German Shepherds are loved for many reasons, such as their intelligence, loyalty, and strength. In many ways, they are the quintessential dog, whether for working or for companionship. But like many large dog breeds, they can be prone to developing bad hips. So, do all German Shepherds have bad hips?
Not all German Shepherds have bad hips, but hip dysplasia is the most prevalent of hip problems. The most recent statistics from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals is that 20.6% of German Shepherds had hip dysplasia from 138,902 evaluations through December 2022.
This article will discuss why German Shepherds commonly experience hip dysplasia and what can help prevent it. You should know there are various degrees of hip dysplasia, and a range of treatment options are available. We’ll also look at some other types of hip problems that the GSD is predisposed to.
So, let’s dive into everything there is to know about German Shepherd hip dysplasia and other hip problems.
- Do German Shepherds Have Bad Joints?
- Types of German Shepherd Hip Problems
- What Causes Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds?
- How Common are Hip Problems in German Shepherds?
- At What Age Do German Shepherd Hips Go Bad?
- How Do I Know if My German Shepherd Has Hip Dysplasia?
- How to Prevent Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds
- Are Some Types of German Shepherds More Prone to Bad Hips Than Others?
- How to Treat Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds
- Final Thoughts
Do German Shepherds Have Bad Joints?
German Shepherds are prone to bad joints, such as canine hip dysplasia. They are also at risk of elbow dysplasia. While not all bad joints are preventable, some types of joint problems are. Additionally, by taking the right steps, owners can limit the pain their dog feels even when prevention isn’t likely.
The statistics from the OFA concerning elbow dysplasia are that 18.7% of GSDs had the condition, although this was from 60,888 evaluations, so a much smaller sample than hip dysplasia. It does suggest, though, that 1 in 5 German Shepherds will develop hip and/or elbow dysplasia.
The GSD is currently ranked 43rd from 206 breeds that have the disease, so 42 other breeds are more susceptible. These predominantly fall into the category of large and giant breeds. However, some smaller breeds will also be affected.
Types of German Shepherd Hip Problems
German Shepherds were originally bred to herd sheep, and due to their athleticism, intelligence, and strength, they soon evolved into many other types of working dogs, such as police dogs, military dogs, service, and therapy dogs.
Sadly many dogs will go on to develop various hip problems, which drastically reduces their quality of life. Here are the four main types of hip problems in German Shepherds:
1. Hip Dysplasia
The most common problem is hip dysplasia. All German Shepherds are born with perfectly healthy hips. However, some will go on to develop this hereditary condition. This may occur from around three weeks of age in those dogs that are genetically predisposed to the disorder.
So, what is hip dysplasia?
Hip dysplasia causes puppy hips to form abnormally. The ball of one or both joints doesn’t fit properly into the socket, causing pain and, later, severe arthritis. As the joint continues to deform over time, it causes loss of mobility and other disabilities.
Check out this short 4-minute video all about hip dysplasia in dogs. It covers much of the content found in this article and features an Old English Sheepdog who had successful hip surgery:
Besides hip dysplasia, there are three other types of hip issues that German Shepherds are prone to developing or are at greater risk than other breeds.
2. Degenerative Myelopathy
Sometime from the age of 5 onwards, German Shepherds will develop this chronic neurological disease. However, the first signs of degenerative myelopathy are classically seen at around 8 to 9 years of age.
This disease affects the spinal cord and muscle coordination and ultimately paralyzes the back legs first and then the forelegs. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and although the dog will not suffer pain, sadly, they are usually euthanized as they are unable to function.
Early symptoms are often eerily similar to those of hip dysplasia, which is why it is so important to see a vet immediately when you notice symptoms like limping, trouble standing up, or favoring one leg. However, something minor can cause your dog to limp, as discussed in this article, 23 Reasons Your German Shepherd is Limping.
The latest statistics from the OFA database show that 14.20% of German Shepherds from 15,417 dogs evaluated had degenerative myelopathy.
Not all dogs that are prone to this condition will go on to develop degenerative myelopathy. There is a DNA test to see if your German Shepherd is a carrier or prone to degenerative myelopathy, which is available from the OFA.
Older dogs, like their human counterparts, can suffer from osteoarthritis. This is when cartilage deteriorates around the joints, which leads to the painful grinding of bone and inflammation that limits German Shepherds’ activity and mobility.
Large breeds such as the German Shepherd are more at risk. Unfortunately, there is no cure but most dogs can live a normal lifespan by making a few simple changes.
Osteoarthritis can be better controlled or prevented by feeding your GSD a high-quality diet along with weight management.
There are also braces available to help ease the pain, along with pain medication. Joint supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin can help manage the condition.
TB Thompson, Veterinarian from Natural Pets HQ, has a great article on canine arthritis and offers a thought-provoking insight on alternative and natural remedies in addition to the usual conventional medications.
4. Canine Myasthenia Gravis
Although rare, the German Shepherd has been identified as one of the breeds at greater risk of this disease. Canine myasthenia gravis is a neuromuscular condition that disrupts the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles. This gradually weakens dogs over time.
It affects walking and other normal activities as the muscle weakness worsens, affecting the limbs so that animals are unable to stand or exercise. It can also affect other muscles in the body, including the esophagus, which causes difficulty in swallowing.
Myasthenia gravis can be congenital or acquired through environmental factors, hormone disruption, or infection. The most common type in German Shepherds is the acquired form as evidenced in this report by Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Fortunately, some treatments and medications can manage the disease.
What Causes Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds?
Knowing what can cause poor hip development can be crucial in the early stages of prevention.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic disease, although the heritability of the trait is low, between 15-40%, according to many studies. The other cause of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds is due to various environmental factors in which puppies grow up which can be prevented.
The three main environmental factors that can exacerbate the likelihood of hip dysplasia are:
- Joint laxity
1. Joint laxity (looseness) is the main environmental cause of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. This is when the head of the leg bone (femur) does not fit properly into the hip socket due to damaged or severed ligaments. This could occur due to injury, excessive weight, fast growth rate, or poor muscle tone and strength.
Injuries usually occur when puppies are young and rambunctious or sometimes as they age. Slipping on hard floors, jumping down repeatedly on hard surfaces such as from a car, climbing stairs, and untreated dislocations can all cause long-term trauma to joints.
2. Puppy weight shows up frequently in studies of German Shepherds developing bad hips. This is because any extra weight can increase the risk of developing hip dysplasia. This includes those puppies that are heavier at birth and those that grow too quickly.
Owners and breeders should discourage free-feeding and instead should follow strict nutrition guidelines specifically for German Shepherd puppies.
German Shepherd puppies (and adults) should not need to take dietary supplements (especially calcium and phosphorus) if they are fed high-quality nutritious food. These are not only unnecessary but could cause serious problems. To learn more about this, check out my article, Do German Shepherds Need Large Breed Food?
I also have a top-featured article about the best diet for German Shepherds, which you will find helpful. It’s outrageously long, but it includes nutrition advice, types of diet, and exactly what a GSD can and can’t eat.
3. The wrong type of exercise undertaken by puppies is the third main environmental cause of hip dysplasia. The most crucial time for proper growth and development of the hip joint in pups is from birth to 8 weeks old.
Exercise is needed to strengthen the leg and pelvis muscles which will increase the stability of the hip joint. But all exercise is not created equal. Let me explain…
This study shared by Science Daily showed some interesting correlations between a puppy’s environment and its chances of developing hip dysplasia.
For example, puppies from small farms that were born in the spring and summer who were able to exercise on a gentle terrain had a lower risk of developing hip dysplasia. Additionally, light exercise in parks with soft ground decreased the risk.
However, exercising on hard or slippery surfaces or using the stairs increased their risk. Most sources agree that preventing your German Shepherd puppy from using stairs until they are at least three months old (longer if possible) and getting frequent, mild exercise will go a long way in preventing the chances of developing bad hips.
How Common are Hip Problems in German Shepherds?
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) collates information regarding orthopedic and genetic diseases of animals with their ultimate aim being to reduce these diseases.
It is common for German Shepherds to have hip problems. From a total of 138,902 evaluations through December 2022, 20.6% of GSDs were dysplastic. That means roughly 1 in 5 dogs were affected. Statistics show that large and giant breeds are more at risk.
It’s important to note though that different countries use different scoring protocols. The OFA system (used in North America) uses a scoring system for dogs with a minimum age of 2 years, whereas the British Veterinary Association/The Kennel Club (BVA/KC) uses a separate scoring system and evaluates German Shepherds from 12 months.
Also, The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) uses a different scoring system which is utilized in most European countries, Russia, South America, and Asia.
This study from Frontiers in Veterinary Science explains more about different hip scoring protocols in various countries. (Hip scores are covered in more detail later.)
The same study of common large breed dogs in Switzerland from 1995 to 2016 showed the largest decline of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds over 22 years, compared to the other investigated breeds.
The scoring system used by Switzerland combines the British system and the FCI grading system allowing a more structured and objective scoring.
At What Age Do German Shepherd Hips Go Bad?
Early intervention is critical in preventing hip dysplasia. But at what age do German Shepherd hips go bad?
German Shepherds may develop hip dysplasia from as early as three weeks of age, but symptoms will only begin to show from 4 to 6 months. After a few weeks, the puppy may seem better as tiny fractures to the hip socket may have healed, and the dog is no longer in pain, but the progression of the disease will continue.
Sometimes, if the joint is only mildly abnormal, the symptoms of hip dysplasia may not show until the dog is much older. In older dogs, the ill-fitting bones have worn down, and symptoms usually show with osteoarthritis.
How Do I Know if My German Shepherd Has Hip Dysplasia?
In addition to taking preventative measures before any symptoms begin, noticing changes in your dog’s behavior will be paramount for its quality of life.
You will know if your German Shepherd has hip dysplasia from the following range of symptoms: limping, favoring one leg, having a strange gait, “bunny hopping,” weakness, pain, stiffness, loss of interest in play, decreased thigh muscle, grating in the joint, or lameness in the hind legs.
The above symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the disease and how long the dog has suffered from the condition. The severity of pain can also range from mild to extreme.
Here are some examples of these symptoms:
- A reluctance to get up. Your dog doesn’t wish to rise from a sitting or lying position or is refusing to use stairs.
- Loss of interest in play. Your German Shepherd suddenly loses interest in everyday activities.
- Limping and favoring one leg. These are probably indicators that your dog has developed bad hips and requires a visit to the vet.
- Keeping the back legs together, or “bunny hopping,” when they walk. This is a clear indicator that their back end has lost strength or the dog is experiencing pain.
- Aggression. If your German Shepherd shows signs of aggression when his back or hips are touched, it could be due to painful, bad hips.
- Strange gait. Walking funny or with loose hips is a tell-tale sign of hip problems.
- Decreased thigh muscles. If pain causes your German Shepherd to use their back legs less, there may be decreased muscle mass in the thighs.
- Disproportionate shoulder muscles. Some dogs may overcompensate for their decreased mobility by relying heavily on their front legs.
Diagnosis usually consists of a physical examination, a blood test to check for inflammation, and a hip radiograph to check bone formation.
How to Prevent Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds
We have learned that there are two causes of hip dysplasia in German Shepherds, genetics and environmental. So how can we prevent this disease? Firstly, let’s look at how we can attempt to prevent hereditary causes.
Poor Breeding Practices
The first step to preventing hip dysplasia in German Shepherds is by not breeding dogs with the genetic predisposition in the first place. Dogs can carry the defective gene even if they show no outward symptoms, so make sure your potential breeder has done the proper screening.
A key component to dramatically reducing the genetic predisposition German Shepherds have for bad hips begins with the breeder. Make sure you identify an ethical breeder by consulting specialized and credible dog groups such as national kennel clubs.
If you are looking for a puppy, I have a complete buyer’s guide on how to buy a German Shepherd that you will find helpful. Responsible breeders should screen both parents for healthy hips. Do not purchase puppies from a breeder that can’t verify this information.
What is a Good Hip Score for a German Shepherd?
Worldwide screening for canine hip dysplasia has been available for years. However, countries have their own grading systems to help breeders and potential puppy buyers determine the condition of a dog’s hips and assess hip traits.
The most widespread are OFA health testing. the British Veterinary Association/Kennel Club health screening, and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) scheme.
Variations of the FCI System are used in several other European countries, such as Germany (SV), Switzerland, and the Netherlands. As an example, we will look at what is a good hip score for German Shepherds in North America and the UK:
A good hip score for a German Shepherd in North America is fair, good, or excellent. A good hip score for a German Shepherd in the UK is anything under the breed 5-year median of 11, the lower the score indicating healthier hips. The parents of puppies should have hip scores of less than the breed average.
In North America, the results of fair to excellent are acceptable for breeding and the dog can be certified with an OFA certificate. Dogs must usually be 2 years of age to be hip scored.
The UK hip score is taken from an assessment of each hip joint on nine aspects. A score is then given which ranges from 0 to 106 (0 to 53 for each hip). Therefore a score of 0 represents the least degree of hip dysplasia and 53 the most. Dogs must be one year old to be hip scored.
My German Shepherd is UK Kennel Club registered. I was careful to check the hip scores of both the sire and the dam before going ahead with the purchase.
One aspect to note is that Germany’s ratings are inferior to OFA and they allow the breeding of borderline dogs (compared to US standards). Therefore it’s important to look at the pedigrees of imported dogs from Germany before breeding.
Although a dog from a good breeder can still develop hip dysplasia despite the breeder undertaking screening, buying from a reputable breeder greatly lessens your chances of having a puppy develop this terrible condition.
Preventing Environmental Causes
Let’s now look at how environmental causes of hip dysplasia can be prevented during a pup’s early months.
To prevent hip dysplasia in German Shepherds, keep their bones and joints healthy, and maintain a healthy weight. Feeding a quality high protein diet with no extra calcium will also ensure they don’t grow too quickly. Exercise should consist of short, frequent spells and avoiding hard or slippery surfaces and stairs.
Below are the preventative measures you can take:
- Low-fat, high-protein diets keep German Shepherd puppies from growing too fast.
- Diets without added calcium or phosphorus will keep their hips from developing disproportionately. If you feed your GSD dry kibble, make sure you choose a brand suitable for large breed dogs.
- Several short bouts of play instead of long, strenuous play will keep your developing puppy from straining joints.
- German Shepherd pups should avoid stairs and too much climbing while developing. Stairs should be avoided until they are at least 3 months old, longer if possible.
- Avoid rough play, especially on hard surfaces, while your puppy grows.
- Slipping on hard floors indoors can injure hips and joints.
- Ensure your German Shepherd has a comfortable orthopedic bed to sleep on, such as the Big Barker. This bed is the first dog bed clinically proven in a recent study to improve joint function by 17.6% and reduce pain by 21.6% for large dogs. It also comes with a cool 10-year warranty!
- Assist your German Shepherd with entering and exiting vehicles to decrease pressure on his hips.
- Get your dog screened for hip dysplasia and allow an x-ray if you haven’t already done so.
Are Some Types of German Shepherds More Prone to Bad Hips Than Others?
There are five different types of German Shepherds. Unfortunately, the show lines are more prone to bad hips than others.
- American show. This line of German Shepherds, which is bred for conformation, has a more severe rear angulation which makes their backs slope instead of being straight. They are more prone to hip and back problems due to this.
- West German show. This line is the most popular in Germany. They may be used as working dogs and most people owning them have no desire to show them. They are prone to hip dysplasia and require health clearances before any breeding or working title such as Schutzhund.
- West German working. This line of working dogs is the closest to the original German Shepherd bred in Germany to herd sheep in the late 1800s. They have a strong working drive and are still used in positions of service, such as law enforcement or as pets. They are susceptible to hip dysplasia and screening is advised.
- East German DDR working. This line developed after WW2 and was bred for protection work and border patrol. Breeding was controlled by the Government and was very strict, resulting in a distinct look consisting of a large head, large bones, and dark colors. They are not as prone to health and hip issues.
- Czech working. This line was bred as state patrol military dogs in communist Czechoslovakia. They have a low rate of hip dysplasia due to their straight backs. They share the same bloodline as the East German DDR dogs.
How to Treat Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds
If your German Shepherd ends up with hip problems later in life despite the preventative methods you tried, there are, fortunately, many ways to treat the issue and reduce the amount of pain they experience.
Hip Dysplasia in German Shepherds can be treated with pain and anti-inflammatory medication and joint supplements such as glucosamine. Physiotherapy, weight reduction, hydrotherapy, and restricting exercise on hard surfaces are other treatment options. In some cases, surgery may be performed.
1. Supplements and Medication
Your vet can offer options for both treatment and prevention. Always speak with them first.
Joint supplements can keep your German Shepherd mobile and help joint repair or development. Glucosamine and Chondroitin can help with cartilage repair and inflammation.
Choose YuMOVE Dog Joint Supplement from Amazon, as it also includes Omega 3s and has been scientifically proven to work within 60 days from an independent study. My GSD has spinal arthritis and she has YuMOVE supplements which I’ve been very happy with.
Prescription medications can be costly unless you are covered with a good pet insurance policy. However, they can help with pain and inflammation.
2. Surgical Options
Sometimes, your dog may be a good candidate for surgery. Below are three types of surgery associated with this disease, and they typically cost up to $3,000 per hip. These surgeries can reposition the hip or remove pain-causing scar tissue.
- Triple Pelvic Osteotomy. For puppies aged between 5 months and 1 year showing early dysplasia. This improves the function of the hip joint by cutting the pelvic bone and rotating the segments.
- Femoral Head Osteotomy. Partial hip replacement for both young and older dogs that removes the femoral head (ball) and neck of the femur. Over time, scar tissue will form, creating a “false joint.”
- Juvenile Pubic Symphysiodesis. Invasive procedure for puppies 12-16 weeks old who are at risk of developing dysplasia. This clinical study resulted in significant improvements in hip conformation for puppies that had this procedure.
Total hip replacement is the most effective surgical treatment for hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. It is also the most expensive and can cost up to $7000 per hip. This advanced procedure involves replacing the entire joint with metal and plastic implants. This returns the hip function to a more normal range and eliminates most of the pain and discomfort.
3. Other Options
There are specialty braces for hips and joints that brace also support the dog’s lower back and hip area. They may help to slow down this disease and can reduce pain. Again, you need to check with your vet to see if this is suitable for your dog.
For severe cases of German Shepherd hip problems, even slings and modified pet wheelchairs exist.
Additionally, physical therapy and hydrotherapy is an option in some cases, just like for you and me. A balanced physical therapy plan worked out with a specialty vet, can sometimes increase mobility or prolong worsening symptoms.
Some sources claim that alternative treatments such as acupuncture can help dogs with pain management and increase mobility.
Can You Get A German Shepherd Without Hip Dysplasia?
Getting a German Shepherd without hip dysplasia is very much feasible. Go for a working line German Shepherd, provide a supportive environment at an early stage and most importantly, review the complete background of the dog when you buy/adopt.
A proper background check will save you and your dog in the long run.
What’s The Life Expectancy Of A German Shepherd With Hip Dysplasia?
The average life expectancy of a German Shepherd with hip dysplasia is 7-12 years, while a German Shepherd, in general, has a longer lifespan. It’s feasible to extend the life of a German Shepherd with a few preventive measures taken at an early stage.
While it is fair to say that German Shepherds are prone to bad hips, it’s not accurate to say they all develop hip issues. With proper care during a puppy’s early weeks and months, even German Shepherds genetically predisposed to hip dysplasia can live a good life with minimum symptoms.
Here are the key takeaways from the article:
- Only buy puppies from responsible breeders who screen their dogs.
- Feed high-quality food suitable for large breed dogs.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Minimize excessive hip strain while young.
- Talk to your vet about testing.
- Consider supplements.