When you’re looking for a dog, one of the first things you should do is educate yourself on the breed’s common health issues in order to understand which problems may occur with your pup. There is no guarantee your dog will suffer from these issues, but some breeds more commonly see certain conditions than others.
One of the most popular breeds is the Australian Shepherd, and for good reason. These dogs are intelligent, adorable, and make loving additions to any family. They are best suited for active families, as their high-energy personality means they need athletic challenges to stay happy. Luckily, their active nature seems to play into the breed’s stellar health history.
Overall, Australian Shepherds encounter relatively little serious health conditions. They have an average lifespan of 12 to 15 years and come with a great track record for being very healthy dogs. They are reputed to evade many complications that affect other breeds more frequently, including issues with the bones, skin, and fur.
Below are a few conditions that have been seen in Australian Shepherds throughout the years. It is important to familiarize yourself with what medical issues you are more likely to face than others, should you choose to take home an Aussie. Remember, every dog is different, and an Australian Shepherd can encounter an issue that isn’t included on this list.
A genetic condition, hip dysplasia is a malformation of a dog’s hip socket. It can be difficult to pinpoint, because some dogs with hip dysplasia will appear to be perfectly normal, but over time, the condition will reveal itself if not treated, as it can eventually lead to arthritis in dogs. When a dog has hip dysplasia, his thigh bone does not fit properly into the hip socket, which will damage the surface cartilage over time and wear away at the bone.
The condition and symptoms can range from mild to severe, with severe typically requiring complete surgical hip replacement. If hip dysplasia goes untreated, a dog will go lame and suffer great pain. Since it is impossible to know if your dog has hip dysplasia by just looking at him, X-Rays are required to make a diagnosis. This condition should be routinely checked for by your veterinarian. Puppies cannot be evaluated for hip dysplasia, but once a dog turns two, the condition can be detected.
Breeders should always have their Australian Shepherds evaluated for this condition by the Orthopedic Foundation of America. This foundation can tell you if there is a family history of hip dysplasia, and how often it occurs.
A similar condition, elbow dysplasia, is also sometimes seen in Australian Shepherds. The symptoms of elbow dysplasia are very close to that of the hips; only this form affects the front legs instead of the rear.
Collie Eye Anomaly
Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) is a group of eye disorders that range from minor to serious. CEA can affect one or both eyes, and serious cases can lead to blindness, however, it is usually treatable, depending on the severity. CEA is a condition that can be tested for using genetic testing.
Coloboma is a condition that affects a dog’s iris. Coloboma occurs when a section of the dog’s iris fails to develop, so part of the eye structure is missing. The affected eye(s) will not be able to dilate or contract properly, which can cause the dog discomfort in bright light. Colobomas are present at birth and are almost always seen in merle colored Aussies.
The most common type of eye problem seen in Australian Shepherds, cataracts are a potentially debilitating condition wherein the lens in one or both of the dog’s eyes becomes cloudy. It can lead to impaired vision and even blindness. Cataracts will typically appear when the dog is between one and three years old, but can appear as late as age seven. If it goes untreated, it will often progress to complete blindness.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is classified as a degeneration of the retina, which will eventually lead to blindness. This is uncommon in Australian Shepherds, but has been seen in rare instances.
Eye Testing and Prognosis
Because of this relatively long list of eye problems that can occur in Australian Shepherds, it is recommended that you ensure that your puppy’s parents were screened and cleared by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist for any canine eye problems. The results should be recorded through the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF).
All puppies should also have their eyes examined by an ophthalmologist after they turn six weeks old. It is recommended that you continue to have your Aussie’s eyes checked annually. Testing can also detect any of the conditions listed above, and as mentioned, most are quite easily treatable.
If your Aussie does have a more serious condition that leads to blindness, it does not automatically mean your pup’s life is over. Australian Shepherds are resilient, and can still live a full, happy life with a few extra safety precautions and some patience from their owner.
Multiple Drug Sensitivity
Unfortunately, Australian Shepherds are one of the few breeds that suffer from Multiple Drug Sensitivity (MDS). This is perhaps the strangest and most frustrating health condition that Aussies get. When a dog has MDS, they are hypersensitive to ordinary medications commonly used by vets. This may include common heartworm preventatives like ivermectin. Other dangerous drugs include Imodium A-D, Flagyl, and certain anesthetics.
When your dog has MDS, he is unable to pump these drugs out of his brain, which results in neurological toxicity. This is a serious condition, and Australian Shepherd puppies with MDS can have fatal reactions to commonly prescribed veterinary drugs.
Although not very common, canine epilepsy can also occur in Australian Shepherds. If and when a seizure does happen, it can be quite serious. Epileptic seizures in dogs can be caused by a variety of triggers, including infections, genetics, toxic exposure, and injury. Unfortunately, there’s currently no screening test available for seizure disorders in Australian Shepherds, but if your puppy comes from a reputable breeder with no history of epilepsy, you should be able to avoid encountering this condition.
Tumors and Cancers
Hemangiosarcoma is a malignant cancer that invades the blood vessels. Lymphoma can occur in a dog’s lymph nodes, spleen, liver and other organs. It originates in the lymphocyte cells buried in a dog’s immune system, and slowly breaks it down. It is typically seen in middle-age to older dogs and is treatable with chemotherapy.
An autoimmune disease is one in which the dog’s defective immune system attacks and damages parts of it’s own body. Aussies are susceptible to a few canine autoimmune diseases, such as hypothyroidism and demodectic mange.
Hypothyroidism is the most common autoimmune disease found in Australian Shepherds, and is a condition that occurs when the dog’s thyroid gland doesn’t produce the correct amount of hormones, so the dog’s metabolism is not maintained.
Dogs can contract demodectic mange if they have an immune reaction to the Demodex Canis mite, a common and ordinary resident of the hair follicles on dogs. Demodectic mange is chronic, and the problem is inherited from the dog’s parents.
Other less common conditions include:
- Heart disease
- Inherited deafness – seen mostly in Aussies with a lot of white coloring on their head
- Blood-clotting diseases – ex. Von Willebrand’s disease and hemophilia
- Umbilical hernia – non-threatening and can be repaired when the dog is spayed or neutered
- Bad bites – besides under or overbites, Aussies can also have what is called Wry, where one side of the jaw grows longer than the other.
- Ear infections
What to Look For
While it is a long list of conditions, it is important to note that Australian Shepherds are one of the healthiest dog breeds. That being said, there are some things you should ask a breeder before you take your Aussie home. Breeders should screen their dogs for genetic disease and breed only their healthiest and most attractive dogs.
But despite their best efforts and intentions, sometimes dogs can still develop one (or more) of the conditions listed above. Even if they do, advances in veterinary medicine make it so that they can still live a full and happy life. If you are getting a puppy from a breeder, you should feel comfortable asking them any question you are curious about.
Good breeders should be able to discuss the prevalence of all health problems that their line has encountered. This includes genetic and non-genetic conditions. This will help you make an informed decision about the health risks your dog may encounter.
Not all of the above conditions will be detectable while your dog is still a puppy, so it is helpful to know what has been encountered by other dogs in its lineage. The most reputable breeders will be able to produce certification that the dog’s parents and grandparents were screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. These health registries come from the United States Australian Shepherd Association, which participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database.
When you do bring your dog home, your veterinarian will probably recommend eye, hip and thyroid exams for your Australian Shepherd puppy, as well as DNA tests to check for CEA. And remember, as the owner, it is your responsibility to protect your dog from one of the most common health problems of all dogs, and one that you don’t see listed above: obesity. Keep your Aussie at a healthy weight, and you will put him in the best position to have a long and happy life.