Articles written by Fred.

Thyroid Problems and Suggestions on Dealing with Them


While I am a German Shepherd Dog breeder, I have much all-breed experience in handling, judging, and consulting; as a scientist I also have been drawn to certain medical aspects of cynology (dog science). This said, we proceed to the subject; viz., the fairly common occurrence of impaired health that is traceable to, or at least suspected of coming from, a defective hormone production and regulatory system — specifically involving the thyroid gland. Incidentally, some readers may already know that Greyhounds, GSDs, Chow-Chows, and other breeds have greater incidence of low thyroid activity than the general or average dog population. Some breeds of dogs do better (have less “need” of as much of the hormones) than others, but enough breeds do not, especially in the low normal range. If your vet picks up a textbook that tells him your dog must be healthy because it is within that range of “low-normal”, sing to him or her from the Gershwin song, “It ain’t necessarily so!” Also, remember that the base ranges that are now considered the norm were established on Beagles, and that breeds do indeed differ in regard to their hormone needs. The list of “exceptions to the rule” has grown so much that any reliance on the old “normal” range must now be considered foolish for that growing number of breeds.

All endocrine glands are “connected”; i.e., they can influence each other’s action and efficiency. If any part of the endocrine system is out if kilter, so will be the rest. If the endocrine system is not running properly for any length of time, damage could become permanent (adrenal failure, pancreas failure, etc). Two of the most important glands in this discussion will be the pituitary and the thyroid. For a detailed discussion of the pituitary dwarfism in the GSD and related breeds, see or use a search engine [such as Google] to find my articles elsewhere on the Internet. Also, you probably should order my book on the GSD. I recommend you get the Orthopedics book at the same time. Continue reading

2009 Sieger Show Impressions and Tour Report

For a couple of decades, I have been taking small tour groups (one to three vehicles) on guided tours of Europe, with the Sieger Show as the centerpiece. For those reading about this for the first time, this show is the world’s largest single-breed dog show, and has competitors from various countries all around the globe. My background as an SV breed judge, combined with my lifetime of activity in the breed, species, and sport have enabled me to offer the best experience of this sort. I predict, explain, teach, guide, and introduce. If you would like to have fun and “save and see” along with a group of friendly fellow dog-lovers, contact me as soon as possible after the first of the year. Email Mr.GSD (@) for details on my non-profit tours. Continue reading

2008 Sieger Show Impressions

Following the format of my annual Sieger Show report for the past dozen years or more, this is a two-part article. Part One is the tour that makes my guided event different from do-it-yourself trips to Germany; it involves visits to training clubs and breeders. Part Two is an analysis of the show results as I saw them unfold. Photos will vary, depending on space available in the publication you are reading.

For newcomers, it must be said that the international German Shepherd Dog “Sieger Show” is the main event for the breed held annually in Germany. It is the largest single-breed event in the world, although this year attendance in both the stands and the rings was down, due to the general economy entering near-depression in many countries including, most recently, those in Europe. When you read my abbreviated travelogue, think about being part of my group next year in Bavaria: lederhosen, yodeling, Alps, castles (including the one that inspired Disneyland’s little copy), and great food. I’ll start taking deposits in January. I offer expertise as an SV judge, plus knowledge of the geography, customs, breeders, competing dogs, and some familiarity with the language.

Continue reading

Canine Digestive Tract Disorders in Several Breeds (Part 4)




Intussusception — In very young pups (and other animals including humans) the intestine can invaginate (one part slips inside another). The condition, also referred to as “telescoping intestines”, also occurs in adults, but not as frequently. Most common immediate causes include worms, obstruction by indigestible materials, garbage, or toxic substances. The German Shepherd Dog seems to experience a relatively high incidence of this disorder and I believe there is a genetic propensity, a familial trait, in certain bloodlines. Continue reading

Canine Digestive Tract Disorders in Several Breeds (Part 3)


Pancreatic Disorders


Very close to where the stomach empties its contents into the small intestine, ducts contribute secretions from the gall bladder and pancreas, mostly to aid in the metabolism of fats, which are fairly resistant to action by gastric acid. If either gland does not function properly, this can result in loose stools and inefficient absorption of nutrients, with highly variable severity.


The pancreas is a rather long, V-shaped gland located near the stomach, and aids the digestion of food. It has two major types of cells or tissues. One group is endocrine in nature, which means it secretes hormones into the circulatory system, which in turn transports them to other glands and body parts. The endocrine activity of this gland serves to control blood sugar level, and when defective, results in diabetes. The other, exocrine, part empties a group of biochemicals into the digestive tract. It produces enzymes and bicarbonate, and excretes these into the duodenum, which is the first short section of the small intestine. One major enzyme, amylase, breaks down the long starch macromolecules, while others break down fats and proteins. Most GSD people, in America, at least, are concerned more with the digestive function than with diabetes. I have corresponded with fanciers in England who are concerned about pancreatic insufficiency, and since many of their lines are from recent German imports, this is possibly a more widespread problem there than I had earlier suspected. I know I have seen the occurrence in pancreatic insufficiency increase among the German lines in the U.S., but that might be because more and more people are turning away from the American GSD for many other reasons. Continue reading

Canine Digestive Tract Disorders in Several Breeds (Part 2)




Commonly called bloat, sometimes described as gastric dilation/volvulus (GDV), this is a terrifying and frequently fatal disorder that German Shepherds and many other deep?chested dogs experience. A twisting of the entrance and exit to the stomach traps the food and gas. As the stomach swells, the twist is more unlikely to be relieved without veterinary help. Great strides in surgical treatment have been made, but the key to reducing the high mortality is still time. Recognize the symptoms and get the dog to a veterinary surgeon, preferably an emergency or trauma-oriented hospital. Simple dilation (swelling due to gas) may not be serious as long as the dog is able to pass food into the duodenum, but it has been estimated that 80 percent of all dogs that experience simple dilation will someday also have torsion.


Symptoms of torsion include a swollen, turgid abdomen; the sluggish action of the dog; his white, frothy, unsuccessful attempts at vomiting; and perhaps his scratching in the dirt to make a cool hole in which to lie down. Also, the spleen will feel like a hard lump. The spleen is normally wrapped around some of the stomach and therefore splenic torsion usually accompanies gastric torsion, sometimes occurs without stomach torsion. When either happens, the return of the blood that flows through the spleen is shut off, causing shock, the “immediate” killer. Continue reading

Canine Digestive Tract Disorders in Several Breeds (Part 1)

Fred Lanting, © 2003


After skin problems, the next most common and next most frustrating set of disorders to the dog owner and the diagnostician are those of the alimentary canal, that tube through which passes food (and non-food, sometimes) from ingestion through defecation. It is said that the dermatologist has both the easiest and the hardest job: nobody calls him in the middle of the night or on holidays, but it frequently takes many months of trial-and-retrial before he comes up with the most likely diagnosis and then the cure is seldom totally effective. The internist also has a plethora of possible causes for digestive upsets, though not as many, and often he must likewise try several treatments before success. In addition, he is frequently called on for perceived emergencies.

The job of the digestive tract and the rest of the alimentary (food) canal is to take in nutrients, process the food for assimilation and conversion into body proteins, and expel what is left. Sounds easy, but many things can go wrong in that canal and in the organs that contribute to the digestive and absorption processes. These organs principally consist of the circulatory system, the gall bladder, and the pancreas. All add to or take away from the stream.

In 1990 I wrote an article entitled Digestive Tract Disorders. Having been requested to supply articles on bloat/torsion/volvulus, and on megaesophagus, I decided to combine some old pieces, revise the 1990 article, and work these into a new one with a new name. My favorite breed, the German Shepherd Dog, is susceptible to many gastrointestinal problems. There are a great number of causes for stomach and intestinal problems. When these two organs in the alimentary canal are considered together, we refer to a syndrome as gastro-intestinal. The three disorders I wish to treat here are:

  1. Megaesophagus
  2. Torsion/Bloat (Volvulus)
  3. Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Esophagus Affliction

For no other reason than whim, let’s start at or near the beginning of this alimentary tract, where the esophagus meets the stomach. This is where a sphincter exists, that is supposed to keep the digesting stomach contents from refluxing back up the tube into the mouth (or worse, sidetracked into the lungs). Peristaltic action (a progressive squeezing, analogous to milking a cow, forces food boluses down from the mouth and throat to where they can be digested in the stomach and intestines.

Congenital pyloric stenosis is a similar disorder but is mostly found in Boxers and other short?faced breeds; it is very rare in the German Shepherd Dog. Spasm of the pyloric sphincter in excitable dogs, especially toys and miniatures, is also uncommon in the Shepherd Dog. There may be several other causes of esophageal dilation, affecting various breeds to different extents. However, German Shepherds have over thirteen times the incidence of esophageal disorders of all other breeds combined, although PRAA may be part of this statistic.

“Megaesophagus is the most common cause of regurgitation in dogs”, said Mary Labato, DVM, at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. “It may be a primary disorder or secondary to esophageal obstruction or neuromuscular dysfunction. Among the causes: neuromuscular diseases, including myasthenia gravis, polymyositis (a muscle disease), polyneuropathy (affecting the peripheral nerves), dysautonomia (a rare disease involving the autonomic nervous system), systemic lupus erythematosus (an immune?mediated disease), polyradiculoneuritis (inflammation of the peripheral nerves and spinal ganglia), central nervous system disease, botulism, and damage to the bilateral vagal nerve that carries messages to and from the brain. Other causes include foreign body obstruction, stricture, neoplasia (various cancers), granuloma (inflammatory tissue), congenital vascular ring anomaly (vessel malformation), extramural esophageal constriction, hypothyroidism, hypoadrenocortcism, esophagitis, thymoma (tumor of the thymus gland), thallium (a metallic element), and lead toxins.”

Congenital megaesophagus occurs in young dogs and is a developmental abnormality of the esophagus. Megaesophagus-susceptible breeds include Irish Setters, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Shar?Peis, Great Danes, Miniature Schnauzers, Wire­haired Fox Terriers, Newfoundlands, Pugs, and Greyhounds.

Frequently, large dogs are diagnosed with the idiopathic form in which the cause is unknown. Adult-onset megaesophagus occurs spontaneously in dogs 7 to 15 years of age. Dogs with secondary megaesophagus, as with myasthenia gravis, may go into remission and improve with appropriate treatment. “In most cases we don’t know the causes”, said Dr. David Twedt in the department of clinical sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Twenty-five percent of the cases have an underlying cause with the most common being myasthenia gravis.”

Congenital megaesophagus is also known by many other names such as cardiospasm, esophageal achalasia, dilated esophagus, and ectasia. The disorder appears to be caused by a simple autosomal recessive in German Shepherds, although it is highly variable in expression. After briefly consulting me, genetics worker Danielle LaGrave wrote an article for the November 2002 GSDCA Review on this subject, and concluded, “I had hoped to have a definitive answer as to how megaesophagus in the GSD is inherited. But regrettably, I was unable to.” My example of a pedigree study in “The Total German Shepherd Dog” ( apparently was not enough for her need to know the etiology, but is convincing enough to point to familial tendencies (heredity). While reportedly only about one percent of the dog population may be involved, mortality rate in pups is fairly high. Even when the far-less-common PRAA (Persistent Right Aortic Arch) has been ruled out as the cause, I believe the percentage of megaesophagus in German Shepherds is quite a bit higher than that reported one percent. Correspondents in the late 1990s have given me testimonial comments that they believe the incidence is on the rise, but this, too, may be more a matter of greater awareness. This abnormally large and flaccid “food-pipe” between the mouth and the stomach can be found in adults, but the most heartbreaking and serious cases are in pups early in the weaning and solid-food stage. The ballooning out reminds one of the extensibility of a pelican’s pouch. The more severe the expression, the earlier it manifests itself. There are two major types of megaesophagus; the early-onset, clearly hereditary kind with variable intensity, and the late-onset, acquired or secondary kind found almost exclusively in adults. Most of us have encountered many more cases of the former than the latter. Cases in young adults may not be easy to categorize as to type.

The worst cases starve to death by 8-9 weeks, others might have to be euthanized before 7-8 months. These represent the juvenile-onset, inherited type, not the adult-onset acquired type. GSDs, Goldens, and Irish Setters seem most at risk, and if a pup survives to adulthood, the condition often causes or is associated with other esophagus problems, peripheral neuropathies, gastric dilation with or without torsion, and especially myasthenia gravis. Even in adults, many are euthanized because of progressive malnutrition and owner frustration over the regurgitation. Or they asphyxiate due to aspiration pneumonia, vomitus obstructing the air passage. Most adult cases that are presumed to be acquired have no cause discovered, which leads us to believe some cases may simply be a milder form of the genetic problem that causes death by starvation in most pups between 5 and 9 weeks of age. Some veterinary references, however, stoutly consider these genetically- or environmentally different disorders. A loss of peristaltic action is probably due to a disorder of the afferent nerves. This is why there is no successful medical, pharmaceutical, or surgical treatment. There may be a connection with other nerve disorders, even giant axonal neuropathy, which mimics HD and GSD myelopathy. Some have gone so far as to hint that a general immune system deficiency is at the root of this problem, as it appears to be in so many disorders: pannus, Demodex susceptibility, DM, and more. I have elsewhere presented another article that treats this syndrome.

“On routine chest films, there is a large, usually air?filled esophagus, and frequently secondary aspiration pneumonia,” Dr. Twedt said. Symptoms of megaesophagus include slow or halted growth, weight loss, dehydration, water in the lungs, and persistent and progressively worse vomiting of food minutes after swallowing. The disorder usually is detected at or slightly after the commencement of weaning. As food slightly stretches the esophagus on the way down, an affected pup’s muscles apparently fail to contract enough to prevent the food bolus from staying in a pouch just in front of the entrance to the stomach. In time, the muscles become progressively weaker and less able to squeeze the food ball, and even liquid food remains in a hanging “pelican pouch” forward of and below the stomach entrance. As with PRAA, the pup becomes emaciated and listless, often dying of starvation. In fact, the two conditions may be indistinguishable without autopsy, but fortunately the incidence of PRAA seems to have decreased since the 1960s when I first encountered both disorders.

A definitive diagnosis can be obtained by giving a “barium swallow”, a concoction that contains heavy barium sulfate in emulsion or suspension, like a chalky milkshake. A radiograph is taken or fluoroscopy performed immediately after swallowing, and the opacity of the cocktail clearly shows where it is. Repeated views over the next several minutes will show the dilation and any obstructions to peristalsis. In the normal pup, the barium emulsion will be moving into and through the stomach, but in the dog with megaesophagus, most of it will be seen collected in that esophageal pouch ahead of the stomach. An experienced breeder or dog watcher may be able to save you a trip to the vet, but it is a good idea to make sure with a professional evaluation, so you can better plan the next breeding.

“Clinical signs of megaesophagus are regurgitation, wasting, and malnutrition, halitosis, hypersalivation, bulging esophagus at the neck, coughing, and increased respiratory effort due to pneumonia and muscle weakness”, Tufts’ Labato said. Diagnosis is confirmed by means of radiographs and other tests, which are intended to identify the underlying cause, and may include a complete blood count, chemistry profile, urinalysis, ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) stimulation test, thyroid function test, acetylcholine receptor antibody titer to diagnose myasthenia gravis, and an antibody titer, which is a blood test that looks for immune-mediated disease in which the body attacks itself. Some perform the tests in conjunction with endoscopy, an electromyogram that measures changes in muscle tissue, and “bio-electrical” nerve conduction velocity studies.

Megaesophagus signs first appearing at old age are not typical, but dogs with “very mild cases” of the congenital type may not present with noticeable signs until older, when the owner perhaps is watching more, during and after meals. Also, similar symptoms can be caused by other disorders. One correspondent, when pressed on the issue of her 8 year-old “suddenly” showing signs, admitted that he had classic symptoms at 7-8 weeks (not long after weaning onto solid food), which points toward megaesophagus. A second opinion from a veterinarian who has a lot more experience in megaesophagus may have been needed, and that is what I advised her to get. I told her that there is a late-onset secondary form related to other disease states, but I was suspicious because of the history at age 7-8 weeks.

Mild or moderate expression of megaesophagus should not be a problem in the individual, non-breedable pet except after eating — which could be for many hours, though. If it is megaesophagus (inherited or acquired esophageal dilation) you might better control it by having the dog eat more-liquid-like meals, small servings, many times a day, and standing on his hind legs such as eating/drinking from a table with his front feet up where the bowl is. Also keep him as upright as you can for a while after meals. This might be the wisest management method. I suggested she might consult with a vet who would not advise surgery at this age — most surgical procedures to “correct” megaesophagus are not satisfactory. It is a very involved operation, with very low rates of success, and is highly expensive. Some dogs appear to outgrow the disorder, while others show no improvement, and owners must manage their feeding life?long. In a review of cases of dogs with megaesophagus with no identifiable cause, owners had 65 percent of them euthanized.

The height of the food bowl is a matter of controversy in the subject of torsion, and poorly-designed experiments have been inconclusive. But, for frank megaesophagus it is very helpful to have the dog in an “upright”, almost bipedal position, during feeding. There the bowl height is less important than the orientation of the esophagus. A vertical drop, small soft/liquid portions, and not feeding in the evening are good ideas. Feed small, wet/mushy portions throughout the morning and early afternoon, but not in the evening. A Tufts University bulletin in May, 2003 had a picture that illustrated feeding in a sitting-up position like that a dog uses when taught to “sit up and beg”. The owner of the case reported on for purposes of illustration made a special chair so the dog could eat in that position, which used gravity to help move food to the stomach. Keeping the dog in a vertical position for 15 minutes after each meal was most effective. The veterinarian told the owner to give wet dog food instead of dry, to feed him in a raised position, and prescribed medication to keep his food down, along with antibiotics. His total fee: $2,000. This owner learned that her dog did not benefit noticeably from medication; it even seemed to increase his regurgitating.

Following, in italics, is an excerpt from an article prepared by my young geneticist friend Danielle, for an American magazine. I have condensed it because of some parts being either obvious or redundant for an introduction. Remember that she is not a breeder, and did not have first-hand familiarity with the pedigree study I presented in my book, some generations of my own breeding a few decades ago. My comments are in brackets. “I am flattered that you want to include the article on the website. Please feel free to quote whatever parts you feel are applicable. Respectfully, Danielle.”

The answer to many questions depends on how “Mega” is inherited. There are two ways in which it might be inherited. The first is via an Autosomal Dominant (AD) gene. [Autosomal means that the trait is carried on some chromosome other than the X/Y sex-determining ones.] If the disease is AD, then only one parent needs to carry the mutated gene in order to have affected puppies, and would be affected itself. [Danielle says:] Approximately 50% of the pups in the litter should be affected, although that can vary from all to none based on chance. [Fred’s comment: this might be true only if the condition were a dominant trait with inhibited or partial penetrance, and I do not believe that to be the case, based on what I have seen; Danielle has not my breeding and observation experience, just the schooling.] Penetrance is the probability that a gene will have any phenotypic expression at all. When an individual with the appropriate genotype fails to express that genotype, you have a gene that shows “reduced penetrance”.

The second likely way Mega can be inherited is via an Autosomal Recessive (AR) gene. If the disease is AR, then both parents would have to be carriers (have one normal Mega gene and one mutated Mega gene). They would be phenotypically normal, and indistinguishable from a dog that does not carry the abnormal gene. However, when two carrier dogs are mated together, each pup they conceive, will have a 25% risk of inheriting the mutated gene from both parents, therefore having no normal version of the gene, and being affected. [Again, Fred’s comments: actually, 75% of the pups, on average, will inherit the defective gene; 50% of the offspring would be expected to be carriers and 25% would have a double dose and therefore clearly show the symptoms. The other 25% would be normal in both phenotype and genotype.]

So, if the disease is AD and the female has Mega herself then, yes, she can have affected pups even if the male does not carry the mutated gene. However, if the disease is inherited in an AR fashion, then both parents need to be carriers for the pups to be at risk. So she would not have affected offspring if the sire were not a carrier for the disease, even if she were a carrier. The problem here lies in that if she is a carrier, while she may not have affected puppies, on average 50% of her offspring [sired by a normal male] will also be carriers for the disease, perpetuating the abnormal gene in the GSD population. It takes both the sire and the dam to produce [overt] Megaesophagus in the litter if the disorder is inherited in an AR fashion.

At this time, there is no way to tell which pups are carriers. So you have a 2 out of 3 chance that the pup you choose to show and breed is a carrier for Megaesophagus. If you [in North America, anyway] breed the pup to another carrier (very likely if you line-breed) then your risk of having affected pups depends on the closeness of the relationship and whether the other dog has affected littermates or offspring (a fact you may never know). The math is simple. Let’s say you breed a bitch with affected littermates. Her risk to be a carrier is 2/3. You decide to breed her back to her paternal grandsire. His risk to be a carrier is ½ (Her sire must be carrier in this scenario (risk = 1) and he shares ½ of his genes with his father – ½ x 1 = ½ = granddad’s risk to be a carrier). This assumes that the grandsire has no affected littermates or offspring. So the chance for each pup produced by this mating to be affected is: bitch’s risk to be a carrier x dog’s risk to be a carrier x ¼ (each pup’s chance of being affected if both parents are carriers). In the above scenario this works out as follows: 2/3 x ½ x ¼ = 1/12. This is each puppy’s chance of being affected. The chance of at least one pup in the litter being affected would be higher, and would depend on the number of puppies.

[Danielle’s math is OK, but the statement that a show-pick pup from the bitch who had affected littermates had a carrier risk of 2 out of three is not a good way to express this. Make a Punnett square or other diagram and you will see that of four genotypes in her offspring (sire is normal, remember) one is homozygous-normal, one is homozygous-affected, and 2 are heterozygous-normal but carrying the recessive defect.]

If you outcrossed her, your risk to have affected pups would decrease, but since the carrier rate in the population is not known, the chance of having affected puppies cannot be calculated. Things get a little more convoluted when we address this question using the AD scenario. If Mega is a dominant disease it shows what is called “reduced penetrance”. Penetrance is the percentage of animals with the Mega genotype that demonstrate the Mega phenotype (are symptomatic). For example, in a [dominant] disorder with 75% penetrance, only 75% of the affected pups would be expected to show symptoms, so it is possible that an “unaffected” littermate is really affected but asymptomatic, and could still have affected pups. Therefore, the risk that one of the unaffected littermates could have affected puppies depends on the penetrance. The penetrance of the disease cannot be calculated until it is known that it is inherited in a dominant fashion. [Even then!] Dominant diseases often also show a trait called variable expressivity. What this means is that each dog which has the Mega genotype can express the phenotype to varying degrees. Some dogs may have the full-blown disorder with vomiting of solids and liquids and may need special assistance in eating (chairs to hold them upright, etc.). Others may only vomit solids and get by on soft diets. Some may grow out of the vomiting stage. And still others may barely be symptomatic at all and may never be diagnosed at all. These varying phenotypes may all be present in the same litter. So the pup that came to your attention due to vomiting and weight loss might have a brother who is gaining weight just fine, never vomits, and seems perfectly normal. However, if this pup had a [barium] swallow test at the vet, it would [might] be determined that this pup had Mega as well. So it is important when one pup in a litter is diagnosed with Mega, that a vet with knowledge and experience in diagnosing Megaesophagus examine all the pups. If you bred this “normal” pup, he would be expected to sire pups with Mega.

[Unfortunately, the same scene can be, and I believe definitely is, painted with the AR (recessive theory) brush. What we breeders have seen is that there are “modifier genes” located either close to or far from the major gene responsible for a recessive trait, on the same or different chromosomes. These account for such differences between littermates as amount of gray grizzling in the saddle, relative darkness of the iris, amount of hip joint laxity, etc. I believe such modifiers are most likely the primary cause of differences between affected (homozygous-recessive) littermates with megaesophagus. Further, the effect of environment cannot be ignored; I believe there is a substantial contribution to phenotype there. Some pups with a borderline condition, held in check for a while by those modifiers, could be pushed over the line into obvious pouch dilation by feeding techniques. Conversely, a pup with a mild form might grow up to have stronger muscles around the length of the esophagus, if it had been fed small frequent quantities of soft mush, while standing on its rear legs, and handled in other manners designed to prevent stretching of the esophageal tissues. Other pups will vary even if the same treatment is given to all.]

If the goal of the breeder is to eliminate this disease from their line (and ultimately from Germans Shepherd Dogs, entirely), then dogs that have affected offspring or have affected littermates should not be bred; we would greatly reduce the number of affected alleles in the breeding population. If the disease is [recessive], then it will take a while due to those pesky carriers that never had an affected litter [to tell us] they are carriers) until genetic testing is available that can detect carriers. If it is AD, it can be eliminated in a very few generations, even with reduced penetrance. [The condition is more common in the U.S. than hemophilia or epilepsy was in England just a couple decades ago, and since it has not noticeably diminished in linebred American-AKC type dogs, this is another strong hint that it is a recessive trait.]

If your goal as a breeder is to not eliminate the gene, but to only avoid affected pups, then it is necessary that you perform in-depth research into the lines of the males you choose for her. The same logic applies to stud dogs as to the bitches; the main difference is that some studs contribute their genes to a larger proportion of the next generation(s). If you feel that your bitch’s positive contributions to the breed far outweigh her negative contribution (the Megaesophagus gene), and you do decide to breed her, you need to determine that the potential sires have no offspring [or relatives] with the disease and have every puppy checked for Mega by a vet. If the disease is inherited in an AR fashion, then you are breeding a known carrier (having affected offspring is a very accurate test for carrier status!). Remember that ½ of her pups would be carriers and we can’t tell which. [Actually, your Punnett square will show half to be apparently normal but carriers, 25% will be overtly affected, and 25% genotypically normal. For more on the Punnett square visualization of inheritance modes, see my book, The Total GSD, and articles of mine on genetics found on various websites.]

If a very popular male is a carrier of Mega, he can have a devastating effect on the allele frequency in the population. His popularity can cause the number of carriers in the population to rise sharply. Then, as these dogs are bred (and often line bred) the number of affected pups jumps. A female has fewer chances to contribute her genes to the next generation. [This has happened. The pedigree study in “The Total German Shepherd Dog” ( indicates that both Bernd Kallengarten and Lance of Fran-Jo were suspects in carrying the recessive for megaesophagus. The popularity of combining these lines for success in the show ring was mirrored by a large number of affected pups. Most died at or shortly after weaning age (5 to 9 weeks) despite attempts to save them. A good friend who had carriers and affected dogs had an attitude that was typical of many: he felt that the worst ones would self-cull by dying, and those that survived would be as acceptable for breeding as their show-successful parents.]

In the AR scenario, a dog with a genotype of mm [homozygous and affected, even if not obvious], can only contribute mutated genes. 100% of [its] offspring will at least be carriers of the disease. Some percentage will be affected as well, depending on the carrier status of the other parent. In the AD scenario, each pup will have a 50% risk of being affected. Even the ones that do not show signs of disease may have affected offspring due to reduced penetrance. [I disagree, and feel these last two sentences are potentially confusing; in my experience, 100% of the pups in a litter with one dominant-gene parent (or both) will be affected. Modifier genes can indeed cause phenotype variability. But it is less than academic, since I am quite sure that megaesophagus is recessive. Besides the litters I’ve seen, other weight is given by the fact that most disorders are recessive in essence. Nature tends to weed out defects through the laws of natural selection and “survival of the fittest”. It is man that has created, by protective and selective measures, such defects as are now accepted as “desirable”, such as pushed-in faces, dwarfed legs, extreme size, and other anatomical and behavioral features. Likewise, by benign neglect, man has also interfered with Nature’s tendency to keep defects at their lowest incidences.]

Never breed an affected dog; even an affected dog who “has recovered” should be neutered and all littermates tested. If the goal is to eliminate the disease, then any carrier risk should not be bred. Of course, this applies to the parents as well. They are “obligate carriers”, and will continue to contribute the gene to their offspring even if they never have another affected puppy. One source states that the incidence of Mega-esophagus in the GSD population in the US is approximately 1%, although the author [LaGrave] speculates that it may even be higher. If 1%, then about 18% of US German Shepherd Dogs are carriers of the altered gene (assuming AR inheritance). With 18%, the [risk], even if you avoid line breeding and stay completely away from all the [known] lines is extremely high. [Fred adds: I do not see the occurrence of megaesophagus in other countries where I have judged, as being anywhere near the magnitude as it has been and probably still is in the U.S. The reason? Bloodlines, probably. After the mid-1960s, the lines diverged tremendously from those in the rest of the world, those being primarily in close alignment with current German genes. Some were isolated by government quarantine and that included the “Alsatian” in the U.K., and the lines in Australasia. The relative isolation in North America was one of breeders’ choice and fad preferences as much as it was the control by a powerful political clique.]

Puppyhood Diseases

Breeders’ responses to early puppy deaths vary. Some expend a great deal of effort, while others “let nature take its course” and stoically hope the next breeding will be more successful. Many have discovered that neonatal puppy mortality is preventable or call be reduced through scrupulous attention to prenatal and postnatal care. These breeders, who in the past may have accepted 20 to 25 percent mortality before weaning, have learned that such losses can be reduced dramatically by simple changes in management, including veterinary checkups. Continue reading

Don’t forget the 2009 Sieger show tour!

To all who are interested in the 2009 Sieger Show in Germany.      Also, a request to website owners to make it known on your pages:

Please let your “doggie” friends know that time is getting short, in regard to plans for this year’s (non-profit) Sieger Show trip. In order to make sure of rooms and rental vehicles, I need definite commitments (deposits and details) from all who will participate. Please forward to any and all who you think might be interested in joining this year’s show and tour. Thanks. As always, I divide my expenses-only among the participants.

We will arrive in Munich the morning of August 27 (Thursday), which will mean those coming from the USA or some other countries must leave at least the previous day. Kennels are relatively scarce in Bavaria, but I have arranged a visit to the famous WildsteigerLand and am waiting for confirmation re the Jahnhohe folks. Unfortunately, very few clubs have training functions during the week following the big show. Also, the number of tour participants who have signed up so far is so low, and the US economy such that I had to shorten it by one day compared to previous years’ length and activities.

You will meet breeders, get an SV judge’s perspective on the show and dogs, have your questions answered, and enjoy one of the most delightful parts of Germany. Including some fantastic scenery, the castles of King Ludwig (one of them inspired the Disneyland “castle”), the Alps, Bavarian costumes & food, and more. Most flights leave Munich early-morning on Wed., the 2nd of Sept.

Again, I urge you to forward this to anyone possibly interested, and to websites that might reach those who do not know about the tours I’ve been leading for the past two decades. Join us and Gemütlichkeit! Fred Lanting, tour guide

Immune System Problems in the GSD and Other Breeds

© 2006 by Fred Lanting

[Note: the original appearance of this article did not include “and Other Breeds” in its title, but since then I’ve had many reports of dogs of different breeds being similarly affected, with demodex and thyroid insufficiency at the top of the complaint list.]

The German Shepherd Dog is a very popular breed. In fact, it is Number One worldwide although in the U.S. it ranks much lower partly because of AKC clubs’ non-adherence to the international Standards — usually in the AKC top ten, though. As a result of there being so many GSDs, veterinarians and others typically see more cases of most disorders than they do in other breeds. Popularity has its drawbacks, and undeserved notoriety is one of them. Take the incidence of dog bites, for example. Many breeds have far more of a tendency to bite people than does the GSD, although they don’t get the same “press” (publicity). Min-Pins, Skye Terriers, American Cockers, Chows, and many others will sink their fangs in you more readily and with less provocation. But the popularity of Shepherds, Rottweilers, and a couple others is their downfall.

Of course, not all popular breeds are involved in as many biting incidents. You have to travel a long road to find a Golden Retriever that has ever bitten a person, and Labs have an intermediate incidence compared to others of its size. Nor do big dogs bite more (although perhaps with more damage) — the mastino types are usually placid, while the feists like Chihuahua/terrier-types and mixes give credence to their name and the word “feisty”.

That was just an example of generalizations that abound in the dog world. Some are unfounded; others have a basis in statistical facts. Another example is the incidence of hip dysplasia. Rottweilers and American Pit-Bull Terriers may have nearly the same percentage and typical severity of HD as in the GSD, but the Shepherd is almost unique among breeds in that HD causes more discomfort and lameness than same degree of looseness in the joints of the more stoic breeds with some bulldog heritage.

Another problem seen quite frequently in the GSD is the deficient immune system syndrome (a syndrome is a collection of symptoms). It is characteristic of this problem to manifest itself in one dog in a certain way, and in another dog in a different way, a little like a pleiotropic trait. Some evidences are so slight that many owners and vets miss or don’t guess at the underlying cause. This leads the doctor to wrongly prescribe a certain medicine or none at all, and the breeder to go ahead and breed a covertly defective dog that should not be mated. Further complicating the matter, and preventing as much progress as could be had, is the subclinical nature (a lack of, or hardly-noticeable, signs. Many intermittent or mild complaints that owners have are not identified as related to the dog’s immune system, and others have taken years of badgering by breeders before the veterinary community has acknowledged what breeders had known all along. So you will find some disagreement in some of what I will present in the following material. I don’t want to just list a table of disorders under the subject heading, but you might want to do that for yourself. Let’s take a look at some of those immune-mediated disorders after a few more words about the general subject.

The GSD has more than its “fair share” of immune-related problems, and they appear in the intestines, eyes, skin, and other places. The breed has many individuals with a deficiency of a particular immunoglobulin called IgA, and this genetic defect may be very close on the chromosome to genes controlling general immune problems.

Autoimmune disorders

The dog’s “Defense Department” has a number of soldiers: antibodies, immunoglobulins, specialized cells, and more. Some vaccine ingredients, adjuvants, or carriers have been known to cause an over-reaction by this army and result in an autoimmune situation in which the body also attacks its own cells. A recent vaccination development called “recombinant vaccine”, helps avoid bad reactions to vaccines or the medium in which they are cultured or carried into the blood system, but is not effective against parvo. Nowadays, the over-reaction is more often a matter of genetics than any stimulus from vaccine components.

The German Shepherd Dog is at risk for a number of immune system abnormalities, and while not all have been directly linked to immune suppression, there is great suspicion of a connection with most of them. We have seen such problems in the breed as pannus (chronic superficial keratitis), corneal dystrophies, and plasmacytic conjunctivitis in the eye; lupus and anal furunculosis in the outer integument; and plasmacytic colitis in the gastrointestinal tract; these we suspect are related to autoimmunity. The various components and functions of many glands and chemicals in the normal body are lumped together to refer to their joint action of protection, and given the name “immune response” or “immune system”. It involves such things as T cells, phagocytes, white blood cells, antibodies (immunoglobulins), complement proteins, and others. Together, their job is that of a second line of defense against antigens and other threatening “foreigners”; the skin, mucous membranes, and stomach acid are some of the first-line defense mechanisms that bodies have, and if something harmful gets past the frontline troops, the interior guard must go to work.

Invading organisms may be viral, bacterial, parasitic, fungal, and may come into the body via puncture, swallowed foreign objects, impurities in eaten material, absorption through the skin, intake by the lungs, or other routes. This second line of defense even goes after waste generated in the cells, or abnormal cells which if left alone could become cancerous. To do this, the soldiers must be able to recognize the enemy, and do so by chemical means, such as “seeing” if the projections on the suspects fit like jigsaw pieces into receptors carried by the troops. If so, they attempt to neutralize by putting chemical handcuffs or a half-nelson on those invaders until they can dispose of them. Some of the home guard, macrophages, actually “eat” bacteria; some poke holes in the invaders or mark them for other cells to eat or destroy. When such interactions occur, the guard is stimulated to call for reinforcements (multiply rapidly) to search for more of the invaders’ ilk. Our B-lymphocytes have antibody protein molecules on their cell surfaces that recognize the foreign molecule called an antigen. One result of this encounter is that these B “white blood cells” become antibody factories called plasma cells, and can turn out their product for many years to come. Thus, some diseases are warded off the rest of our lives because our bodies continue to have patrolling soldiers that can recognize them. The other type of defender lymphocyte is the T cell. They directly kill “bad” cells without using antibodies. Besides killer T cells there are helper T cells and suppressor T cells; the latter call off the attack so the white blood cells (lymphocytes) don’t get carried away over-multiplying (hopefully!) or that would present other problems.

One hitch in the war machinery is that some lymphocytes get confused and mistake normal body (called “self”) proteins for the “bad guys”. If “Self” doesn’t kill off these errant traitors, as normally happens in the embryo and very young individual, we have what is called an “autoimmune” situation. An oversimplification would be to say that the body is “allergic to itself”. In any case, the body uses the home guard to attack and possibly destroy part of itself (its self). Such a defect can affect immune response all through the body. It is possible that this is happening in pannus, “allergies”, lick granuloma, and a number of other problems in your or my dog. In human AIDS, all the active helper T cells are destroyed, so the body no longer has adequate defenses against any and all antigens. In most disorders, only one or two pathways are affected, so a problem may show up as an itch, skin blisters, hemolytic anemia, a corneal defect, rheumatoid arthritis, or something else in one or more organs.

Demodex — One of the most easily identified immune-mediated problems is demodectic mange. To distinguish between this and the purely contagious sarcoptic mange, see some of my other articles or buy my book on the GSD. The demodex mite is ever-present on nearly all dogs and humans, but doesn’t cause a problem unless the host is weakened by something, especially another immune system related disease or stress. It is widely believed that stress of various kinds, whether of a genetic origin such as a very nervous temperament, or either a genetic or acquired immunodeficiency disease that suppresses T?cell function in the immune defense system, may be the major factor in an outbreak of symptoms such as demodecosis in a dog. With lowered cell?mediated immunity, the individual reacts adversely not only to the mite and its toxins, but also to the presence of other microbes and antigens. “Neutering” reduces stress in the individual and helps brake the spread in the gene pool. A bitch in estrus is in the highest state of systemic stress that any dog normally encounters, outside of severe trauma and shock. Often enough, demodecosis is concurrent with another immune-related defect. If your dog has demodectic mange, look for another condition that should be treated at the same time. Is there a history of subclinical pancreatitis? Has there been recent surgery or other physical or emotional trauma? Any exposure to debilitating diseases? Even the minor stress of teething may be sufficient to tip the balance and encourage sudden proliferation of mites and their symptoms in susceptible dogs “on the borderline”. Very healthy dogs rarely show symptoms even when exposed intentionally by clinical transmission of the mites. Stress (such as illness) seems to “awaken” the mites. Combating demodecosis is largely a matter of curing or controlling the dog’s other ills, both physical and psychological. Use of steroids is contraindicated because they compromise the dog’s immune defense. See my “Total German Shepherd Dog” book for more detail on this topic.

Pancreatitis: In its chronic, subclinical, or often-undiagnosed mode, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI or PI) is fairly common in German Shepherd Dogs of certain bloodlines. It has even been identified with demodectic mange, possibly because during the stress of the dog’s affected digestion, its body is less able to immunologically suppress the proliferation of the mange mites. Supplementation with vitamin A and pancreatic enzymes should be supervised by a veterinarian who is knowledgeable in this area and has been made aware of the genetic nature of the problem in certain lines of our breed. The occurrence in pancreatic insufficiency among German-line dogs in the U.S. has increased since the 1970s, but I believe there are a couple of different reasons for this, if it is an accurate observation.

Malabsorption (poor digestion and poor stool condition) are frequently seen in the GSD, and in my experience, has been more so in the heavily linebred typical lines in American-bred dogs since the 1970s. EPI is one of the conditions that can contribute to the malabsorption syndrome. The symptoms can be exacerbated by physical or emotional stress, change of food, and other things. I suspect that dogs with subclinical weakness in immune systems or pancreatic function may be most likely to show these reactions. With EPI, the fur often becomes dry and brittle, and even lost to some extent, and Staphylococcus infection scabs may appear on the skin because the compromised immune system doesn’t allow the dog to fight off the infection. The symptoms of EPI mostly show up when the TLi value is down (Trypsin?like immunoreactivity test). So there seems to be a possible connection, with insufficient pancreatic function and other resistance” all being tied to the immune system.

A dog with the sub-acute form of pancreatitis may exhibit coprophagy, which means he eats his own (or others’) stools. It may be that he smells the undigested fats and carbohydrates and instinctively consumes it as food to give those nutrients “another chance.” Often, the addition of liver to a low?fat diet and daily administration of enzyme powder or capsules, or regular supplementation with ground pancreas if you are lucky enough to get some from a nearby slaughterhouse, will bring the condition under control or at least improve it. Researchers at Tulane University found that a commercially available enzyme supplement could improve blood analysis, neonatal vitality, digestion, and general health. The manufacturers of Viokase™, a dried raw pancreatic enzyme brand, have shown that supplement/medicine to be effective in combating nonspecific diarrhea as well as German Shepherd Dog subclinical pancreatitis. The juvenile-onset generalized demodecosis often has a spontaneous semi-remission because of better stress management.

Dogs that exhibit symptoms such as much flatulence, or intermittent diarrhea or pasty light-brown/yellow to clay-colored stool, perhaps should be tested for levels of Lipase, Protease and Amylase, or just fed the recommended preparations without testing. But keep an eye out for other immune-system signs, too. Some people perceive a probable connection or coincidence between anal furunculosis (perianal fistulas) and EPI. Both of these problems may show up in the same dog, strengthening the suspicion that they are manifestations of the same underlying immune system weakness. A great deal of the digestive tract functions and stages may be affected one way or another by the same genes governing immune response.

Pancreatic insufficiency is an abnormality that suggests removal from the gene pool, whether the dog has a severe or a mild case or is asymptomatic most of the time. Most vets take very few hours of nutrition and practical genetics classes in vet school, and then forget most of it because they don’t use it every day. Breeders are sometimes more reliable sources of information. Unfortunately, many people who offer their EPI males at stud do not admit or declare any cautions about their dogs. As one observer quipped, “It’s funny isn’t it, that those who deny all those things have Viokase-V on the shelf in their back rooms?” Although it is good for various unspecified causes of diarrhea, the product is so much more expensive than Kaopectate, that it makes you wonder.

Bloat/Torsion/Volvulus: Is there a connection between PI and GDV (gastric dilation and volvulus)? There have been reports from dog owners indicating that many episodes of EPI begin with a bloating incident, or with a gastroenteritis, marked by vomiting and blood tinged diarrhea. One observer said, “From the general info collected, the dog first bloats, which often leads to torsion of the gut, which of course requires surgery for a tacking of the stomach, and this is usually followed by a full blown episode of EPI within a few months of the surgery.” I suspect that there is, at least sometimes, a common root cause if these two problems. Dogs with a history of bloating/torsion and/or bouts of unexplained diarrhea are reported by several of my correspondents to be quite likely to be EPI-carrier suspects, although this observation is admittedly anecdotal.

Megaesophagus: German Shepherds have over thirteen times the incidence of esophageal disorders of all other breeds combined, although PRAA, an unrelated heart defect that causes similar symptoms as caused may be part of this statistic. Dr. Labato at Tufts U. School of Veterinary Medicine says, “It [sometimes] may be secondary to … myasthenia gravis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE is an immune?mediated disease), …[and possibly others].” Breeds susceptible to the juvenile-onset, inherited type of megaesophagus include Irish Setters, German Shepherd Dogs, and a few others. Frequently, large dogs are diagnosed with the idiopathic form, which means the cause is unknown. “In most cases we don’t know the causes”, said Dr. Twedt in the vet school at Colorado State University.

The characteristic loss of peristaltic action is probably due to a disorder of the afferent nerves, which is why there is no successful medical, pharmaceutical, or surgical treatment. There may be a connection with other nerve disorders, even giant axonal neuropathy, which mimics HD and GSD myelopathy. Because of these similarities, some have hinted that a general immune system deficiency is at the root of this problem, as it appears to be in so many disorders.

Diagnosis of megaesophagus is confirmed by means of various tests, some of which are intended to discover the underlying cause, and may include the acetylcholine receptor antibody titer that is used to diagnose myasthenia gravis. An antibody titer is a blood test that looks for immune-mediated disease — one in which the body attacks itself. One source I detail in my GSD book states that the incidence of symptomatic mega-esophagus in the GSD population in the US is at least 1%, but about 18% of U.S. (AKC-lines) GSDs are carriers of the altered gene (assuming autosomal-recessive inheritance). With 18%, the [risk], even if you avoid linebreeding and stay completely away from all the [known] lines, is extremely high. The pedigree study in “The Total German Shepherd Dog” ( indicates that both Bernd Kallengarten and Lance of Fran-Jo were suspects in carrying the recessive for megaesophagus, and the latter was known to produce a considerable number of descendants with various other manifestations of immune defects.

Intussusception: In very young pups (and other animals including humans) the intestine can invaginate (one part slips inside another). The condition, also referred to as “telescoping intestines”, also occurs in adults, but not as frequently. Most common immediate causes include worms, obstruction by indigestible materials, garbage, or toxic substances. However, since the German Shepherd Dog seems to experience a relatively high incidence of this disorder, I have to suspect the possibility that (other than those above causes) there is a genetic propensity in certain bloodlines, and perhaps interrelated to other “GSD disorders” — those more common to this breed than most others.

Pannus: The GSD has more than its “fair share” of immune-related problems, and they appear in the intestines, eyes, skin, and other places. The breed has many individuals with a deficiency of a particular immunoglobulin called IgA, and this genetic defect may be very close on the chromosome to genes controlling general immune problems. The GSD, after the West Highland White Terrier, probably also presents most of the cases of pannus, an eye disorder caused by lymphocytes migrating into the cornea and causing blindness unless treated. More and more vets are referring to it as chronic superficial keratitis; CSK for those addicted to abbreviations. I have watched quite a few eyeballs “peeled” in the surgical part of the therapy, in the days when steroid drops in the eye on a frequent basis (several times a day) for the rest of the dog’s life was the post-surgical treatment of choice. Peeling was the more heroic procedure, when injection of cortisone under the conjunctiva as a first step is not effective. Today the drug cyclosporine is used to best advantage in pannus, although a steroid such as dexamethasone is still effective. This cyclosporine is the same drug, originally found as a component of a Norwegian soil fungus, that is given to counteract the body’s tendency to reject other people’s organ transplants. The drug is given as an ointment or in food twice a day until the cornea is free of the lymphocytes, then there is a once-daily administration; it seems to work partly by causing the tear ducts to operate almost full time. Enough is absorbed by the tissues of the eye to get into the far reaches of the circulatory system where it does the other part of its job, fighting those wayward lymphocytes.

No cure is in sight, since it is highly likely that pannus is an inherited autoimmune disorder, and people who have dogs with pannus will have to deal with the frustration and regimentation of daily treatment for the dog’s lifetime. The same situation has been nagging sufferers from human autoimmune disorders for a long time. MS, multiple sclerosis, is considered by most to be such a disease, in which T-cells attack components of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and some major nerves). One of those components, myelin basic protein (MBP) has been experimentally fed to lab animals, and later to human MS patients, and it was discovered that the severity of symptoms was considerably reduced. Rheumatoid arthritis, dealt with more in my book on orthopedic disorders, is another supposed autoimmune pathology in which the T-cells act against parts of the joints, especially Type-II collagen. Again, oral-dietary administration of this type of collagen was fed to RA patients with significant improvement in managing the disease symptoms such as number and severity of swollen joints, gripping strength in the hands, and subjective descriptions of pain or stiffness after rest or sleep. Experimental treatments involving feeding normal cornea extracts to dogs with pannus may have similar results.

Pannus was previously called “keratitis superficialis vasculosa pannosa pigmentosa chronica”, “German Shepherd Dog Keratitis”, and “Keratitis Überreiter” after its Austrian discoverer, is an inflammation and pigmentation of the cornea and sometimes involves the conjunctiva. It is rare in almost every other breed, and in the GSD it usually appears around 3-5 years of age and in both eyes. By that time, many affected dogs will have already been bred. Besides the hereditary, breed-dependent predisposition there is an environmental component that brings it on earlier and more certainly: ultraviolet radiation. UV rays in sunlight trigger the onset of symptoms, explaining why an increased incidence is observed anywhere during the sunnier months of the year, and more cases are presented in higher elevations such as Denver. This means that to avoid outbreaks of the acute phase, the owner should not only keep up with the medication schedule, but also make sure his dog is protected from exposure to strong sunlight, even if reflected off snow or water, and especially at high altitudes. Some dogs are kept indoors (glass windows filter out most UV rays) and are walked in darker hours; some wear fitted sunglasses.

Corneal dystrophy: While I do not draw any definite connecting lines between pannus and this disorder, I mention it because I think there may be an immune system relationship. Small opacities may appear on the cornea over the pupil or slightly off-center, and the novice might think the dog has cataracts. It may be triggered by an allergic reaction or some other cause, and show up as a small spot, varying from slightly translucent to cloudy-white. The size is usually less than 5mm across, round, oval, or horseshoe-shaped. Most eye specialists refer to this type of opacity as “corneal dystrophy”; the spots do not interfere with vision. In my experience the spots have faded away in a few years after reaching maximum size. Corneal dystrophy appears to be genetic, but is not serious. Probably less than one percent of the breed is affected. I once had a bitch who developed very small oval opacities, one on each cornea, after she was about four or five years old. They finally and gradually disappeared (shrunk to nothingness) by the time she was about ten years or more. This bitch also developed atopic (allergic-type) problems marked by itching feet and sometimes parts of the skin, but most noticeably by an assumed feeling of excess phlegm in the throat. One of her many sons developed the same transient and minor corneal defects, appearing in maturity and going away without treatment by old age. While it is possible that some of these opacities may be immune system related, I think most are largely if not fully environmental.

Pemphigus: Uncommonly seen in dogs and more found in humans, this group of related autoimmune disorders involves mostly the mucous membranes and skin. You may never notice the spider-web mucosal condition in the mouth or purplish, fragile splotches of skin in some forms. In some forms it can produce ulcers in mucous membranes. Very high doses of corticosteroids for life may control the disease, but this is a controversial approach because steroids are generally contraindicated in autoimmune diseases, and usually cause a great deal of capillary rupture and bleeding. It may be best to just leave these alone and see if they will “go away” on their own.

Primary Seborrhea: I have no hard evidence, but I suspect seborrhea may sometimes be a sign of an acquired autoimmune disorder. This disorder is a condition in which there are scaly patches and a greasy feel to parts of the dog’s skin. You will probably notice great difficulty in keeping the ears clean and free of dark wax and yeast or fungus. Often, the older, long-affected dog will have an over-all rancid odor. Many of these cases are related to thyroid hormone imbalance, and such an immune- and general endocrine-related disturbance may become chronic and in need of very frequent bathing and/or ear cleaning with little or no hope of remission.

I have seen many cases that have been brought on after extended or repeated exposure to fleas and other factors. The flea allergy or exposure may be the prime cause of the skin condition, with the flea antigens weakening the dog’s immune response and thyroid function, resulting in severe seborrhea. Or, the immune defense weakness may be the prime cause of the dog not being able to withstand fleas. Ask a veterinary dermatologist to try to find the underlying cause as well as give you ideas on how to treat for the symptoms. If the dog shows evidence of much itching, it is usually called secondary seborrhea, which refers to a primary cause being mange, fleabite allergy, or other trigger influences, involves relatively large reddish-skin patches with hair loss, and is often more scaly and less greasy than is the primary form. Primary seborrhea is something GSDs seem to be more predisposed to than are most other breeds, and it is this type that more affects the ear with fungus growth, and sometimes an increase in bacterial colonies on the skin. It is a chronic condition that requires constant or renewed treatment regimens with no hope of eventual cure, just some control.

Most owners of dogs so affected report considerable success in managing or partially suppressing the symptoms by attacking them on several fronts: get rid of fleas (and the cats and carpets they rode in on!), clean the ears daily or several times a week with a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water, and temporary regimens of Soloxine (thyroxine) for perhaps two weeks at a time. Your vet can suggest a dosage level to try, of this quite safe internal medication.

Degenerative Myelopathy: DM was once as “GSD myelopathy” because most cases in the early days of investigation involved this breed. It is the first disorder that comes to mind when German Shepherd Dogs and spinal lesions are spoken of together. “Degenerative” means that it is chronic and progressive, and “Myelopathy” means spinal cord disease. The first symptoms are usually seen at about six to eight years of age and have a duration of five to twenty-four months, perhaps a bit longer if aggressive measures are taken, but who knows if they are really effective? Initially, the dog does not seem to realize what position his rear legs are in; soon he will begin to drag his toenails and the top part of his paws, and later may tremble as if palsied. Eventually, he will be unable to get up on all four legs, and by this time most owners will have decided upon euthanasia. Symptoms and histological changes are very similar to those in multiple sclerosis (MS).

It is also seen (though rarely) in the Belgian Shepherd and the Old English Sheepdog, and some authorities feel that other breeds’ degenerative myelopathies are probably not caused by the same immune-system deficiency as we have in the GSD. Autopsy shows demyelination (loss of the insulating sheath) of the spinal cord, destruction of some large axons (nerve cells leading from the cord to smaller branch nerves), and abnormal cells (or certain cells in abnormal locations). Similar signs may be seen in the brain, kidneys, and intestines, giving further hints of the immune system failure being at the root of this disease.

It may be that relatively high vitamin E dosages may be helpful, but it is difficult to compare a particular dog’s disease progression with a “what-if” situation. We have a good idea that this vitamin is very helpful in immune response improvement, so it is natural to assume a probable direct benefit in this immune-related disease. 800 units (IU) a day may be enough, although some years ago one researcher claimed that 2000 IU of vitamin E daily, 500 mg of vitamin C twice a day, and a high-strength vitamin B complex twice a day was the best dosage. In DM dogs, low serum and tissue concentrations of vitamin E have been observed. I recommend that vitamin E be given to all older German Shepherd Dogs for general resistance and health. It can’t hurt — they will excrete anything they don’t need, within reason. Chemical-pharmacological treatment has largely been via the use of aminocaproic acid, and more recently, acetylcysteine three times a day found acceptance, although conventional drug therapy (medicines) has been of little lasting help to patients with DM. The combination of exercise, vitamins and certain drugs seem to have delayed the progression of DM in many dogs. Treatment has been directed at suppression of symptoms and the multi-pronged approach may prolong the day you have to face euthanasia because of debilitation and inability to stand to defecate or to walk.

Lick Granulomas: Dogs with GSD myelopathy often develop lick granulomas on hind feet, which are non-healing ulcerations or (if you are lucky) callous-like reactions of the skin to extremely frequent licking, sometimes chewing, at the location of a supposed itch. It is probably a case of the limb feeling as if it has “fallen asleep”, to put it into terms familiar to human experience. The tingling sensation caused by incomplete and erroneous signals by the nerves serving that place is much like the irritation caused by an ant bite, or hairs out of place, or anything in between. In trying to lick it away, the dog actually softens and wears away the hair and skin. Lick granulomas are not restricted to dogs with DM, but often occur on the pasterns or toes in dogs that have atopic allergies, another clue to the presence of a general immune system deficiency.

Other problems: Keep in mind that the various parts and systems of the body are all inter-related, that a disruption in the process of one may have an origin or an effect in another. The endocrine system is a prime example, with hormones being produced in more than one gland and greatly influencing some or all of the other glands. Something that has not yet been thoroughly explored in veterinary schools or with research grants is the collection and inter-relation of problems very common to GSDs, with yeast/fungal infections, flea saliva allergens, and general autoimmune system weakness. I have observed countless cases of dogs in this breed with a combination of seborrhea, low resistance to fleas, thyroid insufficiency, nagging ear infections, interdigital pyoderma, and other “complaints”. The lines between these dots, I hope, will someday be drawn with more clarity.

[Author Fred Lanting <> is an international show judge for many registries, presents seminars and consults worldwide on such topics as Structure, Orthopedic Disorders, Training Techniques, and the GSD. Fred invites all to join his annual non-profit Sieger Show and sightseeing tour. He actively trains in Schutzhund, and breeds occasional litters of GSDs (see his dogs on ). Most articles can also be found on or others by a Google search for his name. Reprint permission of these copyright pieces can be requested and should carry this or a similar notice at the end.]