8 German Shepherd Common Health Issues [+Signs and Prevention]

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German Shepherds are loyal and protective family members, but years of inbreeding to create a specific standard has resulted in a variety of potential health issues.

Because they’re predisposed to developing health problems, it’s good to understand the risks and signs of chronic conditions. That way, if you add a German Shepherd to your family, you’ll be able to plan for potential medical expenses and long-term care needs. 

Just because GSDs have genetic predispositions to certain diseases, it’s not a guarantee that your dog will suffer particular maladies. Most dogs will eventually deal with one or more health challenges. Your furbaby is just at a higher risk for certain conditions.

The most common issues that German Shepherds struggle with include dental issues, orthopedic issues, degenerative myelopathy, degenerative disc disease, bloat, pannus, and cancer.

In this article, we’ll look at 8 common health issues of German Shepherds, how they vary across the life cycle, and how this breed’s health compares with others. We’ll finish with a description of health signs you need to be aware of and provide you with some tips for healthcare and prevention.

Common health problems

To develop the distinctive German Shepherd qualities, breeders inbred desirable family lines for years. An unfortunate side effect of the improper breeding practices was genetically linked health conditions. Below, we’ll describe 8 common issues of GSDs(this is not an exhaustive list).

Dental issues

German Shepherds are predisposed to gum infections and periodontal disease

Dental disease commonly affects German Shepherds, Collies, and many small breeds like Chihuahuas, Pugs, and Shih Tzus. 

Gum infections and periodontal disease can occur at any age, but they’re more common once your GSD reaches maturity. It often takes time for plaque and tartar buildup to cause issues. The Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine states that  80-90% of dogs over 3 years old will have some degree of periodontal disease.

Plaque and tartar formation comes from food residue in dogs’ mouths. Eventually, the buildup leads to infection around the gum line and teeth. Dental disease can damage the bones, gums, and ligaments, causing tooth decay and loss.

 Signs of dental issues in German Shepherds include:

  • Bad breath
  • Excessive drooling
  • Red, inflamed gums
  • Receding gums
  • Gums bleed easily when touched, or teeth are brushed
  • Bloody saliva
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Discolored teeth that appear yellow or brown

Untreated, periodontal disease often leads to oral infections and tooth decay. Over time, your dog will lose teeth, and the infection can spread to other parts of the body.

To help prevent dental disease in your German Shepherd, start brushing his teeth regularly while he’s young, feed him kibble to help scrub the teeth, and schedule annual health exams. Plan professional cleanings whenever your dog needs them.

The treatment your veterinarian recommends for dental disease will vary depending on the severity of the condition. Minor cases are often corrected with a professional dental cleaning. More advanced stages call for deep cleaning and antibiotic gel application or tooth extraction.

Orthopedic Issues

As a large breed dog, German Shepherds are predisposed to orthopedic issues like panosteitis, hip dysplasia, and elbow dysplasia.

Larger dogs like GSDs, Great Danes, Basset Hounds, Labrador Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers are prone to developing orthopedic issues. Genetics, rapid growth, and a large frame size all contribute to one or more of these conditions.

German Shepherd puppies are born with congenital defects that lead to hip or elbow dysplasia, but symptoms usually manifest as your dog ages and grow worse over time. Panosteitis occurs during rapid growth in puppies around 5-14 months of age.

Hip and elbow dysplasia involve deformities of the respective joints. The abnormal structure results in extra motion in the joint, which irritates the cartilage and leads to degenerative joint disease/arthritis. GSDs can also exhibit unexplained lameness that shifts from limb to limb in response to rapid bone growth.

Signs of orthopedic issues in German Shepherds include:

  • Sudden, unexplained lameness in puppies (panosteitis)
  • Lameness shifts from leg to leg (panosteitis)
  • Lameness disappears around 1 ½-2 years of age (panosteitis)
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty rising
  • Chronic pain
  • Sensitivity to touch around the affected joint

Panosteitis is similar to human growing pains and doesn’t usually require treatment. However, if hip and elbow dysplasia aren’t treated, the condition will grow steadily worse and cause your dog to increase pain and mobility issues.

The best way to prevent genetically linked orthopedic issues is to deal with reputable breeders who don’t breed dogs with a family history of the conditions. Once you have a German Shepherd, you can use proper nutrition and supplements to help minimize joint degeneration. You may be able to prevent panosteitis lameness by avoiding activities that place stress on your puppy’s joints. 

If your puppy experiences pain or discomfort due to panosteitis, your veterinarian may prescribe pain medications or anti-inflammatory drugs. Hip and elbow dysplasia are managed medically with physical therapy, weight reduction, restricted activity, joint supplements, anti-inflammatory drugs, and joint fluid modifiers. Severe cases may call for surgical correction.

Degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a genetically inherited neurological disease that commonly affects German Shepherds. The disease is similar to multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans.

Breeds commonly affected by degenerative myelopathy include German Shepherds, Boxers, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.

As a progressive disease, degenerative myelopathy in GSDs usually develops in middle-aged or senior dogs. It seldom occurs in pups under 5 years old.

With degenerative myelopathy, the white matter breaks down in the spinal cord, causing progressive hind leg weakness and lameness. Without white matter, the nerve fibers can’t signal muscle contraction.

Signs of degenerative myelopathy include:

  • Stiffness getting up
  • Poor coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Swaying gait
  • Crossing legs when walking
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Dragging rear feet

There is no cure or treatment for degenerative myelopathy, but supportive care may help delay the progression of the symptoms.

Because degenerative myelopathy is a genetic disease, the only way to prevent it is by choosing your German Shepherd from a family line that has no history of the condition. Deal with reputable breeders.

Medical management of degenerative myelopathy in German Shepherds may include:

  • Physical therapy – walking or swimming to maintain muscle mass
  • Supplementation with vitamins B, C, and E and the amino acid N-acetyl-cysteine
  • Supportive care, including hygiene and care of pressure wounds

Degenerative disc disease 

German Shepherd dogs are prone to developing degenerative disc disease in the spine as they age. Also known as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), the condition is more common in certain GSD family lines.

Besides German Shepherds, IVDD also commonly affects Dachshunds and Poodles. Pekignese, Dobermans, and Cocker Spaniels. 

As a degenerative disease, IVDD usually manifests as dogs age. Most GSDs will show the first signs of trouble between 3 and 7 years of age.

With IVDD, the protective cushions found between the vertebrae of the spine break down and rupture. This places pressure on the spinal cord and can cause pain and lameness or paralysis.

Symptoms of IVDD in GSDs include:

  • Stiff neck or gait
  • Moderate pain over neck/back
  • Reluctance to jump or climb
  • Reluctance to move
  • Limb weakness/partial paralysis
  • Severe pain and paralysis in advanced stages

Without treatment, dogs with less severe cases of IVDD can survive but may have a reduced quality of life. If your GSD has a more advanced stage of the disease, he will grow progressively worse and have a lowered life expectancy if he’s left untreated.

Because IVDD is genetically linked, you should seek a reputable breeder and a family line that has no history of the disease. If your GSD has IVDD, you may be able to alleviate symptoms by limiting strenuous activity, preventing jumping, and keeping your furbaby at a healthy weight.

Treatment for IVDD varies depending on the stage and severity of the disease, but may include:

  • Pain medications
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Cage rest/exercise restrictions
  • Surgical removal of herniated discs (severe cases)


With their deep chests, German Shepherds are prone to developing excessive gas buildup in the stomach or bloat. If the stomach twists, this can be a life-threatening condition.

Large-breed dogs with deep chests, like German Shepherds, Great Danes, Dobermans, Standard Poodles, and Saint Bernards, commonly suffer from bloat.

Although younger GSDs can develop bloat, the condition is most common in middle-aged to senior dogs. 

Often related to meals, bloat occurs when food and gas build up in the stomach, causing it to expand. If the gas can’t escape from the stomach, pressure builds up and can cause a downward spiral of events, including a twisted stomach and eventual death. 

Symptoms of bloat in your German Shepherd include:

  • Hard, swollen abdomen
  • Attempting to vomit with no success
  • Restlessness
  • Excessive drooling
  • Standing with head extended and elbows pointing outward
  • Panting/rapid breathing
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse

Sometimes, your GSD’s bloat may resolve on its own. However, other times, the stomach will twist on its axis and cut off circulation to the area. If your dog doesn’t receive treatment, the situation will deteriorate rapidly, causing collapse and eventual death. Always treat bloat as an emergency.

Some recommended measures to prevent bloat in your German Shepherd include:

  • Feeding 2-3 smaller meals
  • Restrict exercise/heavy activity for about 30 minutes after meals
  • Use a slow-feed dog bowl
  • Preventative gastropexy surgery 

When your GSD bloats, your veterinarian will begin by stabilizing your dog and treating symptoms of shock with IV fluids and pain medications. After that, the doctor will relieve gas pressure by attempting to pass a stomach tube down the throat. If this method is unsuccessful, your vet will insert a large bore needle through the body wall and into the stomach. If the stomach is twisted, surgical correction is necessary.


Pannus is an eye disease of the cornea and third eyelid in German Shepherds. It can occur in both eyes and can cause blindness.

Although any dog can develop pannus, it occurs most often in German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, and Collies.

Some German Shepherds develop pannus as young as 2 years, but the condition is most common in middle-aged dogs.

Also known as chronic superficial keratitis, pannus is an inflammation of the cornea and third eyelid that’s caused by an improper immune-mediated response. It usually starts in the soft tissue of the eyelids and spreads to the corneas of both eyes.

Symptoms of pannus include:

  • Non-painful pink mass on the cornea
  • Redness and inflammation of the third eyelid
  • Change of eye color
  • Noticeable vision impairment
  • Scarring and opaqueness of cornea
  • Eventual blindness

Contributing factors to pannus include exposure to UV light, high altitudes, and smoke/air pollution. Therefore, you may be able to prevent the disease by keeping your dog inside during peak UV hours or fitting your German Shepherd with dog sunglasses. 

Treatment for pannus involves topical corticosteroid drops or immune-modulating drugs. Additionally, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications.


German Shepherds are predisposed to developing certain types of cancer. Lymphoma, osteosarcoma, melanoma, and adenocarcinoma/leiomyosarcoma are the most common cancers that affect this breed.

Certain dog breeds have genetic characteristics that make them more prone to develop cancer. German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Rottweilers are more likely than other breeds to develop certain cancers.

While younger dogs may have cancer, the disease is more commonly found in older German Shepherds. 

When particular body cells or tissues experience abnormal, uncontrolled growth, it causes cancer. Osteosarcomas grow in bht bones. Lymphomas are tumors of the lymph system. Melanomas are on the skin. Adenocarcinomas and Leiomyosarcomas generally affect the stomach and gastrointestinal tract.

Signs of cancer include:

  • Weight loss
  • Enlarging lump or lymph node
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • limping/lameness
  • Recurring digestive issues
  • Chronic vomiting and diarrhea
  • Unexplained bleeding

Cancer will not resolve without treatment. The disease will progress and may spread to other body systems. Over time, your dog will become weaker and experience increasing levels of pain.

Prevention for cancer in your German Shepherd includes feeding your dog a healthy diet and buying a puppy from a family line that doesn’t have a cancer history. You should also schedule annual health checks and screenings.

Cancer treatment depends on the type, location, and stage/severity of the tumor. It may include surgical removal of the cancer, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.

Anal gland disease/perianal fistulas

German Shepherds have a higher risk of developing anal sac disease than some breeds, probably due to their low tail carriage. With repeated inflammation or impaction of the glands, draining tracts may form around the anus.

Anal gland inflammation with fistulas occurs more frequently in German Shepherds and other large or giant breed dogs. Small breeds like French Bulldogs are prone to anal gland impactions, but fistulas are less common.

It is more likely to see anal sac disease and fistulas in adult GSDs. The draining tracts usually develop over time due to chronic inflammation or impactions.

Normally, dogs express their anal sacs when they poop. If the stool is too soft or there’s inflammation, the glands won’t empty properly. As liquid collects in the sacs, it thickens or dries out, causing impaction and inflammation. With GSDs, draining tracts form to relieve the pressure. 

Signs of anal gland impaction with perianal fistula include:

  • Licking or biting the anus frequently
  • Fishy/foul odor on bedding or around the dog’s hind end
  • Straining/pain during defecation
  • Brown spotting of bedding

Untreated anal gland impactions can lead to perianal fistulas and secondary infections or abscesses. The condition is extremely painful and significantly impacts your dog’s quality of life.

Key prevention measures to avoid anal gland impactions include adding fiber to your dog’s diet, helping your dog reach and maintain a healthy weight, exercising your dog, and increasing your German Shepherd’s water intake.

Treatments for anal gland impaction include manual expression of the glands, applying warm compresses around the anus, and treating underlying conditions like skin infections and allergies. When your GSD develops a perianal fistula, treatment includes antibiotics, immunosuppressive drugs, and topical treatments.

German Shepherd Health issues across the lifecycle

Many health conditions, including dental and orthopedic issues, take time to develop in your German Shepherd. For that reason, they’re more likely to be diagnosed in adult or senior GSDs. 

German Shepherd Puppy Health Issues

German Shepherd puppies are generally healthy. As long as you seek routine care for your youngster, there aren’t many issues you should be worried about. One exception is symptoms of panosteitis.

If your puppy suddenly starts limping or won’t use one of his legs, and you can’t identify an injury, it may be due to panosteitis. In layman’s terms, the condition is similar to growing pains in humans. Fortunately, they resolve as your puppy completes the rapid growth stage.

Adult German Shepherd Health Issues

As dogs reach maturity, they’re more likely to manifest symptoms of certain health conditions. Your pup may demonstrate bad breath from dental disease or early signs of different orthopedic conditions. Issues like pannus, anal gland disease, degenerative disc disease, and degenerative myelopathy are usually seen in adult GSDs. 

Senior German Shepherd Health Issues

While certain diseases may surface in younger dogs, conditions like bloat and cancer are more common in seniors. As the body winds down, cells are more susceptible to abnormal growth patterns that produce neoplasia. Additionally, the stomach muscles can weaken, making bloat more common in older pups.

Some health issues that begin in adulthood become progressively worse with age. Conditions like IVDD and degenerative arthritis from orthopedic problems will become more pronounced in seniors and may cause your German Shepherd considerable pain.

German Shepherd Health Issues and Average Lifespan

German Shepherds are considered to be seniors when they reach 7 years and have an average lifespan of 9-13 years.

By understanding common health issues of GSDs, you can be prepared to help your pooch enjoy a long, full life. Choosing a puppy from a line that doesn’t have a history of orthopedic conditions, certain cancers, or other genetically linked conditions may help reduce the risk of a shortened lifespan. 

You should also schedule annual health checks to catch and treat issues early. Some conditions can cause a shorter life in your German Shepherd. Hip and elbow dysplasia, degenerative arthritis, and cancer commonly cause premature death.

German Shepherd Health Issues VS Other Dog Breeds

In comparison with other breeds, German Shepherds are generally healthy. They tend to suffer from fewer conditions than Brachycephalic breeds and other groups of dogs. 

As a larger breed, the life expectancy of GSDs is lower than small and medium-breed dogs. 

Health Signs German Shepherd Parents Should Beware Of

German Shepherds are generally healthy, but they can develop certain diseases. Understanding the signs of common issues can help you catch problems and seek treatment early.

  • Bad breath
  • Red, inflamed gums
  • Sudden, unexplained lameness
  • Progressive lameness
  • Difficulty walking or rising
  • Loss of balance
  • Hind limb weakness or paralysis
  • Reluctance to move
  • Hard, swollen abdomen
  • Attempting to vomit with no success
  • Excessive drooling
  • Standing with head extended and elbows pointing outward
  • Redness and inflammation of 3rd eyelid
  • Change in eye color
  • Loss of vision
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Noticeable growths
  • Excessive licking of the anal region
  • Fishy or foul odor on bedding

German Shepherd Health Care Tips and Prevention

There are specific measures you can take to help keep your GSD healthy and prevent certain conditions or diseases.

  • Buy your German Shepherd from a reputable breeder
  • Schedule annual health checks with vaccinations and other routine care
  • Have your GSD’s teeth professionally cleaned as needed
  • Maintain a healthy weight for your furbaby. According to the American Kennel Club, males should weigh 65-90 pounds, and females should weigh 50-70 pounds, depending on their frame size.
  • Feed a balanced diet that provides nutrients to support the eyes, muscles, and joints
  • Give your dog supplements to support healthy joints and firm stools
  • Use an orthopedic bed with memory foam to support your GSD’s joints

The Final Woof

Years of inbreeding can predispose German Shepherds to various health conditions. Among the common issues, GSDs can face dental disease, orthopedic conditions, degenerative myelopathy, and degenerative disc disease. 

A predisposition to developing some diseases is not a guarantee for your GSD, but you want to be prepared. Knowing how to identify common conditions helps you to get treatment for your dog as soon as possible. There are also some things you can do at home to help prevent issues and maximize your furbaby’s life.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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