Why is My German Shepherd so Small? Genetics, Diet, & More Factors

Categorized as Health
Featured image for an article about Why is My German Shepherd so Small? Genetics, Diet, & More Factors

German Shepherds are usually thought of as large, powerful dogs. However, some German Shepherds end up being smaller than expected. There are several potential reasons why your German Shepherd may be on the smaller side.

Here’s a quick answer: A German Shepherd may be smaller than typical for the breed if they have genetics for a petite size, an underlying health condition impacting growth, intestinal parasites robbing nutrients, an inadequate diet lacking proper calories and nutrients for development, or insufficient exercise to stimulate bone and muscle growth. With proper care most will reach a healthy size, but focus on overall health rather than specific size measurements.

Genetics Play a Major Role

Genetics are perhaps the biggest factor when it comes to your German Shepherd’s size. The genes inherited from the parents and other ancestors in their lineage will significantly influence their growth and development.

If your German Shepherd comes from bloodlines consisting mainly of smaller dogs, they will likely end up on the smaller side themselves. Reputable breeders focus on breeding dogs that meet the breed standard, which for male German Shepherds is 24-26 inches tall and 60-65 pounds. Females are 22-24 inches and 50-70 pounds.

However, backyard breeders or puppy mills may not pay as much attention to size, producing German Shepherds outside of the standard. So if you obtained your dog from disreputable sources, this could explain the smaller stature.

Examining the Parents

One of the best ways to estimate the size your German Shepherd will reach is to look at the parents. If both the sire and dam are on the smaller side, chances are your puppy will be too. Ask to see health clearance documents and information on the parents’ weight and height before bringing a new German Shepherd home.

This will give you a good idea of what to expect as your dog matures. While environmental factors can influence size too, genetics lay the foundation.

Medical Conditions Could be Preventing Proper Growth

Various medical conditions can potentially hinder a German Shepherd’s development, resulting in a smaller than normal dog. Some of the most common issues that may stunt growth include:


Panosteitis is a condition that causes painful inflammation in the long bones of large breed puppies during growth spurts. It usually develops between 5-14 months of age. The pain causes affected puppies to become reluctant to exercise and play.

Without proper activity levels, muscle and bone development can suffer. Puppies with chronic panosteitis often end up undersized as adults. Treatment involves pain management and anti-inflammatory medications.


An underactive thyroid gland prevents adequate production of thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate metabolism and growth. Without enough thyroid hormones, a German Shepherd puppy may demonstrate stunted development.

Blood testing can diagnose hypothyroidism. Once treated with supplemental thyroid medication, normal growth can resume. But if left untreated for a long period, the dog may remain undersized.

Orthopedic Problems

Issues like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) can impede proper limb development. The pain and joint changes make exercise difficult. Lack of exercise can allow muscles to atrophy and bones to stop reaching their growth potential.

Corrective surgery and medications to control orthopedic diseases may help get development back on track. But any damage already done may prevent the dog from reaching full size.

Congenital Defects

Birth defects impacting the skeleton or vital organs can interfere with growth in some cases. One example is a liver shunt, where blood bypasses the liver. Liver shunts disrupt nutrient absorption and metabolism, often resulting in stunted growth.

Surgical correction may allow more normal development. But if the dog is older at the time of diagnosis, they may remain small for their breed.

Parasites Could be Robbing Nutrients

Intestinal parasites like worms can infest puppies and drain vital nutrients. Roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and tapeworms are common parasites found in dogs that prevent adequate absorption of calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Puppies with heavy parasite loads become “failure to thrive”, demonstrating poor growth and small size. Severe infestations can even be life-threatening without proper deworming treatments.

All puppies should be dewormed starting at 2 weeks old, then regularly throughout the first year. Adult dogs require periodic fecal testing and deworming to keep parasites under control.

Keeping your German Shepherd free of parasites ensures they can properly digest and absorb their food to support healthy development. Puppies who miss out on deworming are at risk for remaining undersized.

Inadequate Diet Can Restrict Growth

Nutrition is vital to ensure your growing German Shepherd puppy hits their optimal adult size. Feeding an inappropriate diet with deficient calories or nutrients during crucial developmental stages can result in a smaller dog.

Not Enough Calories

German Shepherds need more calories per pound of body weight when young to fuel their rapid growth. If your puppy’s diet provides insufficient calories, their growth may slow or even stop prematurely.

Pregnant and nursing dams also require increased calories and nutrition. If the mother was fed poorly, growth could be impacted even before birth.

Switch to a high-quality puppy formula after weaning to ensure adequate calories for your German Shepherd puppy. Follow feeding guidelines based on their current weight and activity level.

Missing Key Nutrients

German Shepherd puppies need proper amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals in their diet. Diets deficient in certain nutrients will not properly support full growth and development.

For example, inadequate calcium and phosphorus levels can impair bone growth. Lack of protein may result in muscle loss and slow weight gain. Omega fatty acids like DHA are essential for brain, eye, and nervous system maturation.

Choose a premium commercial puppy food formulated for large breed growth. Alternatively, work with a veterinary nutritionist to develop a custom balanced homemade diet. Avoid cheap diets with nutrient fillers.

Transitioning Foods Too Quickly

When switching your German Shepherd puppy to a new diet, allow at least 5-7 days to transition gradually. Abrupt changes can disrupt digestion, limiting calorie absorption required for growth.

Mix a little new food with the previous food, slowly adjusting the ratios over a week. This gives their gastrointestinal system time to adapt to different ingredients and nutrients in the new food.

Proper diet transitions help ensure your puppy maintains proper growth and development on their new food. Drastic switches could result in nutritional imbalance.

Activity Levels Impact Growth Potential

German Shepherd puppies have lots of energy and need adequate exercise and activity. Without enough exercise, their muscle and bone development can suffer, resulting in a smaller than expected adult size.

Not Enough Exercise

Regular activity and play encourages bone lengthening and muscle growth. When puppies get insufficient exercise, bones and muscles do not receive the stimulatory signals to reach their genetic potential.

German Shepherd puppies need at least 30-60 minutes of activity per day. This might include leash walking, playing fetch, or running around a yard under supervision. Keep sessions short but frequent for young puppies.

Restricting a German Shepherd’s natural activity needs during growth may physically limit their size and fitness compared to properly exercised litter mates.


On the other hand, exercising a German Shepherd puppy too aggressively can also impair growth. Their bones and joints are still developing, so excessive jogging, jumping, or similar activities can damage their body.

Listen to your puppy’s signals. If they seem reluctant to exercise or limp afterward, the sessions are too extreme. Stick to moderate, controlled activities that encourage extension and motion without overstressing the limbs.

With the right balance of activity tailored to their age, your German Shepherd will develop strong muscles and bones to match their genetic size potential.

Other Environmental Factors

Aside from the key reasons covered above, other environmental factors may contribute to a smaller than expected German Shepherd.

Poor Maternal Care

German Shepherd puppies depend on their mother’s milk for early nutrition and antibodies. If the mother rejects the litter or cannot produce enough milk, growth may be impacted even before weaning.

Signs of poor maternal care include low birth weights, failure to gain weight, and increased health problems in the litter. Taking over supplemental feedings and care of affected puppies can help get nutrition back on track.

Stress or Trauma

Stressful events or traumas like an accident or attack can affect a German Shepherd puppy’s development. The physical recovery combined with emotional impacts may limit their ability to reach full genetic size potential.

General Health or Illness

Any illness that causes poor appetite, maldigestion, or malabsorption of food can potentially slow growth. Examples include parasites, infections, liver or kidney disease, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Once the underlying condition is treated, normal development may resume. But extended illnesses during crucial growth periods could still result in a smaller than expected adult size.

Is My German Shepherd’s Size Cause for Concern?

While a smaller than expected German Shepherd may simply have genetics for a petite size, rule out any medical reasons for their limited growth. Schedule a veterinary exam to check for parasites, orthopedic disease, thyroid problems, and other conditions.

Discuss their current diet and activity levels with the vet as well to ensure their nutritional and exercise needs are being met. With any identified issues properly addressed, your German Shepherd should continue to develop normally toward a healthy adult body condition.

If your vet determines no medical reasons for your dog’s smaller size, you can feel confident it is simply their natural conformation. As long as they appear proportional, fit, and in good body condition, a petite German Shepherd can still live a long, full life.

Focus on health rather than specific size measurements. Not all German Shepherds will meet breed height and weight standards. What matters most is your dog’s happiness and quality of life at the size genetics intended for them.

With the right care and nutrition, you can ensure your small-statured German Shepherd reaches their own ideal weight and figure. A responsible dog owner knows that good health comes in all sizes!

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I estimate my German Shepherd’s size?

The best way to estimate adult size is to look at the parents. German Shepherds generally fall within a few inches of height and 10 pounds of weight compared to their sire and dam. Growth charts also provide reasonable projections.

What is a standard-sized German Shepherd?

The American Kennel Club breed standard states male German Shepherds should stand 24-26 inches tall and weigh 60-65 pounds. Females should be 22-24 inches tall and 50-70 pounds. But size can vary naturally.

Is my German Shepherd underweight?

You should be able to feel but not see the ribs in a healthy weight dog. Severely underweight dogs will have ribs, spine, and hip bones visibly protruding. Check with your vet if concerned about your German Shepherd’s weight.

Can I speed up my German Shepherd’s growth?

No, it’s not recommended to try speeding up a dog’s growth. Follow healthy feeding and exercise guidelines tailored to their age from your vet. Forcing overfeeding or supplementation can actually harm bone and joint development.

At what age is a German Shepherd full grown?

German Shepherds reach their full adult height between 12-15 months old but can continue filling out muscle and thickness up to 2-3 years old. Make sure to transition to an adult food at around a year to meet changing nutritional needs.

The Takeaway

If your German Shepherd is smaller than expected, take a look at their genetic history, health, diet, and activity to identify any factors that could be limiting their growth. With the right care and barring any medical issues, most German Shepherds will reach a healthy size in line with their genes.

Focus on good health and nutrition rather than specific measurements. Your German Shepherd’s size does not define them – their big heart and loyal spirit still shine through no matter their stature!

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.