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From The Vet: 3 Things Every German Shepherd Owner Should Watch For

Most people know a German Shepherd when they see one. These classic beauties are historically our soldiers and protectors. They are police dogs, guide dogs, and friends. Certain diseases seem to crop up more often in certain types of dogs. These are known as breed associated disorders. Each type of dog has its own list, but many of the issues are shared by multiple breeds. Very few of these types of issues are exclusive to a single breed. For Shepherds, the following are a few of their offenders.

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Gastrointestinal Disease

Gastrointestinal (or Alimentary Disease) is a catch-all term for any problem involving the digestive system. We think of the stomach and bowel commonly as members of this group, but there are other parts of the body involved in the obtaining and utilization of food. German Shepherds have a genetic tendency toward megaesophagus, (from the Greek Mega meaning “large”) and esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach). In this condition, the esophagus becomes limp and is not able to normally pass the food on its way to be digested. Affected dogs often begin to vomit when they are weaned to a solid diet. They may look malnourished and thin and could be the “runt” of a litter. Management is life-long and usually involves liquid diets and elevated feedings, but can differ depending on the individual patient. There is no “cure” for this problem. If your German Shepherd puppy vomits frequently, be sure to tell your vet.

We may not think of the anus as a part of the GI tract, but it is. Perianal fistula is a disorder commonly seen in German Shepherds. The disease is characterized by draining openings on the skin around the anus. Affected dogs may strain to defecate, have diarrhea or bloody stool, and lick at the anal area frequently. The attractive low tail carriage of these dogs, covering the anus, has contributed to this problem. Studies indicate a high rate of control with dietary manipulation, suggesting a food allergy component and a possible link to inflammatory bowel disease. This is a painful problem to have so if you see that your Shepherd frequently licks his anus, it is time to see your veterinarian.

Orthopedic issues

Orthopedic issues include trouble with bones and joints. Hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis are common problems for Shepherds and Shepherd crosses. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint and hip dysplasia causes malformation of the components leading to instability. There can be abnormalities in the either the ball or the socket (or both) and the chronic laxity causes abnormal wear and leads to osteoarthritis. There is a strong genetic correlation for hip dysplasia in certain breeds and German Shepherds are one. The signs can be managed, but most cases require lifelong treatment. You need your vet’s help to find out if these issues are a problem for your dog.

Cancers

Cancer (which is a disease process characterized by increased growth of certain cell lines) can affect any type of dog, but there are types of cancer that seem to breed-associated. Shepherds appear to be at greater risk of bone cancer, called osteosarcoma (along with many other large breeds) and hemangiosarcoma (a cancer associated with the cells than line blood vessels). Osteosarcoma usually presents as a lameness that worsens over time and requires radiographs for diagnosis. Sometimes hemangiosarcoma will not be evident until it is very progressed. Always be sure that you see your veterinarian every year for a physical exam and routine screening tests. Sometimes early signs of cancer will turn up at these important visits.

There are other miscellaneous issues that seem to be more common in Shepherds, like pannus (an ocular disorder) and recurrent otitis (ear inflammation), and like every dog, they can be at risk for a multitude of health concerns. The above list does not include all the health concerns for Shepherds. The bottom line is to make sure that your dog is examined by a vet every year and is current on all recommended preventive care.

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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