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Common German Shepherd Joint Problems

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

German Shepherds Are Active Dogs That Love to Run.

German Shepherds Are Active Dogs That Love to Run.

If you’re a proud owner, you’ve probably heard of some of these common German Shepherd joint problems. For example, these dogs are one of the breeds more prone to hip dysplasia. Why do these dogs suffer from growth disorders, back, and hip issues more often than many other breeds? Below is an overview of what we'll cover concerning joint issues in German Shepherds.

1. German Shepherd Hip Dysplasia

  • What is Hip Dysplasia Exactly?
  • Triple Pelvic Osteotomy
  • Femoral Head Osteotomy
  • Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis
  • Total Hip Replacement
  • Surgical Treatment is Most Effective Early

2. Potential Dangers of Poor Eating Habits

  • How to Slow Down Eating

3. German Shepherd Back Problems

  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • How to Prevent Hereditary Disorders

Back during the late 1800s, when the first German Shepherds were first bred, scientific understanding of heredity and genetics wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. Like several other dogs that were bred with others a little too close in relation, German Shepherds can suffer from various hereditary joint and growth disorders.

  • Many German Shepherd medical problems are hereditary.
  • Inbreeding early in the dog breed's history may have led to these issues.

1. German Shepherd Hip Dysplasia

Most common in larger to giant breeds, Hip dysplasia is usually hereditary, a genetic condition passed from mother to offspring. German Shepherds just happen to be one of those breeds more susceptible. That being said, certain things can speed its development or make matters worse.

  • Rapid growth rate
  • Types of exercise
  • Excessive weight/ poor nutrition

What is Hip Dysplasia Exactly?

To make this easier, imagine this condition from a human’s perspective. Let’s imagine your hip joint just doesn’t seem to fit together right. Your leg gives out on you all the time, causing you to abruptly fall with little warning, and you have to use a walker just to get around!

To be medically precise, the proximal head of your femur, the ‘ball’ portion of the ball and socket joint, isn’t fully covered by, or just doesn’t quite fit into the acetabulum of your dog's pelvis, the ‘socket’ part of the ball and socket joint. Thankfully, Hip dysplasia is normally fixed ‘in humans’ with corrective surgery.

If it isn’t corrected in our dogs, it can lead to instability, discomfort, arthritis, and further joint damage, leading to more pain. Every time that femur shifts around more than it should, it causes more damage to the various types of connective tissue in that area. Cartilage, the soft ‘cushioning’ between the joints, begins to wear away. The bones themselves can begin rubbing together, leading to very painful arthritis.

Elbow Dysplasia in dogs involves the same concept, only centers around the radius, ulna, and humerus. Surgical correction for both Elbow dysplasia and Hip dysplasia depends on the area affected and the extent.

Triple Pelvic Osteotomy

Meant to re-align the hip socket, this is usually an option with early signs of Hip dysplasia. Small cuts are made in the pelvis so that the socket portion, acetabulum, socket portion of the joint, can be rotated over the femoral head (the ball portion of the joint). This is usually performed on puppies younger than one year.

A Healthy Agile German Shepherd Playing Fetch.

A Healthy Agile German Shepherd Playing Fetch.

Femoral Head Osteotomy

The head of the femur (the ball portion of the joint) is removed altogether, leaving an empty socket. Eventually, scar tissue creates a sort of ‘false joint’, replacing much of the cartilage that is lost and adding cushioning. Tendons and muscles will help hold the femur in place. This procedure is usually recommended with smaller dogs (

Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis

This is a minor, cost-effective surgery for younger dogs meant for early intervention. An electric scalpel is used to create scarring near the pelvic growth plates, causing a portion of the pelvis to continue to grow, halting the growth of another portion.

This is more preventative, preventing the health complications of Hip dysplasia, arthritis, etc. later on. Results are best if this is performed early, around 14-16 weeks of age.

Total Hip Replacement

This is easily the most costly and extreme operation! Dogs need to be finished growing, and this isn’t possible if there is any kind of bone or joint disease.

Surgical Treatment is Most Effective Early

Outside of the total hip replacement, have you noticed these surgeries are normally done very early? They are most effective before the puppy’s bones have finished growing. This means a dog may not have dysplasia, or it isn’t as extreme as it could be in the future.

On the other hand, some German Shepherds are born with such a poor skeletal structure around this joint, surgery is an absolute necessity.

2. Potential Dangers of Poor Eating Habits

Excess weight might not be the cause of joint dysplasia, but it certainly can influence it. Imagine you have pretty severe arthritis in your knees, to the point where it can be painful to walk. Now imagine being forced to wear a backpack full of rocks, and how much worse it would feel if those knees had to support that extra weight also. For the normally very active German Shepherd, excessive weight can be a serious issue.

Rapid growth during puppyhood can contribute to poor bone formation, in addition to hereditary genetics.

  • Though it doesn’t fall under the realm of back problems, ‘Bloat’ (GDV- Gastric Dilatation Volvulus) is thought to result from rapid eating. Because the animal is eating so quickly, it can swallow gasses that accumulate in the stomach cavity, causing it to expand and potentially twist. The twisting will cut off blood supply to the tissues, leading to organ death. GDV is always a medical emergency requiring surgical intervention, and very often fatal.
  • Consider purchasing a sectioned-off food dish to force your pup to slow down, or place a large paperweight in the center to separate food.

How to Slow Down Eating

Rapid growth during puppyhood, as well as those cases of Gastric Dilatation Volvulus, are all preventable by managing your German Shepherd's eating habits. Of course, you want to know what you’re offering in that puppy food, but follow the feeding instructions also.

  • Feed smaller portions twice daily.
  • Place a divider in the food bowl, forcing your pup to slow down.
  • Follow written feeding instructions on the packaging.
  • Don’t completely switch food brands right away. Instead, slowly mix portions to allow adjustment.

3. German Shepherd Back Problems

Degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a degenerative, progressive affecting the spinal cord in various dog breeds, including German Shepherds. Hindlimb weakness will gradually occur as the disease progresses, eventually leading to complete hindlimb paralysis. Unfortunately, the disease is incurable and fatal. This disorder is similar to some forms of human ALS, or commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

There isn’t any successful way to treat Degenerative myelopathy, other than to try and manage it. In time, it will eventually lead to complete paralysis in all four limbs.

Spinal stenosis is another degenerative disease seen in this breed. Both of these disorders are genetic and thought to be hereditary, passed from mother to offspring.

How to Prevent Hereditary Disorders

Thanks to incredible advances in modern veterinary science, hundreds of disorders can be genetically tested for in a mother/father dam or sire before they reproduce and pass them on to their offspring. Any responsible breeder should invest in this testing and simply avoid breeding a German Shepherd dog that carries any of the traits involved in these disorders.

These tests are both very simple, usually involving a simple swab, and available to anyone willing to pay for them. You can just as easily test your pup at home.

Are these Disorders Common?

German Shepherds are a popular breed for ethical breeders and ‘backyard breeders’ alike. The latter rarely have the education to best prevent these health problems or the financial means required. Sadly, more puppies are bred each year in poor conditions than ethically.

These health conditions are more common than they should be. Before human interference, nature would have eliminated these defects from the breeding pool because a dog with hip dysplasia, for example, can’t run at the same pace as the rest of his pack (or wolf).

Nature can be a cruel mistress. Most of these dogs wouldn’t have survived to reproduce and pass on their medical conditions.

  • 19.8% of German Shepherds born between 2011 and 2015 suffer from hip dysplasia, according to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. Imagine if 20% of all human children were born with Hip dysplasia (that number is actually about .01% or about 1 in every 1,000)
  • An estimated 17% of the total population is affected by Degenerative myelopathy (DM). It is estimated about 12,000 - 15,000 people in the United States have ALS (human equivalent). That is less than 1/1,000th of the 328.2 million people that currently live there.

Take a look at these statistics above. Compared to human health, these disorders are vastly more ‘common’ in German Shepherds. In theory, without human interference, they would be less common because nature would have eliminated most cases of them.


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.

© 2021 Sam Shepards