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Common Health Problems of the Great Dane
As sweet and wonderful as Great Danes are, like all breeds, they have their drawbacks. Their generally short lifespan is first on the list. A high average is probably seven to eight years, although there are certainly exceptions to this. Many have been known to live from nine to twelve years. This is a question to ask when interviewing a breeder for a puppy. It is clear that their early deaths are due to some causes. Unfortunately, more than their share of health problems are found in this breed. Not all of the problems below are life-threatening, but occur more often in Great Danes. Thyroid imbalance, cataracts and Von Willebrand’s disease are some health problems that breeders are now also screening for. Ask the breeder what problems they test for. Chances are they will never concern you, but it can’t hurt to be aware of these health issues when considering a Dane for your family.
1. Von Willebrand’s Disease
Von Willebrand disease (vWD) is an inherited disorder that prevents the blood from clotting. There are different degrees of vWD, ranging from clear to genetic carrier to affected. The screening consists of a blood test which determines which grade the Dane will fall under.
There are many causes of cataracts in dogs, including injury, nutrition, congenital and genetic inheritance. We are primarily concerned with hereditary cataracts here. Young or inherited cataracts plague many Danes. Unfortunately, not many breeders screen for cataracts as they are not always visible to the naked eye. There is not much data on this condition in the Danes to draw any conclusions, as they may not live long enough for cataracts to ever bother them. Cataracts are found on the lens of the eye, the clear body behind the iris. Most of the time, dilation of the iris is necessary to actually see the cataract. It is important that the eyes undergo an annual examination by an authorized ophthalmologist veterinarian. If the dog passes the CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) test, a number – valid for one year – is issued to the dog.
3. Thyroid gland
Thyroid problems consist of an overactive or underactive thyroid gland. The proper functioning of the thyroid gland is essential as it affects many aspects of the dog’s health. A blood test will check the effectiveness of the thyroid gland. OFA (Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals) will only certify dogs with normal thyroid gland. If the thyroid gland is functioning abnormally, it often affects the skin condition and causes dry, itchy skin with sparse hair growth. Autoimmune problems are also common, as well as causing sterility in the reproductive system.
Panosteitis is an inflammation of the long bones of the leg that causes lameness. It is known to move from leg to leg and usually goes away on its own. If the pain is severe, a trip to the vet is a good idea. It is unknown what causes panosteitis. It most often appears between four and eight months of age and is usually gone by the time the dog turns two.
5. Hip dysplasia
Hip dysplasia is what happens when the joint of the femur (the long thigh bone that connects the pelvis) does not fit comfortably into the pelvic socket. This happens mainly because the pelvic cavity is too small to accommodate the femoral joint. The dog experiences pain because they are not sitting properly, and arthritis often occurs as a result. Fortunately, hip dysplasia is becoming less common in puppies from responsible breeders who regularly screen their dogs for this condition. The screening consists of a hip x-ray and certification by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals). Unfortunately, many breeders have not checked the hips of their dogs and it is they who still have a very high incidence of hip dysplasia in their puppies. Insist that both parents are screened for this condition.
6. Hypertrophic osteodystrophy
Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD) affects young people during their most rapid growth period, usually between four and ten months of age. It is a severe swelling and inflammation of the joints that causes enormous pain for the puppy. Often the dog will just lie there and cry as the pain is so intense. The diagnosis is made via X-ray, and the cause is unknown. Be aware of HOD as many vets do not recognize it when first presented with it. Treatment is usually successful if caught early and there are several treatment methods, the most important of which is pain control.
7. Wobbler’s syndrome
A disease of the nervous system, Wobbler’s Syndrome is when the dog has problems with movement. When the vertebrae in the neck form abnormally, it creates pressure on the spinal cord. There are several levels of difficulty. Some dogs live long, happy lives with the condition, while others are sadly euthanized while young. A loss of coordination in the hind legs is usually the first symptom. It looks like the dog is moving without understanding exactly where its hindquarters are. The problem is more serious when the dog falls over when turning. Sometimes, in very extreme cases, the front legs can also be affected. Pain is rarely involved in Wobbler’s Syndrome.
8. Bloating or gastric torsion
This condition is probably the most common cause of death in Great Danes. Studies have shown that at least twenty-five percent of the Danish population experiences bloating. In general, bloat only occurs when the dog is five years of age or older. What actually causes bloating is still unknown. Many believe that careful monitoring of what your Dane eats and drinks can help prevent it. Gas fills the stomach and the dog cannot release it. Due to excess gas, the stomach will swell, eventually rotate on its axis and invert. This is known as gastric torsion. When this happens, the nerves and blood vessels that go to and from the stomach become blocked. The tissues affected by these vessels will begin to die and produce toxins, which in turn will cause toxicity and shock throughout the animal. This leads to death very quickly. It is important to get your dog to the vet very quickly when this happens. Sometimes getting your dog to surgery on time is not enough. Often the trauma of the experience is enough to cause heart failure.
In order to successfully treat this condition, the dog must first be stabilized before surgery. By inserting a stomach tube via the mouth, the trapped gas can escape. If the tube cannot be inserted due to time or blockage, then they must puncture the abdomen directly so the gas can expel itself. Releasing the gas is the only way to stop the deadly effects of bloating and stomach churning. Once the dog is stable and the surgical team decides it is safe to try surgery, the vet will open the dog up and perform a procedure that ensures the stomach can never twist again, called a gastroplexy. Discuss this condition with your vet before any incidence of bloat occurs as there are several methods that are often performed. Don’t be afraid to ask your vet how comfortable they are with performing a gastroplexy.
If the stomach only needs to be “thanked”, it is not a permanent solution. Within six months, the adhesion will be ineffective. There are more permanent methods of treating this condition. A future gastric torsion is now prevented. However, an episode of bloating will always be possible. Some breeders and owners have a gastropexy performed on all bitches while they are sedated during spaying and on male dogs when they are x-rayed for hip dysplasia – as most vets will use anesthesia to make an accurate x-ray. The peace of mind is worth it for those with the likelihood of bloat being so high.
Common in the breed is a condition called cardiomyopathy. This is a heart condition that usually does not affect a dog until three or four years of age. Symptoms that you may notice include lack of interest in food, intermittent cough, lack of energy and intolerance to exercise. Watch for swelling in the legs and vomiting, as the stomach and chest cavity will sometimes collect fluid. Unfortunately, once diagnosed, cardiomyopathy patients are given about three months to live.
Osteosarcoma is the most common form of cancer found in this breed. Usually it affects the long bones in one of the legs. The first symptom is a swelling of the leg and lameness. Osteosarcoma is mostly diagnosed by X-ray. It is important to diagnose this condition before spread (metastasis) of the cancer occurs. The treatment consists of amputating the limb. It’s drastic, but the Danes manage well on three legs and run around as if they still had the amputated leg. Factoring into this decision will be your dog’s age and strength. Owners who have almost unanimously experienced this condition and treatment do not regret having done so.
Due to the potential health risks in the Great Dane, responsible breeders will screen their dogs before making breeding decisions. OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) assesses and registers dogs for elbow and hip dysplasia, heart defects and thyroid function. The grade of hip will be either poor, good or excellent. They will also tell the owner if the dog is dysplastic. CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) will certify eyes once the dog has passed an examination by a Board Certified Canine Ophthalmologist. Insist on proof of these tests from the breeder to ensure that conscientious breeding practices are occurring and to know that your Great Dane comes from good breeding stock.
Great Danes grow in a year what people grow in eighteen. If something goes wrong with the metabolism or the assimilation of nutrients during this growth period, it will most often show up in the skeleton. Most of these problems can be easily managed or prevented with proper nutrition. Ideally, a diet that contains all the elements for growth that are properly balanced should effectively slow down this growth rate. When you keep in mind that all of the above problems are overwhelming, there is no reason why your Great Dane cannot live a long life free of any of them. Having a Dane doesn’t always mean there will be problems!
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