25 Common Health Issues in German Shepherds

Categorized as Health, German Shepherd Basic
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The German Shepherd is one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. These intelligent, loyal dogs make wonderful companions and working dogs. However, due to some inherent genetic factors and their large size, German Shepherds are prone to certain health conditions. Here’s an overview of the most common health problems seen in this breed.

1. Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is an inherited condition that leads to improper development of the hip joints. It is the most prevalent orthopedic condition seen in German Shepherds. In dysplastic dogs, the hip joint loosens over time, causing pain, inflammation, lameness, and arthritis.

Symptoms

  • Lameness in hind legs
  • Reluctance to walk, run or jump
  • Swaying gait
  • Loss of thigh muscle mass
  • Reduced range of motion

Diagnosis

Hip dysplasia is diagnosed through physical examination and x-rays. X-rays help determine the severity of the condition based on evaluation of joint laxity.

Treatment

  • Weight management
  • Exercise restriction
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Joint fluid modifiers
  • Surgery (for severe cases)

To prevent hip dysplasia, only get dogs from breeders who screen for this condition. Early diagnosis and treatment can help minimize pain and mobility issues.

2. Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia refers to developmental abnormalities in the elbow joints. German Shepherds have a high prevalence of this inherited condition. Afflicted dogs develop osteoarthritis over time.

Symptoms

  • Lameness in front legs
  • Swelling around elbows
  • Reluctance to play or jump
  • Pain on extending elbows

Diagnosis

Elbow dysplasia is confirmed through physical exam and x-rays.

Treatment

  • Weight management
  • Joint supplements
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Surgery in severe cases

Careful breeding selection is important to reduce elbow dysplasia. Dogs showing early signs should have limited exercise to slow progression.

3. Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a progressive disease of the spinal cord leading to paralysis of the hind limbs. It usually affects older German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Weakness and loss of coordination in hind legs
  • Difficulty standing up
  • Dragging feet
  • Loss of bladder control

Diagnosis

Degenerative myelopathy is diagnosed through physical exam, MRI, and genetic testing. Dogs can be tested for the SOD1 gene mutation.

Treatment

There is no cure for degenerative myelopathy. Treatment focuses on supportive care such as:

  • Physiotherapy
  • Mobility assistance
  • Monitoring for sores and infections
  • Managing bowel/bladder dysfunction

Dogs with this condition require careful nursing care. Lifespan is usually 1-3 years after diagnosis.

4. Panosteitis

Panosteitis causes sudden, shifting leg lameness in young, rapidly growing German Shepherds. It is also known as “growing pains”

Symptoms

  • Acute lameness that shifts from leg to leg
  • Limping for a few days, then normal for a few weeks
  • Pain on palpating the long bones

Diagnosis

Panosteitis is diagnosed based on clinical signs, palpation, and x-rays that show bone changes.

Treatment

  • Rest
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Nutritional supplements

Most dogs outgrow this condition by 18-24 months of age. Maintaining a healthy weight and diet helps recovery.

5. Bloat

Bloat or gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV) is a life-threatening emergency common in large, deep-chested dogs like German Shepherds. It occurs when the stomach twists on itself, trapping gases inside.

Symptoms

  • Distended, hard abdomen
  • Unproductive retching
  • Anxiousness, restlessness
  • Pale gums
  • Weakness, collapse

Diagnosis

Bloat is diagnosed based on symptoms, x-rays, ultrasound, blood tests.

Treatment

Bloat requires immediate veterinary care. Treatment includes:

  • Stabilizing shock
  • Decompressing the stomach
  • Assessing stomach damage
  • Preventive surgery (gastropexy)

Preventive measures include rest after meals, avoiding large water intake with meals, and feeding multiple smaller meals.

6. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

EPI is the inability to properly digest food due to inadequate production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas. German Shepherds have a genetic predisposition for EPI.

Symptoms

  • Weight loss
  • Ravenous appetite
  • Soft, voluminous stools
  • Gas
  • Abdominal pain

Diagnosis

EPI is diagnosed through blood tests measuring trypsin levels.

Treatment

  • Pancreatic enzyme supplements
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Low-fiber diet

Lifelong enzyme supplementation and monitoring are needed for dogs with EPI. Most dogs can live happily with proper management.

7. Hemangiosarcoma

Hemangiosarcoma is an aggressive cancer that arises from blood vessel cells. It is unfortunately common in German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Collapsing episodes
  • Weakness
  • Pale gums
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis

Hemangiosarcoma is diagnosed by ultrasound, x-rays, MRI, and tissue biopsy.

Treatment

  • Surgery to remove tumors (where possible)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Supportive care

Prognosis is poor due to metastases even before clinical signs appear. Lifespan is often only weeks to months with treatment.

8. Allergies

German Shepherds often suffer from environmental or food allergies that cause skin problems.

Symptoms

  • Itchy skin
  • Ear inflammation
  • Paw licking/chewing
  • Skin infections
  • Hair loss
  • Skin reddening

Diagnosis

Allergy testing and elimination trials are used to identify the causative allergen.

Treatment

  • Oral supplements
  • Antihistamines
  • Antibiotics (for secondary infections)
  • Hyposensitization
  • Diet trials

Controlling environmental allergens and avoiding food allergens can help provide relief.

9. Diabetes

Middle-aged and older German Shepherds may develop diabetes mellitus due to insulin deficiency. Obesity is a major risk factor.

Symptoms

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Weight loss
  • Increased appetite
  • Fatigue

Diagnosis

Diabetes is diagnosed through blood tests measuring glucose levels.

Treatment

  • Insulin therapy
  • Diet modification
    -Glucose monitoring
  • Exercise

Diabetic dogs require intensive long-term management. But most can live happily with treatment.

10. Epilepsy

Epilepsy causes recurrent seizures and is often hereditary in German Shepherds. It typically develops between 6 months to 5 years of age.

Symptoms

  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Muscle twitching/stiffness
  • Drooling, chomping
  • Loss of bladder control

Diagnosis

Epilepsy is diagnosed based on clinical signs and diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions.

Treatment

  • Anticonvulsant drugs to control seizures
  • Emergency care during seizures

Many epileptic dogs can enjoy a good quality of life with proper medication and management of seizures. Lifelong observation is required.

11. Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism stems from inadequate production of thyroid hormones. It is common in middle-aged German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Lethargy
  • Weight gain
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Dry, dull coat
  • Skin infections

Diagnosis

Thyroid testing is required for diagnosis. Complete blood count and biochemical profile are also useful.

Treatment

  • Thyroid hormone supplementation
  • Monitoring T4 levels

With correct thyroid supplementation, most dogs return to normal health. Lifelong treatment is usually required.

12. Cataracts

Cataracts are an opacity of the lenses that can cause blindness. German Shepherds often develop hereditary cataracts.

Symptoms

  • Bluish, grayish, whitish discoloration in the eyes
  • Cloudiness in the eyes
  • Vision loss

Diagnosis

Slit-lamp examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist can diagnose cataracts.

Treatment

  • Antioxidant supplements may help slow progression
  • Surgery to remove cataracts if vision loss impacts quality of life

Dogs can adapt well to vision loss. But cataract surgery often successfully restores vision if needed.

13. Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence is the involuntary leakage of urine. Spayed female German Shepherds are at risk.

Symptoms

  • Dribbling urine
  • Wetness around genitals
  • Urine-soaked bedding

Diagnosis

Urinary incontinence is diagnosed through physical exam, urinalysis, and urine culture.

Treatment

  • Hormone therapy
  • Medications to strengthen sphincter muscles
  • Alternative therapies like acupuncture

Most dogs respond well to treatment and can be managed successfully long-term.

14. Cancer

German Shepherds are prone to cancers like lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, mammary tumors, and oral melanoma.

Symptoms

  • Lumps, bumps
  • Bleeding, bruising
  • Lameness
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis

Cancer is diagnosed via biopsy of abnormal growths. Chest x-rays, ultrasound and blood tests look for metastases.

Treatment

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Immunotherapy
  • Supportive care

Treatment options depend on the type of cancer and extent of spread. Prognosis varies depending on many factors.

15. Perianal Fistulas

Perianal fistulas are painful openings in the anal area caused by inflammation. They are common in German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Scooting bottom on floor
  • Straining to defecate
  • Tail chasing
  • Pain around anus

Diagnosis

Based on symptoms and inspection of the anus. Biopsies may be taken.

Treatment

  • Medicated rectal ointments
  • Antibiotics
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Dietary modification

Response varies. Aggressive cases may require surgery. Management aims to minimize pain and inflammation flare-ups.

16. Digestive Issues

Diarrhea, vomiting, and other stomach issues are common in German Shepherds. Diet plays a major role.

Symptoms

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite

Diagnosis

Diagnostic tests help rule out issues like infections, parasites, foreign bodies, etc.

Treatment

  • Diet modification
  • Pro/prebiotics
  • Anti-nausea/GI medications
  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Fecal transplants for IBD

Careful diet transitions and probiotic supplementation can prevent many GI episodes. Quick treatment helps prevent serious complications.

17. Arthritis

Joint inflammation from dysplasia, injuries or wear-and-tear can cause arthritis, especially in senior German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Lameness
  • Joint swelling/pain
  • Reluctance to move, climb stairs
  • Muscle atrophy

Diagnosis

Arthritis is diagnosed through physical exam, x-rays and joint fluid analysis.

Treatment

  • Pain medication
  • Joint fluid modifiers
  • Nutraceuticals
  • Weight management
  • Low-impact exercise
  • Physical therapy

While arthritis cannot be cured, treatment can relieve pain and stiffness to improve mobility and quality of life.

18. Anemia

Anemia, or low red blood cells, can result from diseases, parasites, medications, pregnancy, or blood loss.

Symptoms

  • Pale gums
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Low energy

Diagnosis

Complete blood counts, biochemical tests, and urinalysis determine the cause of anemia.

Treatment

  • Blood transfusions (if acute blood loss)
  • Iron supplements
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Steroids/immunosuppressants
  • Addressing underlying disease

Most cases of anemia resolve with treatment of the underlying disease or removal of the cause.

19. Liver Disease

German Shepherds are prone to some genetic conditions affecting liver function. Diet and toxin exposure also pose risks.

Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss, wasting
  • Vomiting, diarrhea
  • Fluid accumulation in abdomen

Diagnosis

Liver disease is diagnosed through physical exam, blood tests, urinalysis, imaging, and biopsy.

Treatment

  • Immunosuppressants for inflammation
  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Diet modifications
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Fluid therapy

Depending on severity, liver disease may be managed or could ultimately lead to liver failure.

20. Heart Disease

Heart conditions like dilated cardiomyopathy, valve disease and arrhythmias are potential concerns for German Shepherds.

Symptoms

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Coughing
  • Labored breathing

Diagnosis

Chest x-rays, ECG, echocardiogram and blood pressure check identify heart disease. Annual exams screen for problems.

Treatment

  • Medications to control heart rate and rhythm
  • Diuretics to reduce fluid buildup
  • Low sodium diet
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Surgery may be beneficial in some cases

Treatment aims to slow progression and alleviate symptoms. Prognosis depends on the condition.

21. Vaccine Reactions

Some German Shepherds may exhibit sensitivity and have adverse reactions to routine vaccines. Reactions are usually mild but can occasionally be life-threatening.

Symptoms

  • Facial swelling
  • Hives
  • Vomiting, diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse, shock

Treatment

  • Antihistamines
  • Steroids
  • Atropine
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Blood pressure support
  • Hospitalization in severe cases

To prevent reactions, a vet may recommend pre-treating with Benadryl before vaccination or lowering vaccine dosages. Consider titer testing instead of automatic re-vaccination.

22. Injuries/Accidents

As highly active working dogs, German Shepherds are prone to injuries like cruciate ligament tears, fractures, and lacerations that require prompt veterinary treatment.

Symptoms

  • Lameness
  • Swelling, bruising
  • Pain on palpation
  • Bleeding from lacerations
  • Abnormal mobility or gait
  • Audible cracking/popping sounds

Treatment

  • Imaging (x-rays, MRI) to assess damage
  • Splinting fractures
  • Surgical repair of cruciate tears, fractures
  • Wound cleaning, sutures, antibiotics for lacerations
  • Joint fluid therapy
  • Pain control
  • Rehabilitation exercises

With proper treatment, many injuries heal fully with rest, time and rehabilitation. However, some may cause lasting arthritis or mobility limitations.

23. Eye Problems

Common eye diseases in German Shepherds include conjunctivitis, corneal ulcers, cherry eye, dry eye syndrome, progressive retinal atrophy, and glaucoma.

Symptoms

  • Redness, swelling, discharge
  • Squinting, pawing at eyes
  • Appearance changes in pupil, cornea, lens
  • Vision loss
  • Increased tear production or dry eyes

Treatment

  • Medicated eye drops/ointments
  • Corrective surgery for cherry eye, eyelid issues -Treatment for glaucoma may involve medications or surgery
  • Dry eye relieved by supplementation
  • No cure for progressive retinal atrophy

Routine veterinary ophthalmologist exams allow early disease detection and treatment to prevent blindness.

24. Skin Disorders

German Shepherds can develop hot spots, pyoderma, lip-fold pyoderma, furunculosis, and a variety of tumors/cysts that require veterinary attention.

Symptoms

  • Hair loss
  • Redness, inflammation
  • Itching, licking
  • Odor
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Papules, crusts, ulceration

Treatment

  • Antibiotics, antifungals
  • Medicated shampoos
  • Allergy testing/hyposensitization
  • Biopsy, removal of tumors

Meticulous skin care, prompt treatment of infections, and allergy control keeps the skin and coat healthy.

25. Parasites

Hookworms, roundworms, whipworms, tapeworms, coccidia, giardia, ticks, fleas, and mites are parasites that can affect German Shepherds and require deworming/external parasite prevention.

Symptoms

  • Visible worms in stool or vomit
  • Bloated or distended abdomen
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, gas
  • Skin irritation, hair loss, crusts

Treatment

  • Oral/topical dewormers
  • External parasite prevention
  • Environmental control

Routine fecal testing, prevention and prompt treatment are essential to avoid parasitic disease and discomfort.

Proper nutrition, exercise, routine vet exams and care can minimize health risks and help prevent issues. With their strong work ethic and resilient spirit, most German Shepherds stay active and enjoy life despite age or health challenges.

What causes health issues in German Shepherds?

Several factors contribute to the common health problems seen in German Shepherds:

  • Genetics – Hip and elbow dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and some forms of epilepsy and allergies have genetic components. Irresponsible breeding practices can propagate these diseases.
  • Conformation – Certain aspects of the German Shepherd’s anatomy like a long back, deep chest, and straight hind legs increase vulnerability for spinal conditions, joint dysplasia and bloat.
  • Diet – Excess calories and rapid growth predispose to orthopedic disease. Dietary allergies and intolerances play a major role in skin, coat, GI, liver and pancreas issues.
  • Injuries/trauma – Work demands and high activity levels make them prone to injuries.
  • Immune disorders – Autoimmune problems present a health risk.
  • Undescended testicles – Increased risk of testicular cancer.
  • Vaccine reactions – Some lines may have genetic sensitivity.
  • Infections – Exposure to viruses, bacteria or parasites from other animals.
  • Toxins – Environmental chemicals or tainted pet foods/treats can cause health issues.
  • Cancers – Certain cancers occur at a higher rate due to genetics and physiologic factors.
  • Aging – Advancing age leads to weakened immunity and higher cancer risks.

How can German Shepherd owners protect their dog’s health?

Protecting your German Shepherd’s health involves:

  • Selecting puppies from reputable breeders who health test parents. This helps reduce chances of inherited illnesses.
  • Starting out with a high-quality diet appropriate for puppy, adult or senior dogs based on age. Avoid overfeeding.
  • Spaying or neutering around 12-18 months to eliminate reproductive cancer risks.
  • Keeping your dog lean to minimize load on joints and organs. Follow your vet’s diet and weight recommendations.
  • Exercising daily to maintain muscle, joint health and body condition. Avoid over-exercise while growing.
  • Training from puppyhood onward for both behavior and physical/mental stimulation.
  • Practicing good dental care through toothbrushing, safe chews, and dental treats. Get annual cleanings.
  • Using monthly heartworm, flea and tick prevention medications prescribed by your vet.
  • Vaccinating against core diseases like rabies, parvovirus etc. Consider antibody titer tests instead of automatic re-vaccination after the 1-year booster.
  • Running annual blood tests/urinalysis in mature adults to catch problems early.
  • Performing annual eye exams by a veterinary ophthalmologist to assess for inherited eye diseases.
  • Consulting a veterinary orthopedic surgeon for official hip and elbow evaluations starting at 12 months old.
  • Avoiding physical activities that lead to injuries like jumping on/off high objects or slippery floors.
  • Using a well-fitted body harness instead of a collar for leash walking to prevent neck/spinal injury if your dog pulls.
  • Opting for carpeted steps or ramps to prevent slipped kneecaps and arthritis later on.
  • Keeping your home and yard clear of toxins like antifreeze, insecticides, rodenticides etc.
  • Practicing good hygiene like washing hands before feeding, picking up dog waste promptly, and avoiding dog parks.
  • Providing mental stimulation through food puzzles, chew toys, training sessions, and social interaction.
  • Regular grooming and bathing as needed for coat and skin health. Check for lumps, bumps, or changes.
  • Booking twice-yearly wellness exams to stay on top of medical issues before they become serious. Senior dogs may need more frequent vet visits.

What is the life expectancy of a German Shepherd?

The average lifespan of a German Shepherd is between 10-14 years. However, with diligent care, proper nutrition, health screening, and responsible breeding, many German Shepherds can live well into their mid-teens.

Several key factors influence longevity in this breed. Genetics play a major role, as dogs from health-tested, long-lived bloodlines tend to live longer. Gender also impacts lifespan, with female German Shepherds often outliving their male counterparts by 1-2 years. Spaying and neutering provides health benefits by reducing reproductive cancer risks.

Lifestyle and purpose also affect longevity – working dogs or those with very active “jobs” may experience shorter lifespans versus calmer household companions. Overweight dogs generally have reduced life expectancy compared to lean, fit individuals. Providing excellent high-quality nutrition tailored to puppy, adult or senior dogs supports reaching a ripe old age.

Perhaps most influential is the level of veterinary care and preventive medicine the dog receives throughout life. German Shepherds who undergo regular wellness examinations, screening tests, prompt disease diagnosis and early treatment tend to live longer. Monitoring for issues before they become advanced allows earlier intervention.

An indoor home environment with good hygiene practices also reduces risks compared to primarily outdoor dogs. Lastly, maintaining both physical and mental exercise preserves quality of life but overexertion can lead to earlier injuries and arthritis. Partnering closely with your veterinarian provides the best opportunity for your German Shepherd to live a long, healthy life.

Frequently Asked Questions

At what age do German Shepherds become prone to health issues?

German Shepherds typically encounter various health concerns at different stages of their lives. Inherited orthopedic problems tend to emerge between 5 and 12 months of age when their growth plates close.

Immune disorders, allergies, and digestive issues often become noticeable between 1 and 5 years of age. As they grow older, around 7 years and beyond, the risks of cancer, arthritis, and organ diseases become more common.

For senior German Shepherds, health problems can begin to manifest at around 9 to 10 years of age.

How can I best manage a senior German Shepherd’s health?

For senior German Shepherds:

  • Stick to a consistent, high-quality senior diet. Avoid obesity.
  • Supplement their food with omega-3s for joints and cognition.
  • Schedule more frequent veterinary wellness exams to stay ahead of problems.
  • Address pain, reduced mobility and arthritis with medication, gentle exercise, orthopedic beds, ramps etc.
  • Consider senior-specific screening lab work and diagnostics.
  • Learn to recognize signs of canine cognitive decline and discuss medication options.
  • Spend time grooming and massaging dogs to check lumps/bumps and improve circulation.
  • Adjust exercise to your senior dog’s abilities and energy level. Prioritize low-impact activities and mental stimulation.
  • Keep up with effective parasite prevention and vaccinations.

Should German Shepherds have specialized diets?

It’s best to feed German Shepherd puppies and adults a diet specifically formulated for large, active breeds. Look for foods with glucosamine, chondroitin, optimal protein and fat levels. For seniors, look for formulas with EPA, DHA and lower fat to minimize weight gain.

Homecooked or raw food diets must be balanced. Avoid overfeeding and table scraps. Stick to the same diet; food changes can trigger digestive issues. Consult your vet about dietary treatments for any medical conditions.

How can I prevent bloat in my German Shepherd?

Strategies for preventing deadly bloat include:

  • Avoid exercising right before or after meals; wait 1 hour.
  • Slow down gobbling by placing large rocks in the food bowl.
  • Split daily food into 2-3 smaller meals instead of one large meal.
  • Prevent air swallowing by not using raised feeders.
  • Limit water intake at mealtimes; offer water again in an hour.
  • Avoid stressful situations during and after eating. Remain calm if your dog eats rapidly.
  • Refrain from vigorous play, running or rowdy activity after eating.

Know the signs of bloat and seek emergency veterinary care immediately if symptoms arise. Discuss prophylactic gastropexy surgery with your vet.

What are warning signs of cancer in German Shepherds?

Be alert for these subtle signs of possible cancer:

  • Unusual lumps, bumps, swellings anywhere on the body
  • Wounds or sores that don’t heal
  • Lameness or stiff gait
  • Difficulty with exercise or activity level changes
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Blood in urine or stool
  • Abnormal discharge or bleeding
  • Offensive odor from body, ears, mouth
  • Reluctance to eat treats or play with toys
  • Persistent changes in behavior

Schedule a veterinary exam right away if you notice any unusual changes. Catching cancer early vastly improves prognosis.

How can I treat hot spots and skin infections?

For minor cases:

  • Gently clip and clean the affected area to allow it to dry out and heal.
  • Apply a topical antiseptic spray or ointment.
  • Place an Elizabethan collar to prevent licking, scratching, chewing.
  • Give Benadryl to relieve itching.

For serious/recurrent cases:

  • Seek veterinary care for prescription oral/topical antibiotics and antibiotic shampoo.
  • Culture the infection to identify the type of bacteria involved.
  • Consider allergy testing.
  • Transition to a veterinary hypoallergenic diet.
  • Discuss medications to control allergies long-term.

Keep the skin clean and dry. Never let a hot spot scab over and get worse.

Summary

German Shepherds are prone to certain health conditions due to their genetics, anatomy, size, and temperament. Responsible breeding, excellent preventive care, proper nutrition, exercise, training, and annual vet exams can help minimize risks and ensure a long, healthy life.

Being vigilant to subtle changes in your dog’s condition allows early disease detection and treatment for the best outcome. Partnering closely with your veterinarian provides your German Shepherd with the highest quality of life possible.

By Andrew Garf

Andrew Garf has loved dogs, especially German Shepherds, since he was 10 years old. Though he also loves burgers, training dogs is his real passion. That's why he created the website TrainYourGSD.com - to help dog owners learn how to properly train, care for, and bond with their German Shepherd dogs.