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Breed & Health Resources

German Shepherd Dogs

Rin Tin Tin, a pup found in a World War I battle zone, became the world’s first canine movie star, forever marking the German Shepherd Dog as one of the most recognized breeds. From his imposing size to his erect ears and dark, intelligent eyes, he has achieved legendary status as the ideal canine. A versatile, athletic and fearless working dog, the Shepherd has done just about every job a dog can do, from leading the blind and detecting drugs to dragging down fleeing criminals and serving in the armed forces. An energetic, loyal and devoted companion, the German Shepherd isn’t a breed but a lifestyle.

Traits, Personality & Behavior

German Shepherds are smart, active dogs that will do best with smart, active owners able to give them focused attention, exercise, training, and lots of one-on-one time. There are few dog breeds whose fans don't call them "intelligent," but in the case of the German Shepherd Dog, that's probably an understatement. They are extremely intelligent and famously trainable. Their intelligence means they don’t suffer fools – or wimpy owners – gladly, which means consistent training from an early age is not optional. Those brains, if not put to work in constructive ways, will find plenty of destructive alternatives.

German Shepherds can also be way too much dog for even the most well-meaning of people because they were created and bred to work for many generations. Their genes tell them to be a guardian, a police dog, a guide dog, a search and rescue dog – almost anything other than a couch potato. If you aren't ready for that level of commitment, find another breed.

A few cautions: The German Shepherd Dog sheds, a lot and constantly, so much that even its fans call it a “German shedder.” And while many German Shepherds are raised successfully in kennel situations, these are working dogs that have demanding and interesting tasks to do that give them the needed exercise and mental stimulation. If your Shepherd is a family pet, he needs to live indoors with your family. Otherwise, he'll be lonely, bored and destructive.

Many people want a German Shepherd for purposes of protection. But almost no one really needs a trained protection dog -- most people or families simply need a watchdog and a deterrent. The German Shepherd's size, body language, reputation and instinctive protectiveness are all that's needed to accomplish those goals, so don't get a "trained protection dog" that you don't need and probably can't handle. A socialized, well-mannered German Shepherd that lives with his family will protect them as part of his nature.

Variations of German Shepherds

It is possible to get a good dog from many different types of breeder – show, obedience and working dogs, or even just someone breeding Shepherds as companions. It's also possible, and much more likely, to get a dog completely unsuited to your needs from any of those sources. The situation becomes even more complicated because of all the competing claims being made by the different sub-groups of breeders and fanciers of the German Shepherd, which are impossible for any outsider to evaluate.

Health Issues Common to German Shepherds

The German Shepherd is at high risk of a genetic hip deformity known as hip dysplasia. The head of the thigh bone doesn't fit properly into the hip socket, and over time the bone begins to wear away. The constant inflammation leads to arthritis. It's treated with surgery, usually total hip replacement, at the cost of thousands of dollars per hip. Untreated, the dog will suffer pain and lameness. A puppy's hips can't be evaluated, but by the age of two you can know if a dog is or isn't affected. This condition can only be diagnosed by X-rays that then need to be evaluated by an orthopedic specialist. It's impossible to know if a dog has hip dysplasia simply from examining him or watching him move.

Degenerative myelopathy is also a serious concern in the breed. This is a neurological disease, very similar to multiple sclerosis in humans, and it results in a slow, creeping paralysis of the dog's hindquarters. It's untreatable, and eventually the dog won't be able to move on his own. Watch your dog carefully for signs of pain and discomfort that come on gradually rather than suddenly, and check his nails at least once a month to watch for signs of uneven wear. While DM in dogs is incurable, the course of the disease can be slowed with treatment.

German Shepherds are also more likely than many breeds to bloat, a condition in which the stomach twists on itself, cutting off blood flow. Bloat and torsion strikes very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums and lip licking, trying to throw up but without bringing anything up, and signs of pain. Bloat requires immediate veterinary surgery, and most dogs that have bloated once will bloat again. That means it’s wise to opt for the procedure known as "stomach tacking," which will keep the stomach from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.

Like many large breeds, German Shepherds can suffer from a wide variety of heart diseases, including murmurs, valve diseases and enlarged hearts. An annual heart exam is critical in catching these conditions early, as many of them respond well to treatment.

Epilepsy, vision problems, bleeding disorders, digestive problems including chronic diarrhea – all these conditions are relatively common in the German Shepherd. Most of them have a genetic component, and a good breeder will discuss health problems in her lines.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your German Shepard Dog before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Hip Dysplasia
High $1,500-$6,000
Osteochondrosis of the Knee/Spine
Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (Bloat)
Osteochondrosis of the Shoulder
Aortic Stenosis Medium $500-$1,500
Elbow Dysplasia High $1,500-$4,000
Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy Medium $200-$1,500
Cataracts High $1,500-$5,000
Corneal Dystrophy High $300-$3,000
Compulsive Behaviors High $500-$3,000
Degenerative Myelopathy High $2,000-$4,000
Hemivertebrae Medium $2,500-$6,000
Hyperparathyroidism High $2,000-$4,000
Perianal Fistula High $2,000-$5,000
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance.

9 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy German Shepherd Puppy

  1. Stay out of the fray and ignore the ads you see in dog magazines or on the Internet. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you’ll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
  2. Try to find someone locally who has a Shepherd of the kind you like and contact that dog's breeder. If you do get the names of a few breeders, don't consider your homework done. Meet the breeder's other dogs. Do they have the looks, temperament and behavior you want for yourself?
  3. Next, ask to see written, independent documentation that the breeder's dogs have been tested and cleared for the very long list of genetic health problems that affect the GSD. Hip clearances will be issued by one of two organizations, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHip). The breeder's dogs should also have elbows, heart and thyroid tests evaluated by OFA. The thyroid tests on your puppy's parents should have been done within the last year.
  4. Ask about a new test for one of the most devastating of all conditions affecting the German Shepherd, degenerative myelopathy. Breeders who have tested their stock for this condition are very likely to be among the most conscientious of breeders, so ask to see the results of the DM Flash test, conducted by the University of Florida Center for Veterinary Medicine, as submitted to the OFA.
  5. Don't fall for a bad breeder's lies. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines, her dogs have been "vet checked," or any of the thousand other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.
  6. Ask your breeder about independent temperament testing of her dogs. An unstable, aggressive, or shy German Shepherd can be a dangerous animal, and it's well-known that temperament is largely inherited. The American Temperament Test Society issues a "TT" certificate, and the German Shepherd Dog Club of America has its own temperament test. While these tests aren't all that common, they're a definite plus and another sign that you’re working with a caring, dedicated breeder.
  7. Talk to local dog trainers (basic manners and family obedience, not protection training), and ask if they've worked with any German Shepherds they thought were particularly nice dogs.What you're likely to find is that many of these dogs didn't come from breeders, but from breed rescue groups. They also probably weren't acquired as puppies, but as adults. The advantage to getting an adult dog is that you can make a clear evaluation of his temperament, behavior, and health – things that are difficult or even impossible with a puppy.
  8. Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
  9. Puppy or adult, take your German Shepherd to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues. Ask specifically about what to do it if you suspect your dog is bloating.

Pet Insurance for German Shepherds

Pet insurance for German Shepherds costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because German Shepherds are much more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which German Shepherds are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your German Shepherds is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.

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