17 Common German Shepherd Health Problems

Updated on August 7, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.

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
  • Bloat
  • Epilepsy
  • Hemophilia
  • Diabetes
  • Cataracts
  • Degenerative Disc Disease
  • Panosteitis
  • Allergies
  • Pancreatitis
  • Thyroid issues
  • Bladder Stones
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Nose Infections
  • Dental Health Problems
  • Cancer

Hip Dysplasia

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.

Elbow Dysplasia

Like hip dysplasia, this is a congenital condition that affects many large breeds but especially effects 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.

Often, mild cases will 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 or 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 seems to be a weak spot for this breed. A lot of the serious health problems in German Shepherd dogs are found there.

Epilepsy

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.

Hemophilia

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.

Diabetes

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.

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Cataracts

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.

Panosteitis

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.

Allergies

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

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

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.

Bladder Stones

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

Nose and teeth, your dog's toolbox, take good care of them.
Nose and teeth, your dog's toolbox, take good care of them.

Nose Infections

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.

Cancer

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

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    • profile image

      Chloe 

      6 days ago

      Do you have a resources and reference list?

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      2 weeks ago from Europe

      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.

    • profile image

      paula 

      2 weeks ago

      Great work! you are sharing great knowledge.

    • profile image

      Hamid Esmaeili 

      5 weeks ago

      I recently find out about the Kangen water that if I known ten years ago I would not put my ten years old German Shepherd to sleep because of Degenerative Disc Disease. Just like human, any other form of life in earth needs water to live. But not just any water, ionized Alkaline water that is rich in hydrogen. I think animal lovers should only give only the best to their pets for healthier, and longer life. Please visit www.h2oinaction.com

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      4 months ago from Europe

      @Liz

      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.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      12 months ago from UK

      I had heard that inbreeding causes problems across other dog breeds as well.

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