Five Genetic Diseases of German Shepherds

German Shepherds were originally bred for herding and guarding, but they make wonderful family pets. They are fiercely loyal and protective. Unfortunately, poor breeding practices have led to a laundry list of potential medical problems.

  1. Degenerative myelopathy - This disorder is similar to amyelotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and may have similar symptoms to multiple sclerosis. This is a progressive disease of the spinal cord and nerves that begins with hind end weakness and eventually causes complete paralysis of all four limbs. While the condition is not generally painful, pressure sores from long periods spent lying down or dragging legs can cause significant complications. The disease generally occurs later in life, with early symptoms seen as young as eight years old. DNA testing can be performed to determine if a dog carries the SOD1 gene mutation and might succumb to this disease. There is no treatment, although early intervention with physical therapy and alternative therapies may slow progression of symptoms. This disease is difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are similar to intervertebral disc disease, spinal cord tumors, and vertebral arthritis. Lift harnesses are an important piece of equipment to help these dogs maintain mobility.
  2. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency - With this disease the secretion of digestive enzymes by the pancreas into the intestine is reduced so digestion and absorption of food are greatly impaired, resulting in severe malnutition. Symptoms may be seen as early as six months of age, but may not occur until middle age. Dogs will eat ravenously but lose weight. Severe diarrhea, sometimes foul-smelling and pale, will accompany this disease. Some dogs will also have vomiting episodes. Deficiencies of specific vitamins including B12 (cobalamin), E and K may occur. It is believed that several genes are involved in causing this disorder. Gastrointestinal function tests, including TLI (trypsin-like immunoreactivity), cobalamin, and folate, will help diagnosis. Treatment involves lifelong addition of pancreatic enzymes or feeding fresh pancreas, generally resulting in weight gain, elimination of diarrhea, and recovery. A high quality, species-appropriate, low-fat diet is paramount for treatment.
  3. Hip and Elbow Dysplasia - These irreversible disorders result in degenerative joint disease (arthritis) in the elbows and/or hips. The joints are abnormal in their confirmation, resulting in laxity and pain. Symptoms, often seen as early as a few months of age, may include rapid weight gain due to decreased exercise and mobility, trouble getting up from lying, limping, running or walking with a bunny hop in the hind end rather than using both legs individually, trouble or hesitation running, hesitation or unwillingness to climb stairs, and aggression if the pain is severe. While genetics play a role in this disease, early spay and neuter prior to closure of the growth plates in the long bones have also been implicated in development of dysplasia. Treatments vary, from pain relief medications to surgery for joint replacement. New therapies include Stem cell treatment, platelet rich plasma, physical therapy, acupuncture, and cold laser therapy. Weight reduction plays a large role in pain relief; these dogs should maintain lean body weight.
  4. Megaesophagus - Most cases of megaesophagus in German Shephers are found to be congenital in nature. Congenital idiopathic megaesophagus is linked to chromosome 12. Symptoms are typically seen around 5 weeks of age when the puppies start eating solid food. Acquired megaesophagus is seen later in life, and may have various causes including nerve damage, myasthenia gravis, autoimmune disease, esophagitis, chronic reflux, and unknown etiologies. Testing for muscle disease can be performed at the University of California. The muscles of the esophagus do not function, resulting in stagnation of food and ballooning of the esophagus in the chest prior to reaching the stomach. These dogs are prone to regurgitation and vomiting, commonly developing aspiration pneumonia as a secondary complication. Symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, lethargy, weight loss, increased respiratory effort, coughing, and nasal discharge. Diagnosis is generally made on x-ray, but may require fluoroscopy using radio-opaque dye in food. Treatment is difficult and complete resolution of disease is uncommon if the underlying cause cannot be identified. Supportive care to minimize regurgitation, provide ample nutrition, and resolve and/or prevent aspiration pneumonia is the goal. Pets should be fed in an upright position and maintained in that position for twenty minutes. Motility modifying drugs may be prescribed, although their effectiveness may be limited. Monitoring and treatment for pneumonia is critical.
  5. Perianal Fistulas - This disease is also known as anal furunculosis. The fistulas are draining tracts around the anal area. Bad odor, constant licking or scooting, loss of appetite, and pain are common symptoms. The cause is unknown but may be autoimmune in nature. The disease affects adult dogs of either sex, most commonly after seven years of age, but I have diagnosed it in many younger dogs as well. Currently, the treatment of choice is both cyclosporine and ketoconazole, prescribed simultaneously for a prolonged period, often up to sixteen to twenty weeks. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat secondary bacterial infections and should be chosen based on culture and sensitivity. Topical tacrolimus is also prescribed in many cases. Pain medication may be required. Surgical intervention may be attempted. Diarrhea must be resolved; many of these dogs also suffer from IBD or colitis. I have had my best success treating this condition with TCVM food and herbal therapy. Si Miao San treats Damp Heat in the lower body. A species appropriate raw diet often works well.

Photo by Yuriy Bogdanov on Unsplash

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