Outline of an orange dog with a heart shaped nose Conditions

10 German Shepherd Health Issues

50

Last Updated: June 10, 2024 | 15 min read | Leave a Comment

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a commission. Here’s how it works.

Professional veterinarian examining German Shepherd's ears in clinic.

The mighty and lovable German Shepherd is a popular breed for family pets and companion dogs. German Shepherds are very well known and are valued for their high intelligence, loyalty, and hard-working personality. They are popular for search and rescue work, law enforcement, and therapy and service dogs. Protective, loyal, and eager to please, German Shepherds have become one of the most popular dogs worldwide. Unfortunately, German Shepherd Dogs (GSD) are prone to some health conditions.

Medical care can cost thousands of dollars and impact your pup’s quality of life. It’s essential for you to be aware of the health conditions German Shepherd dogs are susceptible to. This knowledge can help guide better care for your pup throughout every stage of life. If you are already the proud parent of a GSD, it’s important to note that early diagnosis is pivotal to providing the best treatment for many of these health concerns.

From The Veterinarian

I spoke with Dr. Rebecca MacMillan, BVetMed BSAVA PGCertSAM MRCVS, to learn more about German Shepherd health issues from an expert.

“While German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) are a popular breed, they are also one that is sadly plagued with health issues. One of the most common ones that I see in practice is osteoarthritis. This can be seen as general ‘wear and tear’ in older age but often occurs as a secondary problem to conditions like hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a hereditary issue, meaning that affected parents are likely to pass the trait on to their offspring. Screening the parents before mating (by hip-scoring them) can help reduce the chances of this, but it is no guarantee. I recently saw a case of a young 1.5-year-old GSD that had intermittent lameness in its hind legs. We took X-rays of his hips, which revealed severe dysplasia, with one hip that had virtually no socket to hold it in place. He needed a referral for surgery with a specialist. Otherwise, he faced a lifetime of painful lameness.”

Dr. MacMillan continues, “GSDs are also at risk from gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), a condition whereby the stomach bloats and becomes twisted on itself. This is an emergency and is one of the most serious health complaints that a dog can suffer from. I have seen cases of this in German Shepherds that have sadly not survived the corrective surgery due to the damage to their stomach tissue. Signs of GDV include drooling, retching, trying to vomit unsuccessfully, a bloated and painful abdomen, restlessness, and collapse. You must seek immediate veterinary help if you think your dog has this condition, as treating it promptly could save your dog’s life.”

When asked how to keep a GSD as healthy as possible, here’s what the vet had to say. “To try to keep your dog healthy, I would advise regular checkups with your vet to help spot any developing issues early on. Try to keep your pet at a healthy body weight to help their joints, and consider the use of joint supplements or a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids at an early stage.

“Avoid feeding your dog one large meal a day, as this can increase the chances of bloat or GDV occurring. Instead, feed two or three smaller meals, and make sure that they don’t exercise immediately after eating. If you are yet to get a GSD, then I would strongly advise purchasing your puppy from a reputable breeder who has done all of the recommended health screening tests for both the mother and father. This will increase the chances of your puppy being healthy. While I advise pet insurance for all dogs, I would particularly urge GSD owners to cover their dogs in case they develop any of the health complaints mentioned,” says Dr. Rebecca MacMillan.

10 Common German Shepherd Health Problems

German Shepherd Dog gray-haired looking over sholder at camera on a grey background.

Below, I discuss the most prevalent German Shepherd diseases and health concerns. It’s important to be aware of these potential health issues so that you can watch for symptoms as your dog ages.

1. Skin Disease & Allergies

Skin disease is among the most prevalent health conditions affecting German Shepherd dogs. It is also one of the most common insurance claims seen by most major pet insurance providers. GSDs are prone to allergies. They often develop allergies to food, fleas, and environmental factors.

The GSD breed can suffer from a variety of other skin conditions, including atopic dermatitis, flea allergy dermatitis, and canine atopic dermatitis. Along with that, they can suffer from pyoderma, lick granuloma, and folliculitis. Pyoderma, a bacterial skin infection that causes pus-filled lesions, is often seen in dogs with allergies, which the breed is also prone to.

Symptoms

  • Hot spots
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Skin lesions
  • Secondary skin infections
  • Hair loss
  • persistent itching and scratching
  • Biting at one’s own skin
  • Smelly skin

Treatment for skin issues can vary depending on the root cause of the problem. In some cases, like infection, your pup may need antibiotics, either orally or topically. If they have pus-filled sores or lesions, those may need to be drained. If the skin issues are due to an allergy, the allergen must be identified and removed. In some cases, skin problems can be triggered by food allergies, so this may require a significant change to your pup’s diet.

You must speak with your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause of your German Shepherd’s skin problems and the appropriate treatment. In some cases, like hot spots or persistent licking or biting of their skin, the treatment may also involve shaving the area, topical therapies, behavioral modification, and training.

2. Hip And Elbow Dysplasia

Like many other large breed dogs, the GSD, unfortunately, is prone to canine hip dysplasia and canine elbow dysplasia. This condition is generally inherited, but it can be caused by environmental factors or traumatic injury. Hip dysplasia occurs when the ball and joint socket of one or both hip (coxofemoral) joints form improperly. The head of the femur, called the ball, and the hip socket do not fit together correctly. The hip rubs on the socket, causing painful bone spurs.

The condition is the same in elbows. It simply affects different joints. Hip dysplasia can become quite painful and even lead to lameness or degenerative joint disease if left untreated.

Symptoms

  • A hopping gait
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Limping
  • Lameness in the hind legs
  • Pain

Treatment for canine hip dysplasia often involves surgery or hip replacement. These options can be quite expensive for a large breed like the German Shepherd. Some non-surgical options involve massage therapy, medication including anti-inflammatory and pain management, physical therapy, weight control, and alternative therapies like acupuncture. In some cases, dogs can be fitted with braces that can help alleviate some of the symptoms. Braces can also be an option to slow the progression of the disease.

3. Osteoarthritis

Like other large breeds, the GSD is prone to osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that damages cartilage in a dog’s joints. It can affect both front and back legs. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis seen in canines. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) estimates that one in five dogs is diagnosed with osteoarthritis at some point in their lives.

Symptoms

  • Lethargy
  • Stiffness, difficulty standing up
  • Weight gain
  • Limping or lameness
  • A reluctance to walk, jump, run, or be physically active
  • Changes in activity level, behavior, and mood
  • Difficulty getting a proper stance to or leave themselves
  • Increase in accidents in the house
  • Loss of muscle
  • Pain when being petted

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that gets worse over time. It also does not have any known cure at this time. Once a dog has developed osteoarthritis, several treatments and therapies are used simultaneously to improve the condition. These can include joint supplements, pain control, acupuncture, physiotherapy, cold laser treatments, weight management, and changes in diet. In some cases, surgery may be recommended if damaged tissue surrounds a joint, impeding mobility and causing pain.

Prevention of osteoarthritis is the best way you can work to keep your German Shepherd healthy. Preventative measures include keeping your pup active and, most importantly, at a healthy weight. Excess weight can cause damage to joints, and this breakdown can predispose them to developing osteoarthritis.

4. Gastric Dilation Volvulus

Gastric dilation volvulus, commonly referred to as canine bloat, is a potentially life-threatening medical concern affecting many larger breeds. Deep-chested pups like the GSD are at a higher risk. Canine bloat occurs when the stomach overfills and twists in on itself. This twisting causes swelling and blocks the blood flow, resulting in a medical emergency. It often occurs after a dog eats or drinks too quickly, triggering the twisting reaction.

Symptoms

  • Drooling
  • Restlessness
  • Distended abdomen
  • Pale gums
  • Dry heaving or unproductive vomiting
  • A rapid heartbeat, also called tachycardia
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Weakened pulse
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Swollen hard belly
  • Sudden anxiety

Prompt treatment is needed to save a dog’s life. Bloat-related surgery can cost thousands of dollars. If caught early enough, it can be treated by non-emergency surgery, medications, intravenous fluids, and more.

Canine Bloat Is A Veterinary Emergency

It is important to note that you cannot treat bloat at home. This condition requires medical treatment as soon as possible. Your vet will need to perform abdominal X-rays, stabilize your pup, and perform some diagnostic procedures to determine how severe the condition is. Unfortunately, bloat can come on suddenly and quickly escalate into a life-threatening emergency. Sadly, at least 15 to 30% of dogs die from this condition, even those receiving immediate medical care, including surgery.

5. Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is not as common as some other health conditions, but it can affect GSDs more than many other breeds. It is a degenerative, progressive, fatal disease that impacts the spinal cord, causing hind limb weakness and paralysis. It is similar to the human disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

There is no known cause or cure for this disease. Degenerative myelopathy is a disease that usually affects middle-aged canines older than five years old. In most cases, pups will not show signs of this disease until they are older than eight years old. It is often misdiagnosed as an orthopedic issue as some of the early clinical signs are similar. Symptoms often start in one limb and then eventually move to affect both.

Symptoms

  • The hind quarters appear to move or sway even when standing still
  • Hind paws turn under, so your dog walks on their knuckles
  • Difficulty standing up
  • Loss of balance and falling over easily
  • Muscle loss
  • Incoordination
  • Scuffed toenails on the hind limbs

Most pups with this disease will only live about two years after diagnosis. Unfortunately, the disease affects some breeds more than others, including GSDs, German Shepherd mixes, Siberian Huskies, Collies, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Sadly, there is no cure for DSM, but there are some management techniques that can improve your pup’s quality of life. These include maintaining a healthy weight, physical therapy, covering smooth surfaces to make walking easier, adding doggie ramps, and using assistive devices like slings, harnesses, and doggy wheelchairs to stand and walk. These devices offer extra support to the hind limbs.

6. Cancer

German Shepherds are, unfortunately, prone to developing cancer. In particular, they are highly susceptible to hemangiosarcoma. This incredibly aggressive disease affects the heart and spleen. Along with that, they are also prone to developing osteosarcoma, a bone cancer known to affect larger and giant breeds. Breeds that grow quickly as puppies, such as the GSD, are at higher risk. This cancer often develops near growth plates. Older German Shepherds are at a higher risk of developing oral melanomas.

Symptoms

  • Low energy levels
  • Bumps on the body under the skin
  • Stinky odor from ears, mouth, nose, or other body parts
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Excessive urinating
  • Pain
  • Coughing or respiratory issues
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Difficulty swallowing

Cancer treatment for canines varies, depending on the type of cancer and stage. Your dog’s overall health and age are also factors. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, palliative care, medications, and alternative therapies. Some cancers in dogs can be cured and removed with treatment. Others can be very aggressive and leave very few treatment options. Older pups of all breeds are at higher risk of developing cancer.

7. Anal Gland Problems

Though not often widely spoken about, the German Shepherd breed is prone to developing anal gland problems. Perianal fistula, also known as anal furunculosis, Is a very serious medical issue that often affects this breed. This condition occurs when an abnormal connection between tissues occurs in the perianal region. This frequently occurs along with an infection. This condition is more common in middle-aged pups and intact males. It can be quite painful and is accompanied by ulceration around the anus and inflammation in that area as well as under the tail.

Anal furunculosis is another problem that this breed is prone to. In affected dogs, the anus becomes inflamed, ulcerated, and extremely painful. It is unknown exactly what causes this condition but it commonly affects middle-aged to older GSDs, progressing and worsening with time. Immunosuppressive treatments can help some of these animals.

– Dr. Rebecca MacMillan, BVetMed BSAVA PGCertSAM MRCVS

Symptoms

  • Incontinence
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fecal incontinence
  • Smelly discharge from the perianal region
  • Sores
  • Pain when defecating
  • Excessive licking in the anal area
  • Bleeding

Treatment of perianal fistula in canines generally includes medical management with medication. It can take at least 8 to 12 weeks using a medication called cyclosporine to resolve the lesions. Topical ointment and antimicrobials may also be needed, especially if secondary infections occur. Your vet may also prescribe analgesics and stool softeners if your pup has developed significant Constipation or other digestive issues. In some more severe cases, surgery may be required.

It will take your pup a good deal of time, several months generally, to fully recover. Unfortunately, the condition is long-term, and some pups may require treatment for the rest of their lives.

8. Epilepsy

German Shepherds are prone to developing idiopathic epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes seizures or sudden, uncontrollable convulsions. Idiopathic means there is no discernible underlying disease or injury causing the condition. The condition is often a hereditary disease and usually presents in dogs aged one to five years old. Along with unpredictable seizures, dogs with epilepsy will also suffer a loss of bowels, bladder, confusion, and physical exhaustion after an episode.

Depending on the severity of the disease, some dogs can live very full lives with proper medication and care. While epilepsy is a neurological condition, other than causing the seizures, these pups are fully functioning in all other mental capacities.

Symptoms

  • Generalized or focal seizures
  • Drooling
  • Stiffening
  • Jaw clenching and chomping
  • Paddling legs
  • Full body collapse
  • Head shaking
  • Repeated muscle contractions, dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control

Treatment for canine epilepsy includes medication and identifying seizure triggers. Common medications include potassium bromide and phenobarbitone. CBD is becoming popular, as are other anticonvulsants like zonisamide and levetiracetam. Dogs with epilepsy need lifelong treatment, a safe space, and an environment that is calm and free of triggers.

You can learn more about canine epilepsy and my personal experience here.

9. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is a common hereditary disease among German Shepherds. The condition occurs when the pancreas cannot produce the proper amount of pancreatic enzymes that are necessary to digest proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. This condition results in poor digestion and improper absorption of nutrients, which can lead to weight loss. Additionally, dogs who have EPIC often have fat in their stool.

Symptoms

  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Bulky, fatty feces
  • Vomiting
  • Increased appetite
  • Gradual weight loss
  • Greasy-looking hair on the tail and around the anus

EPI treatment in dogs involves adding a pancreatic enzyme replacement to stabilize them and switching to a highly digestible, low-fat diet. Some dogs may also need an antibiotic from time to time to help control the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Treatment is often necessary for the rest of a dog’s life.

10. Cryptorchidism

Male GSDs can be prone to a condition called cryptorchidism. The condition occurs when one or both testicles fail to descend into the scrotum. Cryptorchidism can affect one or both sides. When affecting one side, unilateral cryptorchidism often affects the right testicle. This condition leaves a dog highly susceptible to testicular torsion and testicular cancer. Neutering is essential and can help prevent severe medical conditions later.

Symptoms

  • Testicles that have not dropped by eight weeks of age – absent testicle
  • Under development in other areas, including the eyes, eyelids, and legs
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hyperpigmentation on the skin
  • Hair loss in the area
  • Infertility
  • Feminizing syndrome

Surgery is the only treatment available for cryptosporidium. Whether it affects one or both testicles, both should be removed to prevent further medical issues as well as passing the defect on to any offspring. Surgery will require at least a two-week recovery time.

Recommended Health Tests For German Shepherd Dogs

German Shepherd laying on exam table at vet.

Health testing for your GSD is particularly important to help identify any inherited genetic diseases and disorders. This is important as many of these can be controlled through selective breeding. DNA testing is helpful, but it’s not available yet for all medical conditions. Read our reviews of the best at-home dog DNA tests to learn more about genetic disease risk testing. 

Hip testing, for example, is helpful in diagnosing joint issues like hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis. Breeders should screen for hip and elbow health, eye disorders, heart disease, thyroid malfunction, EPI, and temperament. An ophthalmologist evaluation, genetic tests for degenerative myelopathy, and hemophilia markers in males are also recommended. The German Shepherd Dog Club of America recommends a hip and elbow evaluation and temperament test at a minimum.

Average Costs For German Shepherd Health Issues

Caring for medical conditions in German Shepherds can be quite expensive. The cost to treat chronic illness can run in the thousands of dollars. According to Fetch Insurance, one in ten GSD parents can incur a vet cost of over $6,476 just to treat hip dysplasia. ASPCA Health Insurance lists allergies, skin irritation, gastrointestinal issues, and ear infections as some of the top claims they receive with this breed.

You can expect to spend at least $10,000 on vet care throughout the lifespan of your GSD pup.

How Pet Insurance Can Help

These are just some health conditions that can affect this beautiful breed. You can always pay for your German Shepherd’s health care out of your pocket, but you can also consider pet insurance.

Pet insurance can help cover the cost of care and help keep you from picking between your bank account and your pet’s care. Most providers do not cover pre-existing conditions, so it’s best to get your dog covered when they are a puppy. Read our pet insurance reviews to learn about your options and find a company that fits your needs. Use the quote form below to see what insurance could cost you.

Fetch Customer Testimonial For German Shepherd Health Issues

My German Shepherd and Husky mix was diagnosed with cryptorchidism. This was the first major surgery he had to go through. It got covered by Fetch instantly after I provided all the documents from the vet. I had to pay my annual deduction only. Excellent service which makes me feel confident when the time comes to approach the vet.

Adrian

Other Health Conditions That Affect German Shepherd Dogs

There are several other health concerns that come with the GSD breed. These include pancreatitis, diabetes, obesity, eye health issues, degenerative disc disease, autoimmune disease, Von Willebrand disease, and digestive issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

There is a lot to learn about the health of the German Shepherd breed. I’ve covered a few of the most often asked questions below. If I missed yours, let me know in the comments.

What Is The Lifespan Of A German Shepherd?

The GSD lives, on average, seven to ten years. Of course, lifestyle, genetics, and individual circumstances impact each pup. You can learn more in our in-depth explanation of the GSD lifespan. You can also check out 12 secrets to living a long life as a dog.

What Do German Shepherd Dogs Usually Die From?

The leading cause of death for the GSD breed is musculoskeletal disorders, including degenerative myelopathy. The inability to stand from DM or hip dysplasia is widely reported as the leading cause of death for this breed and backed up by a 2017 U.K. study by researchers from The Royal Veterinary College.

Should I Get Health Insurance For My German Shepherd?

Pet insurance is absolutely worth considering if you have a German Shepherd dog. Because this breed is prone to many hereditary and profoundly severe health conditions, caring for them can be pretty expensive. Signing up for a pet insurance policy when your dog is a young puppy is best to avoid pre-existing conditions that are excluded.

Having a policy in place as soon as possible will help ensure that your pet has coverage if and when something serious arises. Insurance covers many areas of care, including illness, accidents, and even dental concerns. Learn more in our guide on the best pet insurance for German Shepherds.

How Can I Reduce My GSD Veterinary Bills?

Keeping your pup healthy from puppyhood throughout the senior years is of high importance. You can do this by keeping up with preventive care, encouraging an active lifestyle, and providing a healthy, balanced diet. Accidents and illnesses can come on unexpectedly, and having a pet insurance plan in place can help lower the cost of care. You can learn more about what pet insurance covers and our top picks in our pet insurance guide.

What About Dental Care For My GSD?

Dental care is very important for your pup. Periodontal disease can take root in dogs as young as two years old and can significantly impact their overall health and lifespan. Aim to brush your dog’s teeth several times weekly or daily if you can. You can also incorporate the use of dental chews to help keep their mouth fresh and clean.

Keeping Your German Shepherd Dog Healthy

Keeping your GSD healthy is a lifelong responsibility that starts the day your pup comes home. Along with regular preventative vet care and keeping up with vaccinations, you can take a few more steps. A high-quality diet is one of the most crucial factors in your German Shepherd’s health. These dogs are generously sized and require a diet supporting their heavy bodies and energy needs. Consider adding fresh dog foods to your pup’s bowl to boost nutrition and flavor. Along with that, make sure to provide your dog with plenty of daily physical exercise, toys, and opportunities for interactive play and socialization with other people and other dogs.

Why Trust Canine Journal?

Danielle has shared a special bond with animals since childhood. She has over 30 years of experience with canine breeds of all sizes, from toy to giant. A few of those sweet pups have special needs, including epilepsy and dementia. Danielle is also a dedicated professional researcher who spends countless hours researching the latest pet care, health, food, and training developments to help owners learn what’s behind the label. Danielle works with a professional and experienced team to bring our readers the best, most accurate, and up-to-date information to better the lives of pets and people.

The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to Top