As sweet and wonderful as Great Danes are, like all breeds, they have their drawbacks. Their commonly short life span 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. Obviously, their early deaths are due to some causes. Unfortunately, more than their share of health problems are found in this breed. Not all problems listed below are life-threatening, but seem to occur more often in Great Danes. Thyroid imbalance, cataracts and Von Willebrand’s disease are some health issues that breeders are now also screening for. Ask the breeder which problems they test. Chances are they will never concern you, but it cannot hurt being aware of these health problems when considering a Dane for your family.
1. Von Willebrand’s Disease
Von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD) is an inherited disorder that prevents the blood from clotting. There are different grades of vWD that range from clear, to genetic carrier, to affected. Screening consists of a blood test which determines which grade the Dane will fall under.
There are many causes for cataracts in dogs, including injury, nutrition, congenital and genetic inheritance. We are mainly concerned with inherited cataracts here. Juvenile, or inherited, cataracts plague Great Danes. Sadly, not many breeders screen for cataracts as they cannot always be seen with the naked eye. There is not much data on this condition in Danes to draw any conclusions, as they may not live long enough for the cataract to ever bother them. Cataracts are found on the lens of the eye, the clear body behind the iris. Mostly, dilation of the iris is necessary to actually see the cataract. It is important that the eyes undergo a yearly examination by a certified ophthalmologist veterinarian. If the dog passes the CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) test, a number – valid for one year – is then issued to the dog.
Problems with the thyroid consist of an over or under-active thyroid. The correct function of the thyroid is essential, as it affects many aspects of the dog’s health. A blood test will check the thyroid efficiency. The OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) will only certify dogs with a normal thyroid. If the thyroid is functioning abnormally, it often affects the skin condition and causes a dry, itchy skin with sparse hair growth. Autoimmune problems are common too, as well as causing sterility in the reproductive system.
Panosteitis is an inflammation in the long bones of the leg, causing lameness. It is known to move from leg to leg and usually goes away on its own. Should the pain be severe, then a trip to the vet is a good idea. It is unknown what causes panosteitis. Most often, it shows 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 bone (the long thigh bone that joins the pelvis) does not fit comfortably into the socket of the pelvic bone. Mainly, this occurs due to the pelvic socket being too small to accommodate the femur joint. The dog experiences pain because they do not fit properly and arthritis often develops as a result. Fortunately, hip dysplasia is becoming rarer in the puppies of responsible breeders who regularly screen their dogs for this condition. Screening consists of a hip x-ray and certification by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals). Unfortunately, many breeders to not check the hips of their dogs and it is they who still have a very high incidence of hip dysplasia in their puppies. Insist on both parents being screened for this condition.
6. Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy
Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD) affects youngsters during their fastest growth period, usually between four and ten months of age. It is a severe swelling and inflammation of the joints that causes immense pain for the puppy. Often the dog will just lie there and cry as the pain is so intense. Diagnosis occurs via x-ray and the cause is unknown. Be aware of HOD as many veterinarians 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 being pain control.
7. Wobblers Syndrome
A disease of the nervous system, Wobblers 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 degrees of severity. Some dogs live long, happy lives with the condition, while others are sadly euthanized while young. A loss of co-ordination in the hind legs is usually the first symptom. It looks as if the dog moves without understanding exactly where its hindquarters are. The problem is more severe when the dog falls over when making a turn. Sometimes, in very extreme cases, the front legs may also be affected. There is seldom pain involved with Wobblers Syndrome.
8. Bloat 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 Great Dane population experiences bloat. Generally, bloat only occurs when the dog is five years or older. What actually causes bloat is still unknown. Many people believe that carefully monitoring what your Dane eats and drinks can help prevent it. Gas fills the stomach and the dog is unable to release it. Due to excess gas, the stomach will swell, eventually rotate on its axis and flip over. This is known as gastric torsion. When this happens, the nerves and blood vessels going to and from the stomach become blocked. The tissues that work due to these vessels will start to die and produce toxins which will, in turn, cause toxicity and shock in the entire animal. This very quickly leads to death. It is essential to get your dog to the veterinarian very quickly when this occurs. Sometimes, getting your dog to the surgery in time is not enough. Often, trauma of the experience is enough to cause heart failure.
In order to successfully treat this condition, the dog needs to first be stabilized prior to 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 will need to puncture the stomach directly so the gas can expel itself. Releasing the gas is the only way to stop the deadly effects of bloat and gastric torsion. Once the dog is stable and the surgical team decide it is safe to try surgery, the veterinarian will open the dog and do a procedure that will make sure the stomach can never torsion again, called a gastroplexy. Discuss this condition with your veterinarian before any incidence of bloat occurs, as there are several methods commonly performed. Do not be afraid to ask your veterinarian how familiar they are with performing a gastroplexy.
Should the stomach only be “tacked” then it is not a permanent solution. Within six months the tacking will be ineffective. There are more permanent methods of treating this condition. A future gastric torsion is now prevented. However, an episode of bloat will always be possible. Some breeders and owners are having a gastropexy performed on all bitches while sedated during sterilization, and on male dogs when they are x-rayed for hip dysplasia – as most veterinarians will use anaesthetic to make an exact x-ray photo. The peace of mind is worth it to them with the likelihood of bloat being so high.
Common in the breed is a condition called cardiomyopathy. This is a heart condition that does not usually affect a dog before three or four years of age. Symptoms that you might notice include a lack of interest in food, intermittent coughing, lack of energy, and an intolerance to exercise. Look out for swelling in the legs and retching, as sometimes the stomach and chest cavity will collect fluids. Unfortunately, once diagnosed, cardiomyopathy patients are given around 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 limping. Osteosarcoma is mostly diagnosed by an x-ray. It is important to diagnose this condition before spreading (metastasis) of the cancer occurs. Treatment consists of amputating the limb. This is drastic, but Danes do well on three legs and run around as if they still had the amputated leg. Factoring into this decision will be the age and strength of your dog. Owners having experienced this condition and treatment almost unanimously have no regrets about doing so.
Due to the potential health risks in the Great Dane, responsible breeders will screen their dogs before making breeding decisions. The OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) evaluates and registers dogs for elbow and hip dysplasia, heart defects and thyroid function. The grade of hip will either be 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 passes an examination by a Board Certified Canine Ophthalmologist. Insist on evidence of these tests from the breeder to make sure conscientious breeding practices occur, and to know that your Dane is from good breeding stock.
Great Danes grow in one year what people grow in eighteen. During this period of growth, if anything goes wrong with the metabolism or assimilation of nutrients, it will most often show in the skeleton. Most of these problems are easily managed or prevented with proper nutrition. Ideally, a diet including all the elements for growth that is correctly balanced should effectively slow down this growth rate. Keeping in mind that all the above problems are overwhelming, there is no reason your Great Dane cannot live a long life free from any of them. Having a Dane does not always mean there will be problems!