If you are looking to buy a small German Shepherd, you might be surprised to find that a small purebred German Shepherd does not exist unless the dog is suffering from pituitary dwarfism.
Can German Shepherds have dwarfism? German Shepherds can have pituitary dwarfism much the same as humans can. It’s a genetic disorder in which the pituitary gland does not make enough growth hormone. This results in the dog’s slow growth and causes various health problems and a limited life expectancy.
This article will investigate pituitary dwarfism in German Shepherds. We’ll explore what dwarfism is and what causes it, life expectancy, and treatments. We’ll also look at signs and symptoms and how to prevent it in the first instance.
To know about German Shepherds and pituitary dwarfism, keep reading!
Can German Shepherds Be Small?
When I first heard the term “Miniature German Shepherd” I instinctively pictured a smaller version of a purebred German Shepherd. I was thinking to myself, what if you could buy a German Shepherd and it stayed as cute as a puppy – forever. I was wrong!
The only small purebred German Shepherd is one suffering from pituitary dwarfism whereas a Miniature German Shepherd is a result of cross-breeding a healthy German Shepherd and a smaller dog breed, usually a Poodle or Border Collie.
I can see why you may get confused with the two, however, this article is solely about German Shepherds with pituitary dwarfism and I have to warn you, what you will learn may break your heart.
However, take a look at this inspiring little German Shepherd named “Ranger” who is refusing to let dwarfism get in the way of living life to the fullest. He was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and is known as the dog that will “forever be a puppy.”
Despite his health battles and challenges early in life, as you can see from this short 3-minute video, Ranger lives happily alongside his family and doesn’t let anything get him down!
What is Dwarfism in Dogs?
Pituitary dwarfism in dogs is an autosomal recessive inherited disorder that affects the function of the pituitary gland. It occurs primarily in the German Shepherd breed and its relatives, for example, the Saarloos Wolfdog, and the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog.
So what exactly is the pituitary gland? This is a pea-sized endocrine gland that is found at the base of the brain and plays a major role in regulating vital body functions and general wellbeing.
It is known as the “master gland” as the hormones it produces are responsible for many different processes in the body, for example, growth, reproduction, metabolism, blood pressure, and controlling blood sugar levels, to name but a few.
Both the affected dog’s parents have to be carriers of the faulty gene and it is estimated that 20% of German Shepherds and their related breeds now carry the faulty gene:
“What is known is that 20% of German Shepherds and their derivatives such as the Saarloos Wolfhound and the Czechoslovakian Wolf Dog are now carriers of pituitary dwarfism.”The Saartje Foundation
With a recessive gene when two carriers are mated, on average 50% of their offspring will be carriers and 25% of their offspring will be dwarfs.
Pituitary dwarfism associated with growth hormone deficiency in German Shepherd dogs has been seen for decades and dwarfs are born all over the world, however, the condition has been reported to have recently spread quite rapidly in Europe and this is for two reasons:
- Through the breeding of unsuspected carriers. The problem is that German Shepherds that are carriers of the recessive gene do not have any visible symptoms and so the reputable breeder would be none the wiser.
- Unscrupulous breeders realized that they could sell a small German Shepherd more expensively if they tried to pass it off as a smaller version of a purebred. This is also the main reason for the confusion between a German Shepherd suffering from dwarfism and the Minature German Shepherd crossbreed.
Other Causes of Pituitary Dwarfism
We have learned that pituitary dwarfism in dogs is caused by the lack of growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland due to a genetic disorder. But what else can cause dog dwarfism?
These other causes are also due to the lack of growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland.
Could Dwarfism be Prevented? A Growing Problem
Pituitary Dwarfism in German Shepherds must be taken very seriously when breeding as this is an incurable incapacitating disease that could easily be prevented. As long as mating between 2 carriers of the mutation that leads to pituitary dwarfism is prevented, no dwarfs will be born.
The only way to prevent this disorder is by a diagnostic DNA test as the mutated gene has already been identified by scientists as the LHX3.
This diagnostic DNA test is available following 15 years of intensive research by The Companion Animals Genetics Expertise Centre of Utrecht University. It is one of the few tests available for genetic conditions.
However, I also found another company based in France that conducts DNA testing for dwarfism in dogs from all over the world. They state that around 11% of purebred German Shepherds in Europe are carriers:
“Around 11% of German Shepherds are carriers of the gene responsible for the disease.”Antagene
I discovered that in the Netherlands, Dutch law now compels German Shepherd dog breeders to use this genetic testing.
If this DNA test was mandatory for all German Shepherd breeding and along with the implementation of a correct breeding policy then pituitary dwarfism would be completely eradicated.
Unfortunately in the real world, screening all potential German Shepherd breeding is impracticable and seldom happens. It could also be argued that due to the low prevalence of the disease, screening is unnecessary, even though we have the statistics for the number of carriers.
This is, of course, subjective, especially as we don’t know how many affected dogs either die whilst in the womb or shortly after birth. However, it is suspected that 90% of all pituitary dwarfism affected dogs won’t survive and this would explain why dwarf dogs are rarely seen.
Some of the ones that do survive are often sold, sometimes before the condition is recognized.
There is also the issue of the cruel breeding practice whereby unscrupulous breeders operating puppy farms (often called puppy mills) care more about profits than puppies. These breeders don’t care if their unethical techniques lead to the inevitable suffering of dogs.
I found this sad little story of a rescued puppy from a commercial breeding facility in Indiana, whereby a German Shepherd puppy was found to be suffering from dwarfism. It’s just heartbreaking.
If you are considering getting a German Shepherd Dog make sure you read my complete buyer’s guide on How to Buy a German Shepherd.
How Can You Tell if a Dog has Dwarfism?
The most obvious sign of a German Shepherd suffering from dwarfism is their small stature and this usually becomes evident in puppies between 8-16 weeks old. The dog’s features are in proportion and they do not display shortened deformed legs as in achondroplasia dwarfism which is a separate condition.
Dwarf puppies will retain their puppy coat for much longer than their healthier littermates, however, in their first year, the coat will be lost as the dog suffers from alopecia and will become bald, except for the head and lower legs.
Pituitary dwarfism in German Shepherds is a serious illness and clinical signs are not limited to physical appearance. There are also many other hidden problems that a dwarf German Shepherd may suffer. These are some of the heart-breaking symptoms:
- Bacterial skin infections due to alopecia
- Renal failure due to underdeveloped liver and kidneys
- Cardiovascular problems
- Breathing difficulties
- Slow and dull intelligence to an underactive thyroid gland
- Undescended testes in male dogs
- Small testes and penis in male dogs
- Irregular or absent heat cycles in females
- Neurological symptoms due to abnormal cervical vertebrae
- Secondary Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
- Delayed dental eruption
- Puppies often have a shrill bark
- May have the appearance of a fox
How Long Do Dogs With Dwarfism Live?
Without proper treatment, the long term survival rate of German Shepherds with dwarfism is poor and many will not live to more than 3 to 4 years of age. This statistic has been obtained from the University of Utrecht and is gained from over 20 years of study in Europe.
However, some dogs do live longer, probably because in some cases the pituitary gland still produces a very small amount of hormones.
Although your German Shepherd may be displaying obvious visible signs of dwarfism, the diagnosis of pituitary dwarfism in dogs is via endocrine tests (blood and urine). Imaging tests may also be conducted to check for cysts.
New methods of treating dwarfs have also become available in the last few years which mostly involves replenishing the missing hormones. There is no canine growth hormone but these are some other options available:
- Porcine (pig) growth hormone. This is expensive and results differ.
- Progestins. These are steroidal drugs that stimulate the production of growth hormones.
- Thyroid hormones, e.g. synthetic levothyroxine has been found to have some success, however, results vary.
Although treatment can improve the quality of a dog’s life significantly, bothersome side effects can also be caused. Sadly there is no treatment to cure them.
Which Dog Breeds Can Have Dwarfism?
There is a common misconception that pituitary dwarfism is very rare but this is not the case as it affects many dogs worldwide. These are believed to be some other dog breeds that can be affected:
- Border Collies
- Australian Shepherd
- Irish Setters
- Miniature Pinscher
- Karelian Bear Dog
It is not known what percentage of each breed has pituitary dwarfism as no studies concerning genetic defects have been performed in those breeds.
If you came here looking for a small German Shepherd and this article has melted your heart, you can contact The Saartje Foundation in the Netherlands who can help with adopting and rehoming a dwarf German Shepherd.
Please be aware that due to the dog having very specific health needs there will be a potentially very high cost involved.
You can also contact them in confidence if you have a dwarf dog that you feel you are not able to keep as the foundation has a small number of experienced people in various countries willing to give a dwarf a new home.
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