Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM
The Australian Shepherd is synonymous with the American West and excels in agility trials, and is often part of rodeo attractions.
This lively and loving breed has made a long journey from its European origins and has firmly cemented its place in American culture.
Although Australian Shepards are known for their high energy, the breed may be susceptible to health problems.
The most common Australian Shepherd health issues include thyroid disorders and idiopathic epilepsy. They are prone to MDR1 related drug sensitivity and may not take certain forms of medication. The breed is also prone to hip dysplasia and eye conditions such as cataracts, leading to blindness.
Using my experience as a veterinary doctor, I’ve compiled the following list of five Australian Shepherd health issues, their symptoms, how they’re diagnosed, and the best course of action.
Australian Shepherd Background
The Australian Shepherd is a generally healthy breed, with a life expectancy of 12-15 years.
However, there are some genetic weaknesses in the breed that owners should be aware of and keep in mind.
Historians believe that Australian Shepherds descended from the Basques in the borders of France and Spain.
The Basques were famous shepherds and chose the Pyrenean Shepherd as their herding dog of choice. These herding dogs were the ancestors of the modern Aussie.
The Basques migration to Australia heralded the mixed breeding of their herding dogs with British herders such as the collie and border Collies which breeders later brought to America.
The Americans wrongly assumed that the origins of the unique shepherds were Australian, hence the name.
The breed was eagerly embraced into cowboy culture and is still part of herding in the American west.
Well known for their rodeo skills, bravery, and intelligence, the Australian Shepherd entered the American Kennel Club Herding Group in 1993.
The hardy and active Australian Shepherd, known for their quick wits and high activity levels, are also prone to some health issues that are endemic to the breed.
Common Australian Shepherd Health Issues
The thyroid gland is essential to a dog’s health and is found near the trachea and has two lobes.
The pituitary gland in the base of the brain controls The thyroid, which produces a hormone called thyroxine that regulates the metabolic rate ( the process of turning food into fuel.)
When the gland is overactive, it results in hyperthyroidism, and when underactive, it results in hypothyroidism.
Lymphocytic thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition whereby the dog’s immune system reacts to its thyroid as if it were a foreign body.
This condition is a heritable trait in Australian Shepards and passed on genetically.
Thyroid disease, specifically lymphocytic thyroiditis, is the most common autoimmune disease reported in Australian Shepherds and a leading cause of hypothyroidism in the breed.
ASHGI found the prevalence as high as 20% in their study of 500 Australian Shepherds.
The symptoms of hypothyroidism are extensive and impact most areas of your Australian Shepherd’s health.
It is so common in the breed that the ASHGI recommends that all breeding stock be screened at one and two years old and annually until they are four to prevent the gene’s spread.
With the genetic susceptibility to the disease in the Australian Shepherd breed, owners should look out for one or more of the following signs:
- Increased weight without appetize increase
- Lack of desire to exercise and lethargy
- Your dog suffers from the cold easily
- Dry, dull coat and excessive shedding
- Thin to bald coat
- Slow heart rate
- High blood cholesterol
- Frequency of skin or ear infections
- Increased dark pigmentation in the skin
Some dogs also exhibit:
- Thickening of the facial folds
- Infertility and lack of heat periods
- Fat deposits in the cornea of the eye
- Keratoconjunctivitis sicca or dry eye
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will typically perform a series of tests on your pet to diagnose hypothyroidism. These tests usually include:
- Total thyroxine (TT4) level test. This test measures the main thyroid hormone in the blood. Low-level thyroxine, along with one or more of the clinical signs, would indicate hypothyroidism.
- Free T4 by equilibrium dialysis and a thyroid panel to assess thyroxine levels
Hypothyroidism is treatable, although there is no cure.
Typically your vet will prescribe oral thyroid replacement hormones, which you will have to administer to your pet for the rest of their life.
The most common treatment for hypothyroidism is the oral synthetic thyroid hormone replacement called levothyroxine.
Over 13 percent of the 1212 Australian Shepherds tested in the Canine Epilepsy Research Project showed signs of idiopathic epilepsy.
Recurrent seizures with no known cause characterize this common neurological disorder.
Seizures are surges of electrical activity in the brain, causing uncontrollable spasms, twitches, tremors, or convulsions.
Idiopathic Epilepsy is epilepsy with no known cause, and as yet, there is no test for primary epilepsy.
Idiopathic epilepsy is diagnosed by ruling out all other reasonable physical causes.
Primary epilepsy is not curable and is a lifelong affliction for an affected pet.
However, with proper care and medication, your Shepherd may lead a happy and healthy life. However, periodic break-through seizures are common.
The Canine Epilepsy Research Project showed that the median age for the onset of idiopathic epilepsy was 2.5 years in Australian Shepherds.
However, symptoms may manifest from 10 months to three years of age.
Seizures are common in times of changing brain activity such as falling asleep, waking, feeding, or excitement.
The presentation of epileptic seizures are divided into three stages of symptoms as follows:
- The pre-ictal stage. Your Shepherd will exhibit altered behavior before a seizure, such as whining, restlessness, or salivation.
- The ictal stage. The active seizure stage generally lasts between 30 and 90 seconds but may last for several minutes. Depending on the severity of the dog’s condition, the seizures may be mild and focused on one part of the body, moderate spasms, tremors, and shakes. The most severe cases may result in grand mal seizures and loss of consciousness.
- Post-ictal stage. After a seizure, your dog may appear drowsy, disorientated, or sleepy.
Other symptoms of seizures include:
- Stiffening of the neck and legs
- Stumbling and falling
- Chewing and drooling
- Paddling of the limbs
- Loss of bladder control and shaking
- Violent trembling
- Fixed stare
Diagnosis and Treatment
If your Shepherd is exhibiting signs of epilepsy or seizures in general, your veterinarian will conduct tests to rule out any possibility of causes other than idiopathic.
Your vet will study your pet’s medical history and any evidence such as head trauma that may be triggering the seizures.
Your vet will eliminate root causes such as:
- Blood sugar disorders
The vet will typically conduct laboratory tests such as blood and urine tests or EKGs (according to the severity of seizures).
These tests are necessary to rule out root causes such as:
- Low blood sugar
- Kidney and liver problems
- A fatty liver
- Infectious diseases in the blood
- A viral or fungal diseases
- Systemic diseases
If your vet can discover no other physiological reason why your dog is suffering seizures, your vet will assume that your pet has a genetic or idiopathic form of epilepsy.
Depending on the age of your pet when they first manifest seizures and the frequency and severity of the episodes, they will recommend medication such as:
- lifestyle changes such as weight control
- Corticosteroid medications
Owners need to be diligent with their epilepsy medication schedules as improper medication may worsen their pet’s symptoms.
Owners should also be careful of dogs that can access water and monitor swimming activities to prevent drowning during seizures.
MDR1-Related Drug Sensitivity
The Australian Shepherd is particularly prone to ‘multidrug resistance mutation 1 or MDR1, a mutation that may occur at the ABCB1 gene.
The MDR1 drug mutation shows its primary effects on the blood-brain barrier.
This filtering system keeps substances in the blood from entering the brain.
Dogs with the MDR1 mutation have defective p-glycoproteins that allow higher drug levels to enter the brain, magnifying g the effects of some medications, including:
- Ivermectin an antiparasitic agent
- Selamectin, milbemycin, and moxidectin which are anti-parasitic agents
- Loperamide such as Immodium and other antidiarrheal agents
- Acepromazine, which is a tranquilizer and pre-anesthetic agent
- Butorphanol (analgesic and pre-anesthetic agent)
- Chemotherapy Agents (Vincristine, Vinblastine, Doxorubicin, Paclitaxel)
- Apomorphine – this drug effect is to induce vomiting in dogs who may have ingested substances such as poison
As many as one in two Australian Shepherd carry at least one copy of this gene, and MDR1 affects as many as 50% of the Australian Shepherd population.
Each Australian Shepherd inherits two copies of the MDR1 gene, one from each parent.
If a pup inherits two defective copies of the gene, the lack of normal p-glycoprotein production will make the dog susceptible to the mutation’s effects.
Dogs who inherit only one defective gene may show mild effects to certain medications.
If your Australian Shepherd exhibits signs of toxicity, they should be evaluated by a vet immediately.
MDR1 related toxicosis of the central nervous system include symptoms such as:
- Unwillingness to move
- Stumbling and bumping into objects
- In severe toxicosis, the dog will stop moving and may lapse into a coma
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you own an Australian Shepherd, vets highly recommend that you test your dog for the MDR1 gene.
The test is commercially available through either blood tests or cheek swabs and is essential to ensure that you don’t give your Shepherd medications that cause toxicosis.
It is also crucial for owners who intend to breed their Shepherds because the mutation should not continue in the bloodline.
If the medication that caused the toxic reaction has a reversal agent, your vet will administer the agent.
For example, naloxone is a reversal agent for the effects of loperamide. Typically your vet will administer intensive supportive care, including:
- IV fluids
- Nutritional support
- Careful patient monitoring
Owners should be aware that their pets may incur MDR1 related toxicosis by eating feces of animals such as horses or livestock whose owners have dosed them with anti-parasitic medication such as Ivermectin.
Hip dysplasia is a common condition in the Australian Shepherd breed.
Hip dysplasia (HD) is a deformity of the hip that occurs during growth, where the ball of the femur and the socket in the pelvis grow at different rates.
This uneven growth causes laxity or looseness of the joint, a precursor of degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis.
Although HD is a genetic disease, it can be affected by factors such as:
- Growth rate
- Muscle mass
Owners should feed Large breed dogs such as the Australian Shepherd a special large breed diet in their first year of growth.
Overfeeding in this pivotal development stage may increase their potential to develop HD.
HD symptoms are common in dogs of one to two years old, but symptoms may manifest early in puppies only a few months old.
Dogs with mild HD may develop arthritis and only show clinical signs when they are older.
Often it takes several years of gradual bone deterioration before a dog exhibits symptoms of HD.
Signs of HD may include:
- Weakness in the hind limbs and symptoms of pain
- Wobbly gait
- ‘Bunny hopping’ when running
- Limping without a source of injury
- Sounds of cracking or popping of joints
- Difficulty or reluctance to rise from lying or seated position
- Hesitation to jump up on furniture or into cars
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will assess clinical signs of HD and look for palpable joint laxity in the hind limbs.
Typically your vet will perform a hip radiograph while your pet is under general anesthetic.
Treatment would depend on your pet’s clinical signs and the amount of pain experienced.
Typically your vet will prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with the least amount of side effects.
Non-surgical treatments may also include:
- Glucosamine sulfate
- Omega 3 fatty acid supplements
- Regular polysulfated glycosaminoglycan injections
Lifestyle changes such as moderate daily exercise and avoidance of high impact activities may help the healing process.
Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, class 4 laser, and stem cell treatments have also met HD treatment success.
It is essential to build the muscles around the joint and to keep your pet from being overweight.
The alternative to NSAID and therapy is the option of surgery.
There are several surgical options for HD but the two most common surgeries performed are the:
- Total Hip Replacement removes and replaces the ball and the socket with a prosthesis.
- A Femoral Head Ostectomy is when the surgeon removes the femur’s head, leaving an empty socket. The leg muscles hold the femur in place until scar tissue forms a cushioning or ‘false joint.’
- A triple pelvic osteotomy is suited for dogs under ten months old. It involves bone cuts in the pelvis to enable the joint’s socket area to rotate over the femoral joint ball. The surgeon then stabilizes the area with a bone plate.
- Juvenile pubic symphysiodesis is an excellent option for puppies under 18 months old and improves the hip socket rotation and improves ball to joint contact.
Cataracts are the number one inherited eye disease on the ASAGI’s list of prevalent diseases in the Australian Shepard.
In 2008, Britain’s Animal Health Trust (AHT) announced a new DNA test for the DNA screening of the mutation that causes cataracts in the Australian Shepherd breed.
AHT researchers found that the mutation found in the HSF4 gene was significantly associated with cataracts in Aussies.
Cataracts are the clouding of the eye lens and may often lead to visual impairment and blindness.
Cataracts start manifesting around two years of age and have a varied rate of progression and impairment.
When less than 30% of the lens or only one lens is affected, they rarely cause diminished vision.
Whether the cataract remains static or progresses to 100%, the dog will be blind in the affected eye.
Typically cataracts present themselves as a cloudiness or grey tinge in your dog’s eye(s).
Your dog may also exhibit loss of vision, particularly in low light conditions.
However, dogs adapt quickly to impaired vision and use hearing and smell to aid their reduced vision, so vision loss may not be overt.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will ensure the cause of cataracts in your Aussie is not due to other factors such as glaucoma or a symptom of an underlying condition such as diabetes.
As mentioned earlier, your vet may screen your pet for the genetic markers of hereditary cataracts.
If the vision impairment is severe, your vet may recommend surgery.
Veterinary ophthalmologists may surgically remove the cataract. The surgery is often highly successful and restores your pet’s sight with few complications.
Your vet will typically refer you to an ophthalmologist to evaluate your pet’s eyes and suggest appropriate treatment.
In terms of other pedigree lines, the Australian Shepard is by no means a dog prone to ill health, such as the Bulldog breed.
However, certain genetic traits can increase the likelihood of the conditions mentioned above.
Owners should conduct DNA screening for disorders so that they may tackle possible ill-health timeously and effectively.
Often early detection increases the chance of effective treatments and ensures that your Aussie lives a full and active life.
- AKC: Australian Shepherd Dog Breed Information
- Wikipedia: Australian Shepherd
- VCPL VetMed: Problem Drugs
- Today’s Veterinary Nurse: MDR1 Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know
- ASHGI: MDR1 FAQs – Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute
- Canine Epilepsy: Canine Epilepsy Research Project
- VCA Hospitals: Epilepsy in Dogs
- PetMD: Dog Seizures – Causes, Symptoms & More
- VCA Hospitals: Hypothyroidism in Dogs
- WebMD: Hypothyroidism in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatment
- ASHGI: Thyroid Disease
- ASHGI: Autoimmune Diseases
- VCA Hospitals: Levothyroxine
- VCA Hospitals: Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
- VCA Hospitals: Total Hip Replacement in Dogs
- VCA Hospitals: Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO) in Dogs
- VSC Vets: Triple Pelvic Osteotomy (TPO)
- MedVet For Pets: Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis for Treatment of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
- AHT: Animal Health Trust
- ResearchGate: Mutation in HSF4 is associated with hereditary cataract in the Australian Shepherd
- VCA Hospitals: Cataracts in Dogs
Veterinary Hospital Director at UCE
Dr. Marcelle is a general veterinarian with a Small Animal Medicine Specialty | Director of the UCE School of Veterinary Medicine | Certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society