Primary German Shepherd Health Issues | Symptoms, Treatments & Tips

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Last Updated: May 23, 2020
German Shepherd Health Problems

With an obvious heir of authority, affection reserved for only the most important person of the family, and incredible intelligence, German Shepherds have long been one of the most popular dogs in the country. These dogs have a somewhat intimidating reputation due to their reputation as police dogs, but for the families that adopt one of these large canines, their four-legged family member is anything but. German Shepherds are devoted to whatever task it is they are given, whether it's guarding the family they love or working alongside a professional in the field. 

History and Background of the German Shepherd 

German herding dogs were a common thing across the country until the latter part of the 19th century, but these dogs had drastic differences in breed and appearance. However, a German officer eventually decided that he would team with other shepherd owners and create a herding dog that had all desirable traits. This is where the original ancestors of the Deutshe Schäferhund (German Shepherd Dog or GSD) stemmed from, and by the early 1900s, these loyal dogs reached impressive popularity in the United States and were registered by the AKC in 1908. These dogs had been refined over the course of nearly a century and had ideal sheep-herding capabilities due to their strength, agility, and speed. When herding began to die out, German Shepherds made their way into other working roles, specifically as K-9 workers with law enforcement and the military. However, in spite of their working histories, GSDs have gained a massive following among dog lovers and now hold the spot as the AKCs second-most popular canine breed. 

  • Lifespan:  7 to 13 years 
  • Weight: Males 65 to 90 pounds and females 50 to 70 pounds
  • Height: Males 24 to 26 inches and females 22 to 24 inches 
  • Breed Type: Herding group 
  • Personality and Temperament: Intelligent, Noble, Confident 

German Shepherd Health Problems 

German Shepherds are one of the larger dog breeds, which means they are prone to a few health concerns because of their stature. However, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America Board of Directors recommends only that breeders test dogs for hip and elbow issues and temperament. 

1. Heart Issues

Large-breed canines are typically more at risk for cardiac issues, such as heart murmurs and other deformities of the atrial system. Many veterinarians do recommend that the GSD has a heart-health checkup annually because of this. Heart deformities can usually be caught early with the help of a vigilant veterinarian, and they rarely involve surgical measures. 

Symptoms of Heart Issues 

  • Lack of energy 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Shortness of breath 

Treatment Options 

For the most part, a German Shepherd that has something like a heart murmur or an enlarged heart will only need closer veterinarian monitoring and owner observation. The vet may recommend an echocardiogram or x-rays depending on the situation. A cardiac workup for a canine can be a bit on the pricey side at anywhere from $625 to $1000. It is quite rare for surgery to be recommended unless the issue or deformity is quite severe. Many heart problems can be managed with oral medications, and using these medications properly can actually prolong the GSD's life for a long time. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • If you can't afford annual heart health checkups, make sure you do get a cardiac workup at least once 
  • Keep your dog's weight in check and be mindful of dental problems that may be a risk factor for heart disease 
  • Work with the vet and follow their care instructions if your GSD does have a heart condition

2. Hip Dysplasia 

Hip dysplasia is a highly common condition in large-breed dogs, and German Shepherds are quite sizable so they are naturally at risk. Studies have shown that as much as 18 to 49 percent of GSDs are affected. All GSDs should be properly evaluated at the knees, hips, and elbows by their breeder for signs of deformities or weakness. Nevertheless, the condition can still develop later in a puppy's life and it can have a lot to do with things like diet and exercise. Hip dysplasia is characterized by a general laxness in the joint that can cause the joint to slip out of place, but it can also lead to arthritis and quite a bit of discomfort. 

Symptoms of Hip Dysplasia 

  • The dog walks in an awkward fashion 
  • Difficulty rising from a seated position 
  • Obvious signs of pain or discomfort 

Treatment Options 

Many dogs that do have hip dysplasia can be treated with medications to help deter pain and inflammation. Unfortunately, hip dysplasia can also be a progressive condition that continues to get worse as the dog ages. A vet will diagnose hip dysplasia with a physical examination and radiographs. Surgery may be an option in the most severe cases, but it can be an expensive thing because it typically involves installing an artificial hip joint replacement. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • Make sure you get your GSD from a reliable breeder that has performed the proper testing 
  • Feed your dog a high-quality food and make sure they get ample exercise 
  • Glucosamine supplements may help thwart issues 

3. Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is one of the most worrisome conditions that can affect German Shepherds. Similar to the human condition multiple sclerosis, DM is progressive, neurological and can lead to complete paralysis of the dog's hind legs because it changes the nerves in the spinal cord gradually over time. If the GSD is received from a responsible breeder, they will have the dog tested for the condition through what is known as a DNA flash test, which may be able to detect early markers of DM. 

Symptoms of Degenerative Myelopathy

  • Uneven wear on the dog's nails
  • Changes in gait 
  • Lack of sensitivity 
  • General signs of pain or discomfort 

Treatment Options 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for degenerative myelopathy. It is a progressive condition and dogs that are diagnosed do oftentimes get worse as they get older. Mobility devices are sometimes used to help a dog retain its mobility in spite of paralysis if the problem does reach this point. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • Make sure you get your puppy from a breeder that has properly tested their breeding lines and puppies
  • Avoid allowing your GSD to get overweight; this may exacerbate the issue 
  • Dogs that must rely on a wheelchair can still live full lives but do need consistent owner monitoring 

4. Digestive Problems 

German Shepherds can seem to get an unfair share of digestive issues. These dogs can develop major food sensitivities, vomit more than most, and be prone to certain food allergies. In addition, some German Shepherds develop intestinal or stomach disease that can exacerbate digestive issues. Most of the digestion issues GSDs face are relative to genetics, but nutrition can play a huge role in these issues as well. This breed needs a high-quality diet and should not be fed table foods. High-fat, high-sodium foods with a lot of fillers or artificial additives can generate digestion problems. 

Symptoms of Digestive Problems 

  • Diarrhea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Obvious signs of stomach pain (Lying in a fetal position or sitting shoulders down and rear up)
  • Inactivity 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Gas 

Treatment Options 

Most digestive issues with German Shepherds can be maintained with a proper diet. Your vet may recommend a diet plan or they may prescribe a prescription kibble that can help deter instances of problems. These foods can cost anywhere from $60 or more for a 25-pound bag, but they are specifically formulated for canines with digestive issues. Some digestive issues may also be helped with medications as well. For example, if the vet suspects the dog has excess stomach acid that is causing vomiting, they may give the dog a medication that acts as an acid reducer. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • Always tuck away tempting human food treats to deter a determined GSD from sneaking and eating them 
  • Start puppies early on with high-quality foods and always be cautious about nutritional changes 
  • Prescription dog food can be expensive but worth it 

5. Bloat 

German Shepherds are a bit more prone to developing bloat than other breeds. Bloat is a condition scientifically known as Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV) that involves a rapid onset of sudden abdominal swelling. The exact cause of bloat may not always be precise; there can actually be several contributing factors, such as swallowing a lot of air and eating in an awkward position. Some researchers have suggested that feeding with raised dog bowls may actually increase the risks of bloat by more than 100 percent. Older dogs are more at risk, dogs with a deeper chest cavity are more at risk, and there is a 63 percent increased risk if the dog has a relative who has experienced bloat. 

Symptoms of Bloat 

  • Vomiting or attempting to vomit every 5 to 20 minutes 
  • General malaise or lethargy 
  • Anxious, restless behavior or signs of discomfort, such as whining, pacing, looking for a place to hide
  • Drooling or foaming at the mouth 
  • Bloated abdomen 
  • Drinking more than usual
  • Unable to stand 

Treatment Options 

Bloat is an extremely dangerous condition, and without immediate veterinary care, the dog may not pull through. While excess air may not sound like a major deal, it can lead to a twisted stomach and upper intestine. This restricts blood flow, can lower blood pressure, and damage the dog's internal organs. If your dog is experiencing symptoms of bloat, you may only have a few hours to get them to the vet for treatment, if that long. The vet can insert a surgical tube in the stomach to relieve the pressure inside, and then perform surgery to revert any twisting that has taken place. Surgery for bloat can be as high as $2,000 to $8,000, and there may only be a 50 percent chance of survival. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • Get familiar with signs of bloat and how to avoid it as a GSD owner
  • Acting quickly can save your dog's life
  • Some instances of mild bloat can be solved with gas-reducing medications 

6. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

Tasked with the regulation of blood sugar levels and aiding in food digestion, the pancreas is an ever-important organ for all mammals. However, GSDs can have a pancreas that does not produce enough enzymes that are vital to proper digestion. In part, it is suspected that this is why German Shepherds can be at such an increased risk of having digestion problems. However, there can also be a chronic problem with lacking digestion enzymes that is known as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. This condition can lead to major issues with absorbing nutrients from food, and even though the condition is considered primarily a genetic problem, it is something that can be treated. 

Symptoms of  Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

  • Weight loss without other explanations 
  • Greasy diarrhea
  • Dry skin or skin irritations 
  • Gas 
  • Excessive appetite 

Treatment Options 

Thankfully, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is a German Shepherd health condition that is fairly easy to treat. The vet can provide dietary supplements to replace what is lacking in the dog's system already, and this can be a highly effective therapy. Medications tend to be relatively inexpensive; something like Viokase ( a pancreatic enzyme replacement medication) is about $2 per dose, which will be roughly $60 per month for everyday treatment. The problem is, many dog owners don't recognize the condition because the signs can be related to so many other problems. The vet can run a fecal test or a blood test to get the dog diagnosed accurately. Treatment is a lifelong thing, and dogs that are diagnosed should also be fed a low-fat diet that is easier to digest. 

Tips for German Shepherd Owners 

  • Don't hesitate to talk to the vet early on if a GSD is showing signs of the condition as a puppy 
  • Be consistent with feeding and medicating schedules 
  • Regular visits to the vet to monitor the dog's condition will be necessary 

German Shepherd Pup

German Shepherds: Steadfast Courage with a Regal Canine Reputation 

When a German Shepherd walks into your space, you can't help but take note. These dogs are firm in their stance with graceful agility and movement, they are confident in everything they do, and they will gladly put themselves in harm's way to protect a member of their pack (family). Like many larger breeds, GSDs can have a few health concerns, and their owners must offer diligent care and nutrition. This breed may not be the most affectionate and cuddly, but it is in their nature to show their devotion to owners in ways that are far more important. 

Author Sheena HarrisAuthor: Sheena Harris
About Sheena: 
Sheena Harris has 10 years of experience in canine health wellness. Having worked with both veterinarians and breeders across the country to curate content, she has a wealth of insight to share on pet wellness, proper breeding practices, and keeping canine companions happy. Her history in breeding AKC-registered beagles lends a great deal of firsthand insight to her work. She's also been published at


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