11 Common Health Issues in German Shepherds

Intelligent, strong, and fiercely loyal, it’s not hard to see why German Shepherds are the second most popular breed in the United States. Whether you’re considering buying a German Shepherd puppy to be a family pet or a working dog, you can expect your pet to spend many years by your side.

When properly bred and cared for, the German Shepherd has a life expectancy of 9 to 13 years. These dogs are bred to be the most powerful herding dog in the world, and will generally live happy, healthy, and extremely active lives. However, as with all dog breeds, German Shepherds are prone to some common health issues. Below are a few of the conditions that German Shepherd owners will want to watch out for.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

X-Ray illustrating Dysplasia in a dog

Unfortunately, due to unethical breeding practices, one out of every five German Shepherds will suffer from some form of hip dysplasia. This condition occurs when the dog’s bones don’t grow correctly and the hip joint fails to line up properly. It’s a painful condition that causes dogs to suffer from lameness, abnormal gait, and difficulty walking. Elbow dysplasia is a similar condition that’s slightly less common. It occurs when the dog’s elbow joints don’t function properly. The symptoms and treatment are similar for both hip and elbow dysplasia.

Dysplasia can sometimes be mitigated with physical therapy, however, surgery is often necessary to correct the problem. The best way to prevent hip and elbow dysplasia is to ensure that German Shepherd puppies are health certified and come from reputable breeders. You’ll also want to take steps to ensure that your dog doesn’t become obese and that he isn’t over-exercised while he’s still growing as these factors can also contribute to the development of dysplasia.

Perianal Fistula

Another common problem among German Shepherds, a perianal fistula occurs when the skin around the dog’s anus cracks and drains. This leaves open wounds that make the dog vulnerable to infection. This condition causes a foul odor, diarrhea, and bloody stools. Since there are so many nerves in the area, it’s also very painful for the dog. Treatment for this condition typically involves a combination of medications, surgery, and dietary changes.

Bloat

Bloat, technically known as gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), occurs when the dog’s stomach fills with gas and then twists on itself. There is some debate over what causes bloat, but it’s generally accepted that the condition can occur when a dog eats too fast and/or exercises too soon after eating. Certain breeds, including German Shepherds, are more prone to the condition.

The most common symptoms are a distended abdomen, pacing, restlessness, excessive salivating, unsuccessful retching, and difficulty breathing. Bloat is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate surgery.

Megaesophagus

Megaesophagus occurs when a dog’s esophagus loses its strength, making it difficult to swallow food. Symptoms of this condition typically include regurgitating food, vomiting, weight loss, and malnourishment. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition However, it can usually be managed with dietary changes and supplementation.

Osteoarthritis

While osteoarthritis is common in many different dog breeds, German Shepherds are prone to developing the condition in their spines. This can cause a significant amount of pain and drastically limit mobility. It commonly occurs in conjunction with hip dysplasia but can also manifest on its own.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy is a recessive genetic disorder that’s caused by improper breeding. This neurological disease begins as weakness in the hind legs and eventually progresses to paralysis.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition. However, its progress can be slowed with proper medical treatment. Pet owners should watch out for signs of degenerative myelopathy, like uneven nail wear, pain, and discomfort, and bring the dog to the vet for a consultation if they arise. 

Heart Disease

German Shepherds are also prone to a variety of heart issues, including enlarged hearts, heart valve disease, and heart murmurs. As with many health issues, early detection is the key to giving dogs the best chances for recovery. For this reason, it’s recommended that German Shepherds receive a heart exam and part of their annual wellness screening.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is a digestive disorder that’s common among the German Shepherd breed. The most common symptom is significant weight loss despite the dog having a normal appetite. Dogs with EPI may also have chronic diarrhea, large volumes of feces that are pale and appear fatty, and occasional vomiting.

EPI is generally considered a genetic disorder, although it can also be caused by a traumatic injury or infection. The condition is potentially life-threatening, especially the acute form. However, it also usually responds positively to medical treatment.

Hemophilia

Yet another genetic disorder caused by inbreeding, hemophilia affects the dog’s ability to form blood clots. Common symptoms of the condition include excessive bleeding and difficulty with wound healing.

Although hemophilia isn’t extremely common among German Shepherds, it’s more likely to affect this breed than any other dog breed. There’s no cure for hemophilia but it can be managed with proper medical treatment.

Skin Problems

German Shepherds are sometimes prone to skin problems, often as a result of some type of allergy. Food intolerances are quite common. Symptoms include itchy, inflamed skin, hot spots, rash, and bald spots. This condition can usually be managed by changing the dog’s diet. Sometimes, a veterinarian will recommend allergy testing and/or a food elimination trial.

Eye Issues

German Shepherd with cataracts in both eyes
German Shepherd with cataracts in both eyes

Eye issues are also sometimes a problem for German Shepherds. Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is one of the most common eye problems in German Shepherds. This hereditary condition causes the dog’s eyes to deteriorate over time and will eventually lead to blindness.

Opaque spots that develop on the dog’s eye, called cataracts, may also develop. This condition is sometimes hereditary and can cause partial or total blindness. In many cases, surgery is needed to restore the dog’s vision.

Cherry eye is another common condition that German Shepherd owners will want to watch out for. This occurs when the base of the dog’s third eyelid becomes red, swollen, and inflamed. It results in a protruding mass that resembles a cherry. In most cases, surgery is needed to correct cherry eye. 

Avoiding German Shepherd Health Issues

Now that you’re aware of the medical issues German Shepherds are likely to encounter, you can keep an eye out for them. Being aware of the common symptoms of each condition is the best way to ensure your dog gets proper care at the first signs of a problem.

One thing you’ll notice is that almost all of the common German Shepherd health issues are genetic and/or hereditary. Although there’s no way to avoid all possible health issues, pet owners can protect themselves and their dogs by insisting on proper breeding and health testing.

Are you thinking about bringing home a German Shepherd puppy for your family? Check out our list of available puppies today!