German Shepherds are among the most popular breeds in the world, but their numbers have started to decline. New research suggests the decreasing demand for German Shepherds may have something to do with the breed’s propensity for health problems—likely the result of selective breeding for cosmetic traits.
A relatively recent shift in the way German Shepherds are bred has been linked to the breed’s current predisposition to an array of health conditions, according to new research published this week in Canine Genetics and Epidemiology. Compared to other breeds, German Shepherds are now disproportionately prone to musculoskeletal disorders, osteoarthritis, diarrhea, obesity, and behavioral problems. These findings should raise the alarm among breeders, but experts are skeptical that anything will be done to rectify the problem.
German Shepherds first appeared at the turn of the twentieth century, and they quickly became one of the world’s most popular breeds. Historically, these dogs were bred for working roles, such as herding, policing, military, guarding, and guide-dog work. Once a medium sized dog, their popularity as guard dogs resulted in them being bred for a bigger size and a more confident disposition. In recent decades, however, breeders have focused on the breed’s cosmetic features rather the functional—especially those deemed desirable in the show-ring. The resulting changes to the breed’s physical characteristics have now impacted on the health of German Shepherds as a whole.
That German Shepherds are predisposed to many health conditions is well documented, but by surveying primary care data from veterinary clinics, a Royal Veterinary College team led by Dan O’Neill sought to uncover the extent of the problem and, in the words of the researchers, “get a much better picture of the real priority conditions affecting this breed [to] inform clinical practice in the future.”
For the study, the researchers collected data on nearly a half million dogs from 430 veterinary clinics across the UK. This study included data going back to 2005, along with data from VetCompass, a program that collects clinical data on dogs under primary veterinary care in the UK. The researchers also looked at demographic, mortality, and clinical diagnostic data for German Shepherds who were under veterinary care in 2013.
As noted in the new study, German Shepherds accounted for 2.7 percent of all breeds documented in the database, but the dog’s popularity decreased from 3.5 percent of all dogs born in 2005 to 2.2 percent in 2013; these dogs are becoming less popular. Disturbingly, at least 63 percent of all German Shepherds had at least one disorder recorded in 2013.
German Shepherds, according to the new research, are most likely to die from complications arising from musculoskeletal disorders (13.6% of cases) or the inability to stand (14.9% of cases). An astounding 263 different health conditions were documented in the breed, the most common being inflammation of the ear canal (7.89% of dogs), osteoarthritis (5.54%), diarrhea (5.24%), obesity (5.18%), and aggression (4.76%). The average German Shepherd lives to be about 10 years old, which is actually pretty good, but its quality of life may be diminished on account of the breed’s susceptibility to so many health conditions.
Importantly, this study wasn’t a comparative analysis of German Shepherds’ disorders over time, but the researchers say the breed’s declining popularity may be a sign that prospective owners want nothing to do with a breed that so susceptible to health problems.
“Our results highlight the power of primary-care veterinary clinical records to help understand breed health in dogs and to support evidence-based approaches towards improved health and welfare in dogs,” said O’Neill in a statement. “Interestingly, we found osteoarthritis to be one of the most common conditions reported, which may be caused, in part, by breeding for cosmetic traits such as lower hindquarters or a sloping back.”
The researchers say the government, breed and kennel clubs, and commercial bodies should use this information to better understand the current and future status of the breed.
“The decline in popularity of the [German Shepherd Dog] may reflect a general trend away from ownership of larger breeds and towards smaller breeds, but may also follow wide reporting of health issues within the GSD breed,” conclude the authors in their study.
German Shepherds, needless to say, are not alone in this. It’s yet another frustrating example of breeders paying more attention to the appearance of dogs than their health. This is actually a problem facing all pure breeds of dogs.
“This article provides no information on the breed that is not already widely known,” said Niels Pedersen of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Companion Animal Health in an interview with Gizmodo. “However, it does bring attention to serious health problems in the breed once again. I anticipate that this study will cause a flurry of concern, but like all of these types of reports that will subside with time, the public will continue to purchase them as pets and the breeders will not make any changes in how the dogs are bred.”
Pedersen said a similar thing happened when his team published a study on the Bulldog—a breed with even more health problems. He says many of the health problems now afflicting various breeds are genetically complex—the result of decades of selection for certain traits that are desired in the show-ring, but not necessarily conducive to good health. But whereas the bulldog may have reached a genetic point-of-no-return, the same may not be true for German Shepherds.
“If you assume that the breed was much healthier at one time, the simple answer would be to ‘reverse breed’ with an emphasis on health instead of conformation [to breed standards],” Pedersen told Gizmodo. “The question than becomes whether enough good genes still exist in a hidden state in the breed to be resurrected and if breeders have the will to do so.”
Pedersen is skeptical that anything will be done, saying that many breeders are raising German shepherds for profit, and that these breeders are “much less interested in improving health than breeders that love the breed and want to do something.”
As dog lovers, there’s not much we can do to prevent this, aside from not purchasing purebred German Shepherds. Which is really said—they’re such an amazingly intelligent, loyal, and beautiful breed.
Update: We just heard from Jerold S. Bell, a geneticist from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Here’s his advice for both breeders and dog lovers:
Make sure that breeders are breeding healthy dogs. It is not enough just to breed two dogs together of any breed (or even crossbreed). If a breeding decision is being made, both parents should be evaluated against the most common genetic disorders seen in all dogs (allergies, hip dysplasia, upper airway blockage in short-snouted breeds, heart murmurs, cruciate ligament rupture, etc.) as well as breed specific disorders.
In the German Shepherd Dog, breed specific disorders include allergies (as a predisposing factor for ear infections/otitis externa), hip and elbow radiographs versus osteoarthritis from dysplasia, gastrointestinal issues that can cause diarrhea (including pancreatic insufficiency and food allergy), and having an even temperament. Temperament is very important in the breed, as German Shepherds with unstable, fearful or aggressive temperaments have increased in frequency.
Breed-specific pre-breeding health screening recommendations as established by the AKC parent breed club are available on the OFA website. Prospective buyers should ask for official documentation of health screening results on the parents of puppies before purchasing. Health conscious breeders are happy to provide the documentation. Otherwise you will be presented with excuses as to why a breeder is not performing their ethical obligation to select for healthy offspring.
Genetic disorders cannot all be prevented, but their frequency and impact on the health of purposefully bred dogs (and cats) can be significantly reduced with health-conscious breeding. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a professional breeder, or just wants to breed their family pet. They are creating living beings that will become someone’s family member. If they are not willing to do health screening on the parents, then they should not be breeding.