Growth Disorders in Young GSDs

The problems discussed here occur in the younger, rapidly growing German Shepherd. As German Shepherds are far more angulated than most breeds, they can appear to be having serious problems when in many cases they are going through fairly normal stages of development.

Common problems are:

· Excessive looseness of hocks, can be secondary to excessive depth of hindquarter angulation or increasing length of hock.

· Down in pasterns (often seen with 1 above).

· Flat feet (can be with both 1 and 2).

· Roached backs – (often associated with 1 above).

· Lameness – both perception of and real

There is poor general (public) knowledge of growth problems in the GSD. These conditions can include ligament (hocks and pasterns), bone and joint conditions including OCD (elbows, backs), panoestitis, and, less commonly these days, hip dysplasia. Due to the greater angulation of GSD’s compared to other breeds, the perception that there is a problem, particularly during rapid growth, can arise.

Many of these puppies can present as sore with roached backs, very loose in the hocks and/or down in pastern. The age they present can be as young as 12-14 weeks, however, more commonly at around 5-7 months of age. As some of these puppies can appear to be rather loose and or sore, many veterinarians will immediately assume the worst (HD etc) when it can be a relatively easily corrected problem in many cases.

The vast majority of the problems listed above are diet and weight associated, acerbated by (in some cases) the perception of excessive angulation. Most conditions arise following excessive rate of weight gain, usually secondary to the over use of high energy, high density dry foods. Breeders are generally more aware of feeding protocols, and are more likely to keep weights within desirable levels. New owners (ie. the general public) are far more likely to over feed and use expensive high end foods as the more you pay, the better the quality etc…not always so!

Ligament associated problems
Points 1 through 4 are largely associated with ligament issues. Both of these are directly related to rate of weight gain and diet. This is an area that is often poorly understood by owners and veterinarians alike.

Loose ligaments are developed generally from excessive rate of weight gain and, to me, the very high energy dense foods that are over fed. I would remind everyone reading this, that dogs were originally (and largely still are) scavengers – they grew slowly if they could find enough food. German Shepherds are actually very tough dogs and can do well on remarkably little. Add in too rich a food and one pushes the parameters beyond what many puppies can cope with.

Most cases of poor ligamentation that I see are over weight and on high density, high energy puppy foods. Correcting these problems usually involves dropping the diet to an adult diet with a maximum of 22-24% protein and 12-14% protein. The adult foods all have more than enough calcium and vitamin D supplementation to cover growth and have done so for a very long time. Usually the last thing that needs to be added to these puppies diet is calcium - it generally makes matters worse!

However, having mentioned minerals, the vast majority of excessive looseness of ligamentation will respond very well to the addition of zinc, and in some cases iron supplementation. Zinc is a mineral that is often relatively unavailable in the diet, its absorption can be affected by excessive amounts of other minerals, which usually includes calcium as one of the major inhibitors of the uptake of zinc.

Zinc is essential for many functions within the body – particularly in enzyme production and ligament strength. Failure to have adequate zinc in the diet can have severe consequences in the developing animals.

Treatment – slow down the rate of weight gain, get the weight back into the accepted normal range. Weight loss at this age is difficult and generally not desired, however, slowing down the rate of gain until they reach the accepted range is the way to go. Do not in general add any calcium, however, the addition of Zinc can be highly beneficial to ligament strength. Ideally the zinc supplemented should be well absorbed, I suggest using a chelated zinc such as is in Value Plus Organic Iron and Trace minerals supplement. One tablet will cover up to 32 kg daily.

Soreness, usually over the back can be treated with low doses of either Metacam or Carprofen daily for 7-10 days while correcting the diet. If puppies are sore, rest them. Stop them playing with other puppies or adults for about 2 weeks and assess their soreness after this time.

Do not jump into expensive surgeries without checking with your breeder – a mild degree of looseness is expected in younger animals, particularly if they are overweight. The vast majority of puppies with growth associated problems will benefit from rest, correction of diet and/or some mild anti-inflammatory drugs.

Prognosis - Most of these puppies respond very well and visible improvement in both ligamentation and general fitness is usually seen within 2 -3 weeks of correcting diets, rate of weight gain etc. If problems still persist, check with both your breeder and your veterinarian.

Advice to Breeders – breeders should ideally send puppies out of their kennels on a middle range adult dry food. New owners are less likely to cause problems on these foods. High energy, high density puppy dry foods are very easily overfed, particularly by novice owners. A good quality dry food to recommend is the Royal Canin adult GSD dry food (24% protein), or one of the middle of the road adult dry foods. Equally, hand out a copy of the weight chart and remind buyers to look at and use the chart as a guideline.

Dr Karen Hedberg - 2010