German Shepherd Diseases - Symptoms and Treatment
Health & Nutrition

German Shepherd Diseases – Symptoms and Treatment

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The German Shepherd is a popular dog that makes a wonderful family pet due to their loving and caring nature. They are also a stalwart on the job and a top pick for the police or military workforce. Unfortunately their large size can lead to certain hereditary diseases such as elbow and hip dysplasia. In fact, there are approximately fifty hereditary diseases that a German Shepherd can inherit through their genes. This article will be covering ten of the most common German Shepherd Diseases. It will include symptoms and treatment options for each one.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative Myelopathy is common in the realm of German Shepherd diseases, although it does affect other large dog breeds. It is progressive and slowly degenerates the nerves of the spinal cord, specifically the outer tissue, or white matter, present in the chest section of the dog’s spine. This causes the dog to gradually lose feeling and mobility in their limbs eventually leading to paralysis. The loss of function begins in the back legs and then eventually the front legs. The disease can be passed down though the parents genes. It is more common in dogs that are between the ages of four and fourteen years old.


  • Difficulty standing up from lying or sitting position.
  • Difficulty walking or wobbling.
  • Easily falls over if pushed.
  • Feet scrape while walking.
  • Hind quarters sway when standing still.
  • Paws “knuckle” or turn under while walking
  • Weakness in the hind limbs.

Note: Symptoms normally appear close to eight or nine years of age.

The Effects of Degenerative Myelopathy on the German Shepherd:

Fortunately the disease does not cause any pain. However, the dogs lifestyle and well being can be affected by the inability to function normally. Normal behaviors for the dog become harder to do including scratching, shifting positions or going potty. Eventually the dog will need help doing ordinary things as the disease gets worse. Sores and ulcers may develop because of the paralysis unless the dog is rigorously cared for.


Firstly, a complete exam will be performed to determine the dogs health and history. Spinal imaging and x-rays will rule out other possible causes of paralysis such as arthritis and hip dysplasia. The veterinarian may perform other tests including a cerebrospinal fluid analysis, neuromuscular tests and tissue biopsies. A DNA test may also be conducted to test for the SOD-1 mutation. Diagnosing Degenerative Myelopathy is not easy and may require several tests over a period of time to properly diagnose.


There is currently no cure or treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy. Over time as the paralysis gets worse, the dog has a hard time controlling bladder and bowel movements. Depending on the dog, a paraplegic cart can sometimes help with mobility and improve quality of life. Unfortunately mobility will deteriorate over time. The vet should help you determine the best plan of action. Often times Euthanasia is opted for before the later stages of paralysis are reached.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, or EPI, is a genetic disorder that is presumed to be polygenic in nature. It is considered common in the list of German Shepherd diseases. It is a result of Pancreatic Acinar Atrophy, in which the acinar cells of the pancreas start to degenerate. In layman’s terms, this means that the cells that are suppose to produce the chemicals, enzymes and fluid, don’t produce enough “pancreatic juice” to enter the small intestine for proper digestion to take place.

This can result in extreme malnutrition because the German Shepherd is sometimes unable to absorb the proper nutrients even eating the appropriate amount of food on a normal diet. The dog may become deficient in important vitamins such as B12, E and K.


  • Flatulence and gurgling in the stomach.
  • Greasy fur coat.
  • Increase in appetite and or drinking
  • Lots of diarrhea with foul smell and varying consistency.
  • Minor to pronounced weight loss.
  • Vomiting.

Note: Symptoms usually appear between six months and six years of age.

The Effects of EPI on the German Shepherd:

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency can have a major impact on your dog’s well being and serious complications. The disease can cause insatiable hunger, nausea and stomach pain. If left untreated, the dog can become so weak that they are unable to perform normal activities. Their body’s systems may start to fail which can ultimately lead to death via starvation.


The most common way to diagnose EPI, is to perform the serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity, or TLI, test. This measures the dog’s blood trypsinogen levels. A concentration of <2.5 mcg/L in dogs confirms that the disease is present and needs to be treated. However, German Shepherds, can have a low concentration and still have no clinical signs of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. Sometimes other tests may be necessary to exclude other possible causes.


EPI is not curable but is totally treatable. Seek treatment as soon as you recognize any of the above symptoms especially between recommended time frame. Treating the disease is lifelong.

Most German Shepherd dogs with EPI can be successfully treated with an easily digestible, low fat diet along with supplements containing pancreatic enzymes. Powder form is the most effective. In the beginning one teaspoon or 10kg is recommended with each of the dog’s meals. After the clinical signs dissipate, the amount can be slowly lowered over time until eventually the lowest possible effective dose is reached.

In some cases, supplements may not completely resolve clinical signs in which case cobalamin deficiency may be the cause. This is called hypocobalaminema and can be treated with a cobalamin (vitamin B12) supplement. Sometimes high levels of folate are detected which indicates too much bacteria in the small intestine. This is treated with a prescription antibiotic called tylosin.

Hemophilia A:

Hemophilia A is one of the most common genetic bleeding disorders in German Shepherds. It is the result of a lack of coagulation factor VIII. F8 is a necessary protein that is needed for ordinary blood clotting. The disease is passed down through genes in a X-linked recessive fashion. This means that only one single normal gene between the parents is required to prevent the disease.


  • Bruise easily.
  • Extended bleeding after trauma or surgery.
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Internal bleeding following damage to joints or muscles.
  • Mild to moderate bleeding.
  • Stiffness in the joints.

The Effects of Hemophilia A on the German Shepherd:

Hemophilia is dangerous because it can cause spontaneous internal bleeding which may go unnoticed. The dog can bleed into their abdomen or chest cavity which can cause death. Sometimes the disease is discovered during an ordinary surgery, when an excessive amount of bleeding is noticed.


Blood tests in the form of coagulation assays are performed on blood samples to properly diagnose hemophilia A in dogs. The test, called the APTT, is run to screen for any coagulation defects. This will reveal the exact amount of Factor VIII present in the blood. The test is very accurate for determining the presence of Hemophilia A.


Although there is currently no cure for Hemophilia A, treatment options are available. The most common treatment for the disease involves blood transfusions or substitution therapy. This could mean plasma transfusions or complete blood transfusions depending on how extreme the condition is. Sometimes blood products will be administered to increase clotting in the blood. Gene therapy can also be used to improve the disease via adeno-associated viral vectors.

To catch this disease before it worsens, be on the lookout for abnormal bleeding such as cuts or wounds that continuously bleed even after bandaging. If bleeding persists, the dog should be taken to the vet immediately.

Hereditary multifocal renal cystadenocarcinoma and nodular dermatofibrosis:

Hereditary multifocal renal cystadenocarcinoma and nodular dermatofibrosis, or RCND, is a progressive and late onset kidney cancer that occurs naturally in dogs. It was first discovered in German Shepherd dogs in 1985. Dogs that are affected develop several firm nodules which is known as dermatofibrosis of the skin. In addition, they develop bilateral and multifocal tumors in their kidney. It equally affects male and female German Shepherds and only one copy of the gene needs to be present.


  • Blood in the urine.
  • Changes in the abdomen or kidney region
  • Dermatofibrosis.
  • Excessive thirst.
  • Fever.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nodules and tumors in the skin.
  • Personality changes.

Note: Symptoms may first appear as firm small bumps around the age of six to seven years old.

The Effects of RCND on the German Shepherd:

Unfortunately most dogs have to be euthanized because of the harshness of the disease. Other dogs with the condition normally die naturally at around nine years old. The main causes of death include complications such as metastasis combined with nodular dermaofibrosis and secondary skin infections, along with renal cystadenocarcinomas.


The veterinarian will perform a simple surgical procedure to remove one of the nodules in the skin. A veterinary pathologist will then examine the nodule and determine any characteristic changes via a biopsy. They will look for any signs of kidney disease such as enlarged kidneys. They will also check blood and urine samples and possibly recommend radiographs or an ultrasound to detect any signs of kidney disease.


There is no cure or specific treatment to manage this disease. Large or painful nodules can be removed with a surgical procedure and may not grow back if excised completely. However new ones will still appear continually. Female dogs should be spayed to avoid any possible cancer in the uterus and to make sure that breeding doesn’t take place. The veterinarian should monitor the kidney function and come up with a plan if the disease progresses. Fluid therapy along with a special diet may be necessary.

Hip Dysplasia:

Hip dysplasia is one of the most common out of all the German Shepherd diseases. Unfortunately a lot of large dog breeds encounter this condition. It consist of the hip joint’s ball and sock not fitting properly. This results in the two joints rubbing and grinding together instead of working smoothly without friction. Over time this leads to a deterioration of the joint causing discomfort and pain. Hip dysplasia can be hereditary but other factors can contribute such as exercise, growth rate, nutrition and weight.


  1. Bunny hopping or swaying gait.
  2. Decrease in activity or range of motion.
  3. Difficulty climbing, jumping, rising or running.
  4. Enlarged shoulder muscles.
  5. Joint grating.
  6. Lame hind end.
  7. Limpness, pain or stiffness.
  8. Loss of muscle mass in the thigh.

Note: Symptoms can begin to surface as young as four months old.

The Effects of hip dysplasia on the German Shepherd:

Hip dysplasia can have a major impact on the quality of your dog’s life and well being. Although it isn’t life threatening, it can cause substantial discomfort and pain to your dog making it hard for them to do normal activities such as walking and running.


A physical exam can often determine the presence of hip dysplasia along with input from the owner of any discomfort or pain the dog is experiencing. The veterinarian will often physically move the joint to test for pain or a lower range of motion. A blood test can determine if there is inflammation due to a disease in the joint. The conclusive diagnosis is normally obtained using a radiograph or X-ray.


Treatment for hip dysplasia will depend on the severity of the disease. In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary. But for most cases simply improving and modifying the dog’s lifestyle can help alleviate symptoms. Your veterinarian should help you develop a long term plan as this condition is treatable but not curable.

Treatment options include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids and nonsteroidal drugs.
  • Healthy diet to prevent obesity.
  • Joint fluid modifiers.
  • Joint Supplements.
  • Physical therapy.
  • Reducing exercise on hard surfaces.
  • Weight loss to reduce stress on hips.

Surgery is sometimes necessary when the above treatment options are not enough to alleviate the symptoms. Veterinarians may use multiple types of surgeries which include a double or triple pelvic osteotomy, femoral head ostectomy and in some cases a total hip replacement.


Megaesophagus is a congenital condition that causes dogs to regurgitate their food due to weakness in muscular strength and motility of the esophagus. It is one of the most common reasons for regurgitation in dogs. When a dog encounters this condition, they are unable to swallow their food properly because the esophagus lacks the ability to move the food and water from their mouth to the stomach for digestion. This causes a backup which results in vomiting their food back up.

Unfortunately German Shepherds are on a short list of dogs that are predisposed to this disease. While the diseases is often hereditary, it can also be acquired later in a dog’s life, secondary to other diseases or disorders. These include esophageal blockages or inflammation, exposure to toxins and nervous system trauma.


  1. Aspiration Pneumonia which leads to coughing, fever, poor appetite, nasal discharge and lethargy.
  2. Bad breath or lots of drooling.
  3. Muscle weakness
  4. Regurgitation after a meal that differs from normal vomiting.
  5. Weight loss even though the appetite is strong.

The Effects of Megaesophagus on the German Shepherd:

Dogs with Megaesophagus face a lifetime of possible complications from the disease. The condition, if left untreated, causes the dog to get weaker and weaker, slowly starving over time. Aspiration pneumonia and malnutrition are the top causes of death. Other neurological problems can surface as well if there is a nervous system failure.


Megaesophagus is normally diagnosed using radiographs. The x-rays will determine if the esophagus is enlarged or if the trachea is out of place. Sometimes barium may be used as a contrast to make the esophagus more visible. There aren’t any specific blood test for the disease but other tests can be administered. Other tests include a cerebrospinal fluid evaluation, electrical tests, endoscopy, fluoroscopy, myasthenia gravis test and nerve muscle biopsy.


Treating Megaesophagus is life long and will depend on the specific cause and any secondary conditions such as aspiration pneumonia. A veterinarian will develop a specific treatment plan to manage the symptoms and prevent any future regurgitation. Often times a high calorie food with a certain consistency may be used to alleviate symptoms.

One popular method for treating this disease is a Bailey Chair. The chair is designed specifically for Megaesophagus and works by keeping the dog in the upright 45-90 degree position during and after feeding. This allows the food to digest easier reducing any regurgitation. In extreme cases, the Bailey Chair may not suffice and a feeding tube may be necessary.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE):

Systemic Lupus Erythematosis, or SLE, is one of the German Shepherd diseases that involves the dog’s own immune system attacking their tissues. Each tissue in the dog’s body contains antigens that can stimulate a reaction from the immune system. The reaction produces proteins, or antibodies, that generate an immune response. The result is inflammation along with tissue damage to the dog’s blood, heart, joints, kidneys, lungs, nervous system or skin. It normally affects several organs.

Large dogs, like the German Shepherd, have a predisposition to SLE. The name lupus is derived from the Latin word for “wolf.” This is because some humans develop a rash on the face that is slightly similar to the face of a wolf.


  • Blisters and sores.
  • Decrease in appetite.
  • Enlarged liver, lymph nodes or spleen.
  • Fever.
  • Lameness in the limbs.
  • Lethargy.
  • Muscle atrophy or pain.
  • Nervous system issues.
  • Skin issues such as redness or thinning.
  • Ulcers in areas such as the lips.

Note: Symptoms are more prone to appear at five years of age but can start as young as six months.

The Effects of Systemic Lupus Erythematosis on the German Shepherd:

The symptoms of SLE can appear suddenly or slowly over a long period of time. They can also come and go. Arthritis can cause pain in the muscles and joints. They may become anorexic and lose their appetite.


The veterinarian will evaluate the dog first by examining the health and medical history along with the succession of the symptoms. An entire blood profile is normally administered which includes blood count, chemical profile and urinalysis. Most dogs with SLE will usually test positive for anti-nuclear antibodies, or ANA.


Treatment will vary depending on each specific case and the particular organs that are affected. Corticosteroids, such as Prednisolone, are often used to decrease inflammation and autoimmune activity. In certain cases, a second immunosuppressive may be necessary. These include azathioprine, cyclophosphamide or cyclosporine. Other problems may need additional treatment such as damage to the kidney or spleen. Avoid exposure to sunlight as the direct rays can cause flare-ups in the dog. SLE is on the list of German Shepherd diseases that requires life-long treatment. Sometimes the disease can result in death of the dog.

von Willibrand disease:

von Willibrand disease is the most common bleeding disorder that is inherited in dogs and humans. It is caused by the lack of a certain protein which is called the von Willebrand factor. This protein is needed to help blood cells, or platelets, form blood clots used to close broken blood vessels. German Shepherds are prone to this disease although Doberman Pinschers are the most highly affected breed.


  • Excessive bleeding after birth in females.
  • Extended bleeding after trauma or surgery.
  • Spontaneous bleeding from bladder, oral mucous membranes, nose or vagina

Note: Often times dogs will never outwardly show any signs of having von Willibrand disease.

The Effects of von Willibrand disease on the German Shepherd:

von Willibrand disease can cause internal or external bleeding which can lead to many different complications including death in some cases. Certain drugs can enhance the risk so great caution should be taken when considering any new prescription medications. For a complete list of potentially risky medications visit this article by VCA Hospitals.


The diagnosis for this disease is normally obtained with a test called the buccal mucosal screening time. Extended bleeding in conjunction with this test is cause for concern. The diagnosis may be confirmed with a blood test to determine the precise amount of von Willibrand factor present.


Similar to the treatment of Hemophilia A, blood plasma or transfusions are sometimes used to stabilize a dog that is bleeding. Sometimes a drug called DDAVP is used to help increase the von Willibrand factor in the donor’s blood. The drug isn’t cheap and not all dogs respond well to it. Your veterinarian will ultimately come up with the best game plan to treat this disease.

In Closing:

German Shepherd diseases are serious and should be identified and treated immediately if any of the above mentioned symptoms arise. If left untreated, some of the German Shepherd diseases mentioned can lead to severe complications and even death in some cases. Do the appropriate research and learn as much as you can to help prepare and prevent any suspected condition or disease that may develop.

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