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Minimising Environmental Factors on Hip and Elbow Dysplasia in Shepherds

Within white shepherd communities across the world, a lot of care is taken to minimise the genetic risks of hip and elbow dysplasia. Ensuring dogs are x-rayed and meet an acceptable score prior to breeding and improving lines by breeding dog with average hips to dog with excellent hips are actions we are taking to minimise the genetic risks of dysplasia.

However, genetics is not the only factor on hip and elbow dysplasia in medium and larger breed dogs including shepherds. Environmental factors also play a big part in joint disease. Breeding two dogs that are clear of dysplasia will still produce dogs with signs of dysplasia. Statically this breeding match in German Shepherd Dogs will produce approximately 30-35% of dogs with signs of dysplasia. A breeding where one or both of the parents have signs of dysplasia will produce 40-45% of dogs with signs of dysplasia.

As Shepherd owners, not only do we have to minimise the genetic risks of dysplasia, we must also minimise the environmental factors.

What are some of the environmental factors?

  • Size and Growth
    Unfortunately, the larger the dog regardless of breed, the higher the risk of having signs of joint disease. Large can refer to both big dogs and also overweight dogs. If a dog is overweight, this can add additional stresses to their joints and increases risks of showing signs of dysplasia. Not all overweight dogs will show signs of dysplasia, but to reduce the influence of weight it is best to keep your dogs within a good weight range for its height. Referring to breed standards can be a good guideline as to how much your dog should weigh. The German Shepherd Dog Breed Standard states that a bitch should be between 55-60cms at the withers and should weigh between 22-32kgs, a dog should be between 60-65cms and 30-40kgs. If a dog is at the low end of the standard for height, the dog more than likely shouldn’t be at the top end of the standard for weight.
    A dog which has grown too fast may also exhibit signs of joint disease due to the stresses placed on growing bones. A growth spurt can sometimes be an uncontrollable environmental factor but can also be caused by feeding a dog a diet too high in protein and calories.
  • Stress on joints
    People buying Shepherds as companion dogs often think they will make fantastic exercise companions, even as puppies and during the dog’s growth phase. Overexercising a growing dog can cause stress on the joints and can lead to signs of dysplasia. A dog will not necessarily exhibit signs of tiredness until they have been well and truly exhausted, this is because most dogs main goal is to please the ‘alpha dog’ which is you – their owner. Exercising a growing dog on hard surfaces is also an issue as this causes stress on the joints and lead to signs of dysplasia.

What can be done to minimise the risks?

  • Exercising – exercise should only consist of free running your puppy while they are growing. This is a natural way for a puppy to exercise as if the puppy gets tired, it will stop playing and this will minimise the chance of the puppy being overexercised.
    On lead exercising should be used on a limited basis until the dog is at least 12 months old. The only real on the lead exercises I have completed with my puppy is obedience training and walking to and from the park to teach the puppy to heel.
    Hard surfaces such as concrete should be avoided when you are exercising your dog as this will add extra stress to the joints.
  • Diet -There are several high quality premium and super premium food designed specifically for shepherds or designed for large breed dogs. These foods normally include ingredients to assist with joint health such as Glucosamine, manganese, a source of omega 3 fatty acids and chondroitin sulphate. A puppy variety of one of these foods is highly recommended until your dog has completed its growth phase.

Following this advice can assist you to minimise the environmental factors on the health of your dogs joints. This advice does not a guarantee that your dog will not develop issues as joint issues do occur in large breed dogs and genetics and muscular structure do play a big role. Hip and Elbow dysplasia will never be eliminated in Shepherds but we can attempt to reduce the incidences.

This article was first published on Fellowship of White Shepherds.