mouth and begin touching their teeth one at a time. Take a few days — even a week — doing this to ensure that your dog doesn’t get uncomfortable with you going too quickly.
Once they’re comfortable with the soft, massaging touch then you can begin to brush their teeth, one by one. Dog toothbrushes are easy to find at pet stores. You can opt to use these toothbrushes with a special formula of dog toothpaste, or you can simply use water.
Make sure that you brush your dog’s teeth fairly frequently. If you feed them hard food, the abrasive nature of the food will help to prevent the buildup of plaque so you won’t need to brush as often as you would if they were fed soft food.
German Shepherds are unfortunately susceptible to cancer, especially as they age. Some of the most common cancers include:
- Osteosarcoma (tumors in bones): While this cancer can occur in just about any part of the body, it is most common for German Shepherds to develop it in the elbows, knees, and hips, where they might already have an issue.
- Lymphoma: In conjunction with their endocrine issues, GSDs are prone to developing cancer in the lymph system.
- Melanoma: Dogs can actually develop skin cancer, and it is fairly common with German Shepherds.
- Adenocarcinomas/Leiomyosarcomas: Stomach and gastric related cancers are also common in German Shepherds. Especially liver and bladder related issues are indicators of these kinds of cancers.
While your German Shepherd is unlikely to suffer from all or even a few of these issues, when considering purchasing a puppy or adult dog, it is important to know what kind of health problems to look out for and what kinds of health problems you might have to face in the future.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Sam Shepards
Andy Rupz on May 21, 2020:
My 2yrs. Old GSD is suffering weak hips... After experciencing... Cough & cold... With high body temp. My question is this consider hip displasia?
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on May 12, 2020:
The one I'm talking about is the one in the third picture with the tennis ball that died at age 10 related to the rear end paralysis etc. Some pictures in the articles are my own German Shepherd dogs and other are stock images...
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on May 12, 2020:
Yes, as more or less endstage it is Degenerative Myelopathy, when the spinal cord is dying and ending with paralysis. Our 3rd German Shepherd had this and it ended in rear end paralysis at age 10, but he also had some kind of bladder cancer at the same time. But we are not sure, because for myelopathy they need to do a necropsy. Very sad to see this and we had the vet put him down at our home. It's not the one in the top picture, that one never had any issues and became 14 years old. Very sorry to hear of your losses. Did you get most german shepherd dogs from the same genetic line?
Kathleen Ahearn on May 09, 2020:
We have had German Shepherds for decades. Last month, we lost two. One to cancer and the other to Degenerative Myelopathy. Are you referring to DM as "Degenerative Disk Disease"? We have lost at least 3 dogs over the years to this disease. It is a spinal sheath disease. There are DNA tests available to see if the dog carries these markers. Without that, you can't tell at all until they develop symptoms later in life. It rarely shows up at a young age.
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on February 25, 2020:
I'm very sorry to hear about your loss. Could be symptoms of many different issues, some natural and some not natural. My advise is to talk to a vet to dive deeper into the issue if you want answers about your dog(s) specifically.
Mithun Bhatta on February 24, 2020:
Today morning I found my male german shepherd death. From some days he was suffering from fever, he was having problem in natural call,he even vomit yesterday night.I have a female GSD too.So I have fear about her.So could you please tell me which type of disease is this??And it's solution???
email@example.com on February 24, 2020:
I have a 6 year old King Shepherd who has always had allergies and now developed a yeast infection feeg and legs. Difficult to manage it and keeps coming back. He also just started having seizures and is now on Phenobarbitol and Zomidizide (sp). He is our baby and don't know how to control these allergies. Worried.
sandra m gonzalez on February 11, 2020:
Too bad Karen is professional but can't spell.
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on February 05, 2020:
@Karen, could you point at what is inaccurate then I'll improve it when I have the time. Thank you, Sam
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on February 05, 2020:
@Theodore, I'm sorry to hear that, I have had 3 german shepherds, one of them I lost early at 10 years old on the operation table with a large tumor. It was the first one to go, I had him and trained him since I was 13 years old. Feel the pain, it's ok to miss your friend.
Karen on February 04, 2020:
I think that some of your information is Inaccurate. I am a level four vet in las vegas, and i am professional. Extreamly professional! So i assure you that you did pretty good (consitering your most likely not a vet) i own 3 german shepards, and 5 chiwawas!
Theodore on February 04, 2020:
I just had to put my best Pal and wonderful German Shepherd to sleep . Im devastated as he just turned 9yrs old. It was sudden ,in the middle of the night he tried to get up and was falling down and couldn't get his balance and when I jumped out of bed he was lying there with his head tilted . He slowly recovered and got up and he walked into the kitchen . one week later we discovered he had a huge tumor on his SPLEEN . The vet said ,it was in the worst area and most likely would not survive an operation and even if he did and was put on chemo the best prognosis would be 3 months . Broken hearted.
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on November 20, 2019:
Thank you for you comment Paula. I do my best to share knowledge about health problems in German Shepherds. Many diseases can be prevented or lessened when people know what is wrong and what to do. Some of the more hereditary health conditions can be checked for when buying a puppy, not buying from breeders where the parent dogs are already showing signs etc.
paula on November 19, 2019:
Great work! you are sharing great knowledge.
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 07, 2019:
I seem to have missed your comment here a long time ago. Only saw it today, now that I'm extending the article with 4 more German Shepherd health issues (17 instead of 13).
Genetic predisposition and weaknesses are indeed often related to inbreeding. Especially the hip dysplasia and joint problems seem to be related to that.
I'm not really sure were the weaknesses in stomach and bowel come from yet. Need to read up more on that. I lost one of our dogs at age 10 from cancer in the liver and bowel. Our first one became 14 years and hasn't been sick a day in his life, the regularly had small problems and had special food needs. Some bloodlines seem stronger than others.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 26, 2018:
I had heard that inbreeding causes problems across other dog breeds as well.