The Breed History
Originating in the middle cantons of Switzerland (Berne region), this hardy dog was likely brought to the Alps by the Romans. These dogs derive from ancient Mastiff-type dogs. Almost lost to extinction, rejuvenation of the breed began in the 1900s. Out-crossing to Newfoundland dogs was one of the steps taken to infuse fresh genes. The first dogs were brought to America in 1926, and first AKC recognition was in the year 1937.
Breeding for Function
The Bernese Mountain dog acted as a drover and guarding dog and also for draft; pulling carts. They are unusually hardy and can live in environments with extremes of temperature and terrain. Today, they are seen in obedience, tracking, agility, and as therapy dogs. They are valued companions.
Height at Withers: female 23-26" (58.5-66 cm), male 25-27.7" (63.5-70 cm).
Weight: females 75-95 lb (34-43 kg), males 80-115 lb (36-52 kg).
Coat: The silky, glossy, thick, straight to slightly wavy and moderately long coat distinguishes this breed from the other Swiss Mountain Dogs. Color is a jet black background with well defined rust markings and white highlight markings for the standard; the tri-color pattern has established marking distribution. Notably, the chest markings in white forms the Swiss cross and a white blaze is usually present. White is also found on the paws and tail tip. When they blow the coat twice per year, heavy shedding occurs; some dogs are low-level shedders year-round.
Longevity: 7-9 years
Points of Conformation: Sturdily built, large, but agility has not been compromised. Heavy bone and musculature are bred into these dogs. The eyes have a gentle expression and are a dark brown, oval shaped and have tight fitting eyelids. Ears are high set, triangular and hang close to the cheek. The skull has a moderate stop and a slight furrow runs up along the midline. The square muzzle ends in a large black nose. Lips are free of flews; they are a dry-mouthed breed. Neck is of medium length, well muscled and the topline is level. The thorax is deep and possesses well-sprung ribs. The tail is carried low when resting and is heavily haired. It reaches to the tarsus or a bit lower. Legs are straight boned, and dewclaws may be removed. Feet are compact and the toes are well arched. Rear dewclaws are removed.
Recognized Behavior Issues and Traits
Reported breed characteristics include: Faithful, gentle, affectionate, quick learner, hardy, needs close human companionship, may be aloof with strangers, need adequate exercise. Some lines may have temperament quirks. Good with other children and animals. Low barking, though will alarm bark. They need early socialization and obedience training, and are moderately active. Bernese are sensitive dogs; they respond best to gentle firm correction.
Normal Physiologic Variations
Mountain dogs are slow to mature, so should not be asked to do strenuous activity or pull heavy loads before they reach 2-3 years of age.
According to the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey, 59% of breeding females have had at least one C-section, and 32% have had difficulty whelping a litter.
A Danish study of Bernese Mountain Dogs suggests that the breed may have higher normal ranges for biochemical values, including: Alkaline Phosphatase/AlkP (0-464), g-glutamyltransferase (0-12.2), amylase (285-1255), and cholesterol (5.29-10.08).
Elbow Dysplasia: Polygenically inherited trait causing elbow arthritis. Studies have shown that a significant portion of Bernese Mountain Dogs with elbow dysplasia have fragmented medial coronoid process. Males have a 3.1x risk over females in the breed. Breeding studies show a heritability of 20%, and that dogs with all grades of elbow dysplasia have the same liability for producing the disease in offspring. OFA reports 29.0% affected. Reported at a frequency of 24.5% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey. Reported 140.1x odds ratio for fragmented coronoid process, and 50.5x odds ratio for ununited anconeal process forms of elbow dysplasia versus other breeds.
Hip Dysplasia: Polygenically inherited trait causing degenerative joint disease and hip arthritis. Reported 7.2x odds ratio versus other breeds. OFA reports 16.0% affected. Reported at a frequency of 14.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Patella Luxation: Polygenically inherited laxity of patellar ligaments, causing luxation, lameness, and later degenerative joint disease. Treat surgically if causing clinical signs. OFA reports 3.2% affected.
von Willebrand's Disease Type 1 (vWD): Autosomal recessive genetic disorder causing a mild bleeding syndrome. A direct genetic test is available from VetGen, reporting 1% affected, and 16% carrier in the breed.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): An autosomal recessive early retinal degeneration is identified in the breed, with an onset of night blindness around one year of age. Identified in 0.12% of Bernese Mountain Dogs CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005, with an additional 0.24% labeled suspicious for PRA. Confirm with an electroretinogram. A genetic test is not available. CERF does not recommend breeding any Bernese Mountain Dog with PRA.
Juvenile Renal Dysplasia: Rare, membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis with concomitant interstitial nephritis. Affected dogs present initially with polyuria and polydipsia, which progresses to clinical renal failure. Affected dogs are identified from months of age to 2-7 years of age. The renal expression of megalin is reduced or completely absent. One study suggests an inherited susceptibility to Borrelia infection as a precipitating factor. The mode of inheritance is polygenic, with a major autosomal recessive gene, and possibly an additional sex-linked gene influencing its expression.
Hepatocerebellar Degeneration: A rare, autosomal recessive disease seen in 4-6 week old Bernese Mountain Dogs characterized by progressive cerebellar and hepatic disease. Histologically, degeneration and depletion of Purkinje's cells and vacuolation, degeneration, and nodular regeneration of hepatic tissues are evident.
Mortality/Longevity: Bernese Mountain Dogs are found to have diminished longevity, with a yearly breed-specific mortality risk of 6.5%. The probability for survival by 5 years of age is 83%, and by ten years of age is 30%. The 2005 BMDCA Health Survey found an average age at death of 7.8 years. A danish study showed an average life span of 7.1 years. Mortality studies in Sweden show a significantly increased risk of death due to tumors, especially in male dogs, versus other breeds.
Umbilical Hernia: Congenital umbilical hernias are reported at a frequency of 24.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Osteoarthritis: Bernese Mountain Dogs have an increased incidence of arthritis. Dorn reports a 1.58x odds ratio versus other breeds. Reported at a frequency of 17.0% in the BMDCA 2005 Health Survey, with an average age of onset of 5.5 years.
Allergic Dermatitis (Atopy): Inhalant or food allergy. Presents with pruritis and pyotraumatic dermatitis (hot spots). Reported at a frequency of 16.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Panosteitis: A self-limiting disease of young, large breed dogs involving the diaphyseal and metaphyseal areas of the tubular long bones, characterized by medullary fibrosis and both endosteal and subperiosteal new bone deposition. Affected dogs show intermittent lameness. Treatment is with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and rest. Reported at a frequency of 7.3% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey, with an average age of onset of 1.1 years.
Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture (ACL): Traumatic tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament. Treatment is surgery. Reported at a frequency of 7.3% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey. Unknown mode of inheritance.
Malignant Histiocytosis: The breed is predisposed to develop malignant histiocytomas in any area of the body. The most common clinical signs are anorexia, weight loss, lethargy, anemia, and dyspnea and/or coughing. Radiographs in affected dogs usually reveal either pulmonary nodules or consolidation, mediastinal mass, pleural effusion, or hepatomegaly and splenomegaly. The average age of diagnosis is 6.5 years, with an average life expectancy post-diagnosis of 49 days. Dorn reports a 15.07x odds ratio for the disorder versus other breeds. The trait appears to have a major Mendelian gene in its transmission, with a heritability of 0.298. One study in France reported an affected frequency of up to 25%. Reported as the cause of death of 10.7% of Bernese Mountain Dogs in Denmark at an average age of 6.9 years. Reported at a frequency of 4.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey, though listed as the #1 cause of death.
Hypothyroidism: Inherited autoimmune thyroiditis. 4.8% positive for thyroid auto-antibodies based on testing at Michigan State University. (Ave. for all breeds is 7.5%). Reported at a frequency of 7.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Cataracts: Anterior cortex punctate cataracts predominate, through posterior, nuclear, and capsular cataracts also occur in the breed. Age of onset at 1 year. Identified in 4.03% of Bernese Mountain Dogs CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005. Reported at a frequency of 4.7% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey. CERF does not recommend breeding any Bernese Mountain Dog with a cataract.
Idiopathic Epilepsy: Grand-mal or petit-mal (partial) seizures are seen in this breed, with an average onset of 1-3 years of age. There is a male predominance. Treat with anticonvulsant medication. Pedigree studies in the breed indicate a polygenic mode of inheritance for grand-mal seizures, with the influence of a major recessive gene. Fly-Biting Petit-Mal Seizures are reported at a frequency of 4.0%, and Grand-mal seizures are reported at a frequency of 1.9% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (Bloat, GDV): Polygenically inherited, life-threatening twisting of the stomach within the abdomen. Requires immediate veterinary attention. Reported at a frequency of 4.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey, with an average age of 5 years, and a 23% fatality.
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 3.49% of Bernese Mountain Dogs CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Mast Cell Tumor (MCT): Skin tumors that can reoccur locally or with distant metastasis. Mast cell tumors produce histamine, which can cause inflammation and ulceration. Reported at a frequency of 3.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Lymphoma/Lymphosarcoma: Malignant lymphatic cancer that most commonly presents in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, or heart. Reported at a frequency of 3.0% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Humeral Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD): Polygenically inherited cartilage defect of the humeral head. Causes shoulder joint pain and lameness in young growing dogs. Mild cases can resolve with rest, while more severe cases require surgery. 2.24:1 male to female ratio in the breed. Age of onset usually 2-4 months. 50% of cases are bilateral. Reported 47.1x odds ratio versus other breeds. Dorn reports a 4.40x odds ratio for OCD versus other breeds. Reported at a frequency of 2.9% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey. Unknown mode of inheritance.
Entropion: Rolling in of eyelids, often causing corneal irritation or ulceration. Entropion is reported in 1.89% of Bernese Mountain Dogs CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005. Reported at a frequency of 2.4% in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Cleft Palate: Congenital disorder of incomplete closure of the maxillary processes to form the roof of the mouth. Reported as the #1 most frequent birth defect in the 2005 BMDCA Health Survey.
Susceptability to Borrelia (Lyme disease) Infection: European studies have shown a higher frequency of either clinical Borreliosis or high Borrelia antibodies in Bernese Mountain Dogs compared with other breeds, suggesting an inherited increased susceptibility to infection.
Portosystemic Shunt (PSS, lLiver Shunt): Congenital abnormal blood vessel connecting the portal and systemic circulation. More frequently intrahepatic in this breed versus extrahepatic. Causes stunting, abnormal behavior, possible seizures, and secondary ammonium urate urinary calculi in the breed. Treatment of PSS includes partial ligation and/or medical and dietary control of symptoms. Tobias reports a 15.1x odds ratio versus other breeds.
Necrotizing Vasculitis/Sterile Meningitis: Affected dogs present with apathy, fever and increased head and cervical pain. Histopathology shows necrotizing vasculitis in the CNS, with perivascular granulomatous inflammation. Treat with steroids. Unknown mode of inheritance.
Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): Affected dogs show an insidious onset of upper motor neuron (UMN) paraparesis. The disease eventually progresses to severe tetraparesis. Affected dogs have normal results on myelography, MRI, and CSF analysis. Necropsy confirms the condition. Reported at a 4x odds ratio versus other breeds. Unknown mode of inheritance. A direct genetic test for an autosomal recessive DM susceptibility gene is available. All affected dogs are homozygous for the gene, however only a small percentage of homozygous dogs develop DM. OFA reports DM susceptibility gene frequencies of 49% carrier, and 11% homozygous "at-risk".
Hypomyelination of the Spinal Cord (Trembler): The condition is manifested clinically as a tremor of the limbs and head which becomes more intense with excitement or stress and which disappears with sleep. The tremor, which is first noticeable between two and eight weeks old, may persist throughout life but decline with age. An autosomal recessive mode of inheritance is suggested.
Cervical Vertebral Instability (Wobbler Syndrome): Presents with UMN spasticity and ataxia. Imaging studies suggest that the primary lesion is foramenal stenosis and intervertebral instability at C3-7. MRI is superior to myelography in determining site, severity, and nature of the spinal cord compression. Treatment is with surgery. Undetermined mode of inheritance. Reported as a sporadic finding in the breed.
Rosenthal Fiber Encephalopathy (Alexander's Disease): Fatal, neonatal degenerative neurological disease presenting with rapidly progressive nonambulatory tetraparesis, generalized tremors, and depressed mental status. Macroscopically the brain shows moderate enlargement of the lateral ventricles. Histologically there are GFAP positive staining eosinophilic deposits consistent with Rosenthal fibers (RFs) throughout the white matter of the central nervous system, and a marked proliferation of abnormally large astrocytes.
Color Dilution Alopecia, Fibrinoid Leukodystrophy, Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy, Hypoadrenocorticism, and Sebaceous Adenitis are reported.
Isolated Case Studies
Cervical Cartilaginous Exostosis: A 3-1/2 year old Bernese Mountain Dog exhibited ataxia in the hind limbs and flailing movements in the forelimbs. On survey radiographs of the cervical spine there was a focal calcified mass between the dorsal arch of the atlas and the spinous process of the axis with severe dorsal spinal cord compression. The mass was removed surgically and the dog made a complete recovery. Histopathology of the excised mass was consistent with a diagnosis of cartilaginous exostosis.
Circumcaval Ureter and Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt: A 4-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog had an intrahepatic shunt, and hydronephrosis and hydroureter due to the left ureter passing dorsal to the caudal vena cava. The shunt was partially closed with a cellophane band, and the ureter repositioned ventral to the vena cava, and anastomosed.
Nephroblastoma: A 4-month-old female Bernese Mountain Dog examined for abdominal distention was found to have a nephroblastoma. The dog was euthanized due to widespread metastasis.
Fibromatosis: A young, male Bernese Mountain Dog with lameness and diffuse thickening of the soft tissue in the right hind limb, was found to have multilobular, space-occupying lesions within and between the muscles of the right femur. Pathology identified collagen fibers and fibroblasts, and a diagnosis of fibromatosis.
Tests of Genotype: Direct test for vWD is available from VetGen. Direct test for a DM susceptability gene is available from the OFA.
Tests of Phenotype: CHIC Certification: Required testing includes AKC DNA profile, vWD test from VetGen, hip and elbow radiographs, CERF eye examination, and cardiac evaluation by a cardiologist. (See CHIC website; caninehealthinfo.org).
Recommend thyroid profile including autoantibodies, patella evaluation and bile acids or blood ammonia for liver shunt.
- Breed name synonyms: Berner Sennenhund, Berner, Bernese Cattle Dog, Durrbachler (historical).
- Registries: AKC, UKC, CKC, KCGB (Kennel Club of Great Britain), ANKC (Australian National Kennel Club), NKC (National Kennel Club).
- AKC rank (year 2008): 40 (3,338 dogs registered)
- Internet resources: Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America: bmdca.org
Bernese Mountain Dog Club of Canada: bmdcc.ca
Bernese Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain: bernese.co.uk
Berner-Garde Foundation: bernergarde.org
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