9 Common German Shepherd Health Issues to Be Aware Of

Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM

Two german shepherds

Although German Shepherds may seem tough and indestructible, they’re prone to some health issues that can take a toll on their activity and quality of life.

The most common German Shepherd health issues are related to their bones, namely Hip Dysplasia and Panosteitis (growing pains). They may also encounter digestive problems, such as Bloat and Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). As GSDs grow older, they may suffer from Degenerative Myelopathy and Pannus.

Using my experience as a veterinary doctor, I’ve compiled the following list of the most common German Shepherd health issues.

I’ll give you a short profile of each disease, detailing its symptoms, diagnosis, and veterinary treatment.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is one of the genetic conditions that may affect your GSD’s growth.

During the first weeks of life, the ligaments holding the hip and thigh bones together may become loose.

As a result, the bones will grow out of sync, meaning that they won’t fit together as they should. 

Growing with ill-fitted hips will gradually wear out your dog’s bones and cartilages, leading to pain, inflammation, and decreased range of motion.

Although hip dysplasia is a genetic disorder, over-feeding and excessive exercise may worsen the case faster than usual. 

X rays

Symptoms

Hip dysplasia usually starts to manifest the following symptoms at 6–12 months of age.

Keep in mind that the condition worsens with time, so visit your vet as soon as you can.

  • Stiffness
  • Pain to touch 
  • Unwillingness to exercise
  • Difficult jumping, running, or climbing stairs
  • Grating in the joint during movement
  • Decreased level of activity
  • Bunny-hopping gait 
  • Lameness that increase after exercise
  • Wasted hind legs 

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will move your dog’s legs in a certain way to look for looseness, grating, and pain.

If these factors felt off, your vet will need x-rays to confirm the diagnosis.

Young puppies may also need magnetic resonance arthrogram (MRA) or computed tomography (CT) since x-rays may not show enough details. 

Treatment will depend on the symptom’s severity. Mild and moderate hip dysplasia can improve with pain medications, joint supplements, and physical therapy.

Your vet may also suggest some exercise routines to keep your dog entertained without overloading his joints. 

In severe cases where the bones are damaged beyond repair, surgery will be the only option.

Your vet may reshape the hip bones to make them fit better, but some dogs will require complete joint replacement. 

Panosteitis

Panosteitis, commonly known as pano, is an inflammatory condition that may affect your dog’s legs.

It usually affects puppies between 5 and 14 months of age, which is why it’s also called growing pains. 

germand shepherd sleeping

Until now, no one knows the root cause behind pano. The most accepted theory points to genetic components usually found in German Shepherds, which explains why pano is highly common between GSD puppies

Symptoms

Unlike most bone diseases, pano occurs in cyclic episodes.

Your dog will show signs of sudden pain and lameness for a few days or weeks, followed by an asymptomatic period that usually lasts for a month. 

During a pano episode, your dog may show the following symptoms: 

  • Pain that shifts from one leg to another
  • Lameness of one or more legs
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Decreased energy 
  • Reluctance to exercise

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet can diagnose panosteitis by physical examination and x-ray scans.

If your dog has shown only one pano episode, x-rays may not show any abnormal bone changes.

In that case, your vet will ask for a new x-ray scan after two weeks. 

Unfortunately, pano doesn’t have a definitive treatment. The painful episodes will come and go until age two, after which the condition will resolve entirely on its own.

That said, your vet will prescribe pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs to make your dog more comfortable. 

If your dog doesn’t feel like eating, your vet will also provide some supplements to support healthy growth. 

Pannus (Chronic Superficial Keratitis)

GERMAN SHEPHERD LAID DOWN

Pannus is an inflammatory condition that affects the superficial part of your dog’s eyes.

The inflammation starts as a small pinkish mass on the outer half of each eye.

With time, that mass becomes darker and flatter, and it gradually progresses into a permanent scar, which will be extremely detrimental to your dog’s vision. 

Scientists are still unsure about what causes pannus.

However, recent studies believe that GSDs have a gene that reprograms the immune system to attack the body’s own cells, gradually destroying the eyes.

The risk may increase if you’re living in a state with a high average elevation, such as Colorado and Wyoming.

As these states get you closer to the sun, your dog will be exposed to high levels of UV radiation, which is a leading cause of cataracts in dogs and humans alike.

Symptoms

  • Whitish, pink, or brown mass at the outer half of the eyes
  • Reddening, thickening, and pigment loss of the third eyelid 
  • Excessive mucus discharge coming from one or both eyes
  • Repetitive bumping into walls or furniture
  • Failure to follow hand signals 

Keep in mind that pannus usually causes no pain, at least before scars appear.

Visit your vet promptly if you think your dog’s eyes don’t look right.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Vets can diagnose pannus by simple eye examination, but they may also need blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Your vet may also take a sample of the inflamed eye by gently scraping it.

After examining this sample under the microscope, the vet can rule out other eye conditions. 

Although pannus is incurable, your vet will prescribe medications to suppress the rogue immunity and prevent the symptoms from worsening.

Scarred eyes may improve after surgery, but you’ll need to consult a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Normally, your dog’s pancreas is responsible for producing several enzymes to digest starches, fats, and proteins. 

In GSDs affected with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), the pancreatic cells may degenerate with age, meaning that they won’t produce enough digestive enzymes.

Of course, insufficient digestion will lead to weight loss, even if the dog has a normal appetite. 

Any condition affecting the pancreas, like diabetes, can increase the risk of EPI. However, EPI can also develop due to genetic factors.   

Symptoms

  • Increased appetite
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Occasional vomiting
  • Weight loss

EPI isn’t typically painful, so it’s often difficult to diagnose. You should keep an eye on your dog’s weight and consult your vet if you notice any sudden weight loss. 

German shepherd

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will need some blood tests to measure the levels of pancreatic hormones in the blood, which will determine whether the pancreas is working normally or not.

However, because EPI usually shows the same symptoms as intestinal infections, your vet may also request urine and stool tests to reach a definite diagnosis. 

To treat the condition, your vet will prescribe medications containing artificial pancreatic enzymes.

These enzymes will break down the food in your dog’s intestines into tiny absorbable nutrients. 

If your dog developed EPI due to an inflamed pancreas, the condition would gradually resolve as the pancreas heals up.

However, if the pancreatic cells have already atrophied, EPI will be incurable; your dog will depend on artificial supplements for the rest of his life. 

Bloat (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus)

Bloat is a serious medical and surgical emergency that needs immediate veterinary care.

The condition may happen when your dog eats a large meal quicker than usual.

As the stomach expands with gas, food, and fluid, it puts pressure on other organs, which can cause multiple organ failures.

In unfortunate cases, the stomach may also twist on itself, preventing the blood from returning to the heart. 

Although any breed can experience bloat, German Shepherds are especially at risk because their stomachs can enlarge rapidly into their deep chest space.

Also, the fluffy double coat may conceal the distended abdomen until the dog suddenly collapses.

Symptoms

  • Hard, distended, or bloated abdomen
  • Dry heaving (trying to vomit, but nothing comes out)
  • Anxious pacing and restlessness
  • Excessive drooling
  • Lying with the front legs drawn fully forward (praying position)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid pulse rate
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse

As I said earlier, bloat is a serious condition — it can lead to death if not treated early.

DOG AT VET

So, call your vet immediately if your dog started acting weird after finishing his meal. 

Diagnosis and Treatment

Vets can quickly diagnose bloat by examining the enlarged abdomen.

However, they’ll need x-ray scans to determine if the stomach has twisted.

Regardless of the diagnosis, treatment starts by trying to relieve the stomach pressure.

At first, your vet will try to insert a tube down your dog’s throat and into the stomach, which should vent the trapped gas. 

However, if the stomach has already twisted, the tube won’t make it past the closed opening.

So, in that case, your vet will insert a hollow needle (aka bore needle) through the skin to puncture the stomach’s wall. 

If your dog has collapsed, they will need intravenous fluids to stabilize the condition.

Afterward, your vet may perform surgery to untwist the stomach and remove any dead tissues. 

Hemangiosarcoma

Hemangiosarcoma is a malignant tumor that arises from the cell lining the blood vessels (endothelial cells).

According to Colorado State University, hemangiosarcoma can affect any breed, but German Shepherds have a high risk. 

Because every bit of your dog’s body contains blood vessels, hemangiosarcomas can develop almost anywhere, but it’s usually seen in the skin, spleen, liver, and heart. 

Symptoms

The worst thing about hemangiosarcoma is that it forms fragile masses that can easily rupture, allowing the blood to leak inside the body.

Although this causes no pain, it can lead to severe complications.  

If your dog loses a moderate amount of blood, he may become suddenly weak.

However, as the body reabsorbs the blood and compensates for the leaked volume, your dog will become normal again in a few days.

If several masses rupture simultaneously, your dog will lose so much blood that he may collapse.

That’s a serious emergency that requires immediate veterinary care.

Hemangiosarcoma

Diagnosis and Treatment

Like most tumors, hemangiosarcoma is often diagnosed during routine check-ups.

Your vet will ask for blood tests to see if there’s blood loss, and they’ll also need an ultrasound, CT, MRI scans to check whether the tumor has spread to other organs. 

If there’s a visible mass on the skin, your vet will take a biopsy and send it for lab examination to rule out other tumors.

After evaluating the condition, surgery will be the most probable treatment.

Chemotherapy and radiation will be necessary if the tumor has spread to multiple organs. 

Perianal Fistulas

Naturally, the dog’s anal canal should end in only one opening on the skin.

However, if this area experiences repetitive inflammation, the anal canal may grow small tunnels that extend to the outer skin.

Since these new openings have an abnormal structure, they may trap some feces, leading to more inflammation and new tunnel formation. 

According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, German Shepherds have a high risk of developing perianal fistulas because their tails often hang too close to their anus, increasing the risk of fecal contamination. 

Symptoms

  • Painful defecations
  • Straining to defecate
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Mucus or blood in stools
  • Excessive licking of the anus
  • Pain when trying to lift the tail 
  • Foul odor 

Keep in mind that perianal fistulas usually improve on their own before worsening again.

So, take your dog to the vet even if he currently has no symptoms.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will start by examining the anal area to determine the cause behind the painful defecation.

If there’s an apparent inflammation, your vet may take a sample to examine it under the microscope and reach a definite diagnosis. 

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your vet will prescribe antibiotics to treat the inflammation, encouraging the cells to grow and close the abnormal tunnels.

However, in severe conditions, your dog will need surgery to remove the inflamed area. 

Epilepsy

Of all breeds, German Shepherds seem to have a higher risk of developing epileptic seizures.

Just like humans, these seizures can be single or may occur in clusters.

Identifying the cause of epilepsy can be pretty challenging. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common reasons:

  • Reactive epilepsy: It happens as the brain reacts to low blood sugar, organ failure, or toxins. 
  • Secondary epilepsy: It occurs when tumors or blood clots block communication between brain cells. 
  • Idiopathic epilepsy: It happens with no apparent physiological cause, but genetics may be responsible. 

Symptoms

During seizures, look for the following symptoms:

  • Sudden collapse
  • Abnormal movement of limbs
  • Excessive drooling 
  • Vomiting 
  • Uncontrolled urination and defecation 

Between seizures, your dog will seem quiet and disoriented. Still, they’ll quickly become normal again in the absence of new episodes.

If attacks last for more than five minutes, or if your dog doesn’t recover between episodes, call your vet immediately.

If left untreated, these conditions can lead to irreversible brain damage or death. 

Diagnosis and Treatment

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to diagnose seizures, but identifying the root cause behind those seizures won’t be easy. 

First, your vet will order blood tests to investigate low blood sugar and toxins.

If those are normal, your vet will ask for CT, and MRI scans to look for brain tumors and blood clots.

If all else fails, the case will be deemed idiopathic (no apparent cause). 

After evaluating the case, your vet will prescribe suitable medications to keep the seizures under control.

Keep in mind that your dog must take this treatment for the rest of his life.

Otherwise, he might be at a higher risk of developing aggressive seizures. 

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a neurological condition in which the spinal cord degenerates with time, leading to weakness of the hind limbs and, ultimately, paralysis.

In severe conditions, the front legs may also be affected.

Germand shepherd running

Most people believe that degenerative myelopathy happens due to a genetic mutation regularly spotted in German Shepherds.

Symptoms

Degenerative myelopathy usually starts at age eight. Look for the following symptoms and report anything abnormal to your vet:

  • Wobbling
  • Knuckling of the paws 
  • Feet scraping on the ground when walking
  • Worn toenails
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty getting up from a lying position
  • Paralysis of the hind limbs

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will request x-rays, and MRI scans to rule out other causes of wobbling, like hip dysplasia and arthritis.

Your vet may also take a sample of the fluid circulating around your dog’s spinal cord (called CSF) or take a biopsy of the spinal cord itself to reach a definite diagnosis. 

Sadly, degenerative myelopathy is untreatable.

The condition can progress with age, leading to more annoying symptoms for your dog.

Your vet may suggest getting a wheelchair if your dog struggles to stand on his hind legs. 

Final Thoughts

As you read, most of the common German Shepherd health issues are related to genetics.

Therefore, you should always look for a responsible breeder who regularly screens puppies for such conditions.

This way, your GSD will lead a long, happy life. 

Also, keep in mind that hip dysplasia can affect any dog even in the absence of genetic factors.

So, avoid engaging your dog in rough exercises, at least until after their second birthday. 

three dogs

Sources

  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons: Canine Hip Dysplasia
  • Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences: Canine Hip Dysplasia
  • Oxford University Press: Diet, Exercise, and Weight as Risk Factors in Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers | The Journal of Nutrition
  • Universities Federation for Animal Welfare: German Shepherd – Panosteitis
  • VCA Hospitals: Panosteitis in Dogs
  • Colorado State University: Pannus
  • VCA Hospitals: Pannus in Dogs (Chronic Superficial Keratitis)
  • MSD Veterinary Manual: Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats
  • PetMD: Lack Of Digestive Enzymes in Dogs
  • PSU.edu: Pancreatic acinar atrophy in German shepherd dogs and rough-coated Collies
  • American Kennel Club: Bloat (or GDV) in Dogs — What It Is and How it’s Treated
  • VCA Hospitals: Bloat: Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus in Dogs
  • Colorado State University: Hemangiosarcoma in Dogs
  • American Kennel Club, Canine Health Foundation: Canine Hemangiosarcoma – The Road from Despair to Hope
  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons: Perianal Fistulas
  • Veterinary Partner: Perianal Fistula in Dogs
  • The Spruce Pets: Cluster Seizures in a German Shepherd
  • VCA Hospitals: Seizures in Dogs
  • VCA Hospitals: Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs

Read more about the German Shepherd on my complete breed guide

Marcelle Landestoy

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