The Breed History
Closely related to the Dutch and Belgian Shepherds, the German shepherd has gained unmistakable worldwide popularity. In Germany, particularly in the Bavaria and Wurtemmburg areas where the breed was refined. Due to their massive popularity in the 20th century, some lines have had medical or behavioral disorders introduced. At one point, popularity of the breed surged after the appearance of a German Shepherd in the Rin-Tin-Tin role.
Breeding for Function
Farm dog, gundog, sheep herding, guide dog for blind, tracker, Schutzhund, and search and rescue are some of the functions ably performed by this popular dog. They are also extremely popular as a companion.
Height at Withers: female 22-24" (56-61 cm), male 24-26" (61-66 cm).
Weight: 75-95 lb (34-43 kg).
Coat: The double coat consists of an inner coat of soft, dense short hair, the outer coat is medium in length and dense, straight to slightly wavy, and somewhat harsh or wiry; lying close. Hairs are longer on the tail. Longhaired and shorthaired shepherd varieties exist, and in the past a wirehaired variety also. In the show ring today only the shorthaired variety is shown. Most colors are permitted, but the rich black and tan is the most common. Other colors include gray, and black, and tan. Dilutes and whites are faults and disqualifications respectively. There is a separate white shepherd breed.
Longevity: 12-13 years
Points of Conformation: The image of the breed is of a powerful, rugged, working dog with a long, low, gliding elastic effortless trot and possessing a bright fearless expression. The conformation is longer than tall, the head is chiseled and long, tapering to a wedge-shaped muzzle, the eyes expressive and medium in size and setting and are almond shaped, slightly oblique, and dark brown in color. The ears are erect when alert, moderate in size with broad base, with moderate leather thickness and are moderately low set. The nose is black, lips are tight and pigmented, the neck moderate in size and length; not throaty. The thorax is deep and ribs well sprung, and ribs stay deep far back in the rib cage, resulting in a short loin. The topline is level, but slowly descending, with withers higher than the rear, and the abdomen is moderately tucked up. The tail extends to the tarsus, is low set, and gently curved. The limbs are straight boned, the long bones oval in cross-section. All dewclaws may be removed, but normally are left on in front and removed behind. Feet are compact, toes moderately arched, pads thick, and nails are tough and dark.
Recognized Behavior Issues and Traits
Reported breed characteristics include: Very high trainability, somewhat aloof with strangers, high intelligence, loyal, courageous, around the home possessing a calm demeanor; some lines are timid, shy or aggressive. Strong guard dog instincts are bred into these dogs and so they should be socialized early to other pets and children. Early obedience training is also important. High exercise and mental stimulation needs are a hallmark. They require a moderate amount of grooming, and will blow their coat twice yearly at which time high shedding occurs.
Normal Physiologic Variations
MDR1 Mutation (Ivermectin/Drug Toxicity): Autosomal recessive disorder in the MDR1 gene allows high CNS drug levels of ivermectin, doramectin, loperamide, vincristine, moxidectin, and other drugs. Causes neurological signs, including tremors, seizures, and coma. A genetic test is available for the mutated gene. In one study, the defective gene was found at a frequency of 6% in white German Shepherds and those carrying white factor.
Elbow Dysplasia: Polygenically inherited trait causing elbow arthritis. Reported 43.7x odds ratio for fragmented coronoid process, 8.2x odds ratio for ununited anconeal process forms of elbow dysplasia, and 14.9x odds ratio for elbow osteochondrosis versus other breeds. UAP is reported at a frequency of 4.8% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey. OFA reports 19.3% affected.
Hip Dysplasia: Polygenically inherited trait causing degenerative joint disease and hip arthritis. Dorn reports 2.20x odds ratio versus other breeds. Another study reports a 5.7x odds ratio versus other breeds. Joint laxity based on a distraction index is more highly correlated to the development of degenerative joint disease than in other breeds. Reported at a frequency of 10.1% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey. OFA reports 19.1% affected.
Pancreatic Acinar Atrophy (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency): Most studies show that German Shepherds have an autosomal recessive immune-mediated pancreatic acinar atrophy. One study showed only 2 of 6 dogs from an affected to affected mating developed disease, showing that this is not a simple autosomal recessive disease. Clinical signs are poor weight gain, and steatorrhea. Diagnose with canine trypsin-like immunoreactivity (cTLI) assay. Treatment is with enzyme supplementation. A British study reports an affected frequency of 18% in the breed. A linked marker has been found, but the causative gene has not been identified.
Patella Luxation: Polygenically inherited trait causing stifle instability and arthritis. OFA reports 0.8% affected.
Hereditary Multifocal Renal Cystadenocarcinoma and Nodular Dermatofibrosis: Rare, autosomal recessive kidney cancer characterized by bilateral, multifocal tumors in the kidneys, uterine leiomyomas and nodules in the skin consisting of dense collagen fibers. Mean age of onset is 6.4 years, and mean age of death is 9.3 years. A mutation has been identified in Norwegian and US families of German Shepherd dogs. A genetic test is available.
Hemophilia A: Rare, x-linked recessive bleeding disorder. Males are primarily affected. Affected dogs can show bleeding from the mouth, subcutaneous and intramuscular haematomas and lameness due to joint hematomas.
von Willebrand's disease (vWD): Rare, autosomal recessive mild bleeding disorder documented in some German Shepherd families in South Africa. No test for carriers is available.
Hyperuricosuria (HUU)/Urate Bladder Stones: An autosomal recessive mutation in the SLC2A9 gene causes urate urolithiasis and can predispose male dogs to urinary obstruction. Estimated at a carrier frequency of 2.60% in the breed. A genetic test is available.
Mucopolysaccharidosis (MPSVII): Rare, autosomal recessive lysosomal storage disorder presenting with progressive juvenile inability to ambulate, skeletal deformities, corneal cloudiness, cytoplasmic granules in the neutrophils and lymphocytes of blood and CSF and urinary glycosaminoglycans. A genetic test is available.
Pituitary Dwarfism: Rare, autosomal recessive disorder of pituitary disfunction. Affected dogs present with growth retardation and stagnant development of the hair coat. The disorder is due to a combined deficiency of GH, TSH, and prolactin together with impaired release of gonadotropins. ACTH secretion is preserved. The combined pituitary hormone deficiency is associated with cyst formation and pituitary hypoplasia.
Platelet Procoagulant Deficiency: Rare autosomal recessive bleeding disorder of platelet function that diminishes fibrin clot formation. Affected dogs have increased residual serum prothrombin assays. The defective gene is linked to canine chromosome 27.
Behavioral Abnormalities: German Shepherd dogs are overrepresented for aggression behavioral diagnoses in a veterinary school behavior service population. These include interdog aggression and aggression toward humans. The AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey reports 6.7% fearful, 5.0% with separation anxiety, and 4.4% with agreesion.
Allergic Dermatitis: Inhalant or food allergy. Presents with pruritis and pyotraumatic dermatitis (hot spots). In an Italian study, 20% of German Shepard Dogs with dermatological disease also had an adverse food reaction. Skin allergies are reported at a frequency of 6.4%, inhallent allergies 4.6%, and food allergies 4.4% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey.
Hypothyroidism: Inherited autoimmune thyroiditis. Reported at a frequency of 5.5% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey. 6.4% positive for thyroid autoantibodies based on testing at Michigan State University. (Ave. for all breeds is 7.5%).
Panosteitis: Self-limiting disorder of intermittent lameness involving the diaphyseal and metaphyseal areas of the tubular long bones in young dogs prior to skeletal maturation. Reported 3.3x odds ratio versus other breeds. Reported at a frequency of 10.1% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey.
Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (Bloat, GDV)/Intestinal Volvulus/
Splenic Torsion: German Shepherds are at increased risk for life-threatening twisting of the stomach, intestines, or spleen within the abdomen. Requires immediate veterinary attention. Gastic or intestinal volvulus was the cause of death of 15% of German Shepherds in one teaching hospital study. GDV is reported at a frequency of 8.5% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey.
Stifle Osteochondritis Dessicans (OCD): Polygenically inherited cartilage defect. Causes stifle joint pain and lameness in young growing dogs. Mild cases can resolve with rest, while more severe cases require surgery. Reported 17.5x odds ratio versus other breeds.
Perianal Fistula/Furunculosis: Inflammatory disorder creating perianal ulceration and fistulas. Treat with anti-inflammatory medications and tacrolimus. Dorn reports a 14.31x odds ratio versus other breeds. Reported at a frequency of 5.3% with a male preponderance in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey. Presence of a specific allele in the major histocompatability complex produces an odds ratio of 3.7x versus German Shepherds without the allele, and dogs homozygous for this allele have an earlier onset. A test for the susceptibility gene is available.
Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): Affected dogs show an insidious onset of upper motor neuron (UMN) paraparesis at an average age of 11.4 years. The disease eventually progresses to severe tetraparesis. Affected dogs have normal results on myelography, MRI, and CSF analysis. Necropsy confirms the condition. Unknown mode of inheritance. A direct genetic test for an autosomal recessive DM susceptibility gene (SOD1 mutation) is available. OFA reports 21% test homozygous, and 30% test heterozygous for the susceptibility gene. All affected dogs are homozygous for the gene, however, only a small percentage of homozygous dogs develop DM. Some studies suggest an immune or inflammatory pathogenesis for DM in German Shepherds. Reported at a frequency of 9.2% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey.
Corneal Dystrophy: Inherited disorder causing epithelial/stromal white to grey oval or ring shaped opacities in the corneas. Reported in 4.88% of German Shepherd dogs CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (HOD): Immune-mediated disorder causing fever, and painful, swollen joints and bones in young dogs. Occurs mostly within 3-14 days post-vaccination. Age of onset is 8-16 weeks. Reported 9.6x odds ratio versus other breeds. Unknown mode of inheritance.
Hemangiosarcoma: Malignant neoplasm most often presenting in the spleen, heart, or bone marrow. Splenic hemangiosarcoma most often presents due to an acute bleed. Usually metastatic by the time of diagnosis. German Shepherds have a 4.7x odds ratio versus other breeds.
Cranial Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Rupture: Traumatic tearing of the ACL in the stifle, causing lameness and secondary arthritis. Treat with surgery. Affected German Shepherd dogs have a significantly greater tibial plateau angle (TPA) versus other breeds. TPA measurements may be helpful to screen prospective breeding dogs.
Congential or Juvenile Cataract: German Shepherd dogs can develop bilateral posterior cortical cataracts at 8-12 weeks of age that progress to involve the Y-sutures and nucleus. These juvenile cataracts are thought to be recessively inherited. A rare congenital cataract has been observed in German Shepherd dogs and is thought to be dominantly inherited. Reported at a frequency of 3.4% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey. Cataracts are reported in 4.97% of German Shepherd dogs CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005. CERF does not recommend breeding any German Shepherd dog with a cataract.
Chronic Superficial Keratitis (Pannus): Chronic corneal inflammatory process that can cause vision problems due to corneal pigmentation. Treatment with topical ocular lubricants and anti-inflammatory medication. German Shepherds are at increased risk. Identified in 3.16% of German Shepherd dogs CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005. CERF does not recommend breeding any German Shepherd dog with pannus.
Persistent Pupillary Membranes: Strands of fetal remnant connecting; iris to iris, cornea, lens, or involving sheets of tissue. The later three forms can impair vision, and dogs affected with these forms should not be bred. Identified in 1.99% of German Shepherd dogs CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Retinal Dysplasia: Retinal folds, geographic, and generalized retinal dysplasia with detachment are recognized in the breed. Can lead to blindness. Reported in 1.99% of German Shepherd dogs CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Degenerative Lumbosacral Stenosis (DLS)/Cauda Equina
Syndrome: Lumbosacral spinal cord compression due to DLS occurs most frequently in German Shepherd dogs (25.6% of cases). Clinical signs of lumbar pain, pelvic limb lameness, urinary and fecal incontinence and self mutilation occur at an average age of 5.4 years. The disorder can present with IV disc degeneration, sacral osteochondrosis, vertebral end plate sclerosis, facet joint tropism, ventral sacral subluxation, ligamentum flavum hypertrophy, and/ or entrapment of cauda equina nerve roots. Survey radiographs are not predictive for the development of DLS. Lumbosacral transitional vertebra can predispose to DLS, and cause an earlier onset. Treatment is by dorsal decompressive laminectomy.
Immune dysfunction/IgA deficiency: Several disorders seen in the German Shepherd dog appear to be related to a deficiency of IgA function. These include inflammatory bowel disease, mucocutaneous pyoderma, systemic aspergillosis, and leishmaniosis. See under specific disease headings. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): German Shepherds are overrepresented for cases of inflammatory bowel disease and antibiotic responsive diarrhea. It is thought that an immune dysfunction can be the cause, and some researchers propose an intestinal IgA abnormality. Chronic diarrhea is reported at a frequency of 4.2%, and IBD 3.7% in the AGSDCF 2004 Health Survey.
Aortic Stenosis (Subaortic Stenosis, SAS): Affected dogs present with a left heart base murmur, aortic velocities greater than 1.5 m/second on Doppler echocardiography, aortic regurgitation, and mitral regurgitation. Can cause exercise intolerance, syncope, and progress to heart failure. German Shepherds are reported at an increased frequency versus other breeds. Unknown mode of inheritanceвЂ“considered polygenic.
Ventricular Arrhythmia/Sudden Cardiac Death: An inherited arrhythmia in young German Shepherd dogs can cause sudden death, usually between 22-26 weeks of age due to ventricular tachycardia (VT). Affected dogs often have no clinical signs prior to a fatal arrhythmia. 24-hour Holter monitoring can identify ventricular premature contractions (VPCs), VPC couplets, and VT. The disorder may be related to abnormalities in calcium cycling between cells. The mode of inheritance is undetermined.
Perineal Hernia: German Shepherds are the most frequent breed diagnosed with perineal hernia. Treat with surgery.
Epilepsy (Inherited Seizures): Inherited seizures can be generalized or partial seizures. A male preponderance is reported in the breed. Control with anticonvulsant medications. Undetermined mode of inheritance.
Aquired Megaesophagus: German Shepherds are overrepresented in diagnoses of acquired megaesophagus. Causes include peripheral neuropathy, laryngeal paralysis, acquired myasthenia gravis, esophagitis, and gastric dilatation. Hypothyroidism is not associated with megaesophagus. Clinical signs include regurgitation, excess salivation, and aspiration pneumonia.
Myesthenia Gravis: An immune-mediated disorder of circulating anti-acetylcholine receptor antibodies cause generalized appendicular muscle weakness with or without megaesophagus, or selective esophageal, facial and pharyngeal muscular weakness. German Shepherds are reported with a 4.8x odds ratio versus other breeds.
Systemic Lupus Erythomatosis (SLE)/Discoid Lupus
Erythematosus (DLE): German Shepherds are overrepresented for these immune-mediated diseases. SLE primarily affects male German Shepherds at approximately 5 years of age with polyarthritis, and renal and mucocutaneous disorders. In DLE cases, German Shepherds comprised 44.4% of all cases in one study, and also tend to have more multifocal lesions. Treatment is with immune-modulating drugs.
German Shepherd Pyoderma (GSP)/Mucocutaneous Pyoderma: Skin disease caused by immune deficiency, presenting with lesions to the lips, nasal planum, nares, perioral skin and less commonly, the eyelids, vulva, prepuce and anus. Responds to antibiotic therapy.
Congenital Vascular Anomalies: Multiple reports exist of German Shepherd puppies with multiple congenital cardiac anomalies including patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), persistent right aortic arch (PRAA), and secondary megaesophagus. German Shepherds are reported with a breed prevalence for PDA and PRAA.
Calcinosis Circumscripta: Calcinosis circumscripta is an uncommon syndrome of dystrophic, metastatic or iatrogenic mineralization of calcium salts in soft tissues. Lesions usually occur on the hind feet or tongue in 1-4 year old dogs. 28.6% of canine cases occur in German Shepherd dogs.
Systemic Aspergillosis: Young to middle-age female German Shepherd dogs are over-represented in cases of systemic aspergillosis. Thought to be associated with a primary IgA abnormality. Affected dogs present with variable signs of leucocytosis, hyperglobulinemia, diskospondylitis, osteomyelitis and thoracic lymphadenomegaly. The disease is usually fatal, but some dogs can be maintained on antifungal drugs for up to two years.
Leishmaniosis/Visceral Leishmaniosis: German Shepherd dogs are overrepresented in cases of leishmaniosis. Affected dogs can present with peripheral lymphadenopathy, splenomegaly, and anemia. Susceptability may be due to an IgA abnormality.
Familial Cutaneous Vasculopathy: Affected young puppies present with pyrexia, footpad swelling and depigmentation, crusting and ulceration of ear tips and tail tips, and focal depigmentation of the nasal planum. Biopsies show multifocal nodular dermatitis with neutrophils and mononuclear inflammatory cells surround foci of dermal collagenolysis, and degenerative and inflammatory vessel lesions. The disease is thought to be a immune mediated disease against abnormal collagen. Breeding studies suggest an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance.
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM): A UK study identified 4 German Shepherd dogs under 8 years of age in heart failure due to dilated cardiomyopathy. Other studies have not shown a breed prevalence. In this study, increased expression of the SERCA1 gene in the myocardium is thought to be an adaptive response.
Acral lick Dermatitis, Base-Narrow Canines, Brachygnathism, Central PRA, Cerebellar Abiotrophy, Cervical Vertebral Instability, Cleft Lip/Palate, Cutaneous Asthenia, Deafness, Demodicosis, Dermatomyositis, Dermoid, Ectodermal Dysplasia, Factor IX Deficiency, Giant Axonal Neuropathy, Hyperparathyroidism, Lupoid Onchyopathy, Lymphedema, Masticatory Myositis, Micropapilla, Mitral Valve Disease, Oligodontia, Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, Osteochondrodysplasia, Pelger-Huet Anomaly, Pemphigus Erythematosus, Peripheral Vestibular Disease, Sebaceous Adenitis, Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia, Uveodermatological Syndrome, Vitiligo, and Wry Mouth are reported.
Isolated Case Studies
Primary Hypoparathyroidism: Case studies show German Shepherd dogs overrepresented with a diagnosis of primary hypoparathyroidim. Affected dogs presented with seizures, muscle tremors and fasciculations, stiff gait, tetany, muscle cramping, behavioural change, hyperventilation, and profound hypocalcemia. Treat with calcium supplementation and vitamin D therapy.
Laryngeal Paralysis in White German Shepherds: Spontaneous bilateral and unilateral laryngeal paralysis is reported in multiple juvenile white German Shepherds. Clinical signs include respiratory stridor. One dog had concurrent megaesophagus.
Mitochondrial Myopathy: A 9 month old male German Shepherd presented with progressive exercise intolerance, a stiff, stilted gait and marked atrophy and hypotonia of skeletal muscle. CK, LDH, and AST were all elevated. Muscle biopsy demonstrated abnormal mitochondria.
Tests of Genotype: A direct genetic test for an autosomal recessive DM susceptibility gene is available from the OFA. Direct test for an anal furunculosis/perianal fistula susceptibility gene is available from Genoscoper: www.genoscoper.com Direct test for Mucopolysaccharidosis (MPSVII) is available from PennGen. Direct test for Renal Cystadenocarcinoma Nodular Dermatofibrosis is available from VetGen. Direct test for HUU is available from the UC-Davis VGL and the Animal Health Trust. Direct test for coat length is available from the Animal Health Trust, and VetGen. Direct test for bicolor, solid black and sable colors are available from HealthGene and VetGen. Direct test for MDR1 (ivermectin sensitivity) gene in white German Shepherds is available from Washington State Univ. http://www. vetmed.wsu.edu/depts-VCPL/test.aspx
Tests of Phenotype: CHIC Certification: Required testing includes hip and elbow radiographs, and temperament test. Optional tests include cardiac evaluation, thyroid profile including autoantibodies, CERF eye examination (annually until 6 years, then every other year), and DM susceptibility test. (See CHIC website; www. caninehealthinfo.org).
- Breed Name Synonyms: German Shepherd, Deutsche SchРґferhund, German Shepard, German Shephard, Alsatian, German Police Dog.
- Registries: AKC, UKC, CKC, KCGB (Kennel Club of Great Britain), ANKC (Australian National Kennel Club), NKC (National Kennel Club).
- AKC rank (year 2008): 3 (40,909 dogs registered)
- Internet resources: German Shepherd Dog Club of America: www.gsdca.org
German Shepherd Dog Club of Canada Inc.: www.gsdcc.ca
German Shepherd Dog League of Great Britain: www.gsdleague.co.uk/
British Association for German Shepherd Dogs: www.bagsd.net
The American German Shepherd Dog Charitable Foundation, Inc.: www.agsdcf.org
German Shepherd Dog club of America-Working Dog Association: www.gsdca-wda.org
The White German Shepherd Dog Club of America: www.wgsdca.org
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