New Research on Early Neutered German Shepherds and Joint Disorders

New Research on Joint Disorders in German Shepherds


ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s very exciting how there is growing research on desexing in dogs, including age of neutering, and its implications on health. In the past, I have blogged on how desexing in German Shepherds is linked to reactivity. The latest study, published last month, looks at bone disorders, cancers, urinary incontinence, and pyometra in German Shepherds.

Many of the arguments for desexing dogs has been around population control instead of health matters – but obviously health does matter. We want dogs to be healthy.

This retrospective study looked at the health of 1170 German Shepherds. It included the analysis of vet records over 14.5 years (2000-2014). For each incidence of disease, the dogs’ records were followed for eight years, except in the case of mammary cancer, which was followed for eleven years. The data on the incidence of joint disorders and cancers in the German Shepherds was compared beside their sexes, and their neuter-age.


Joint Disorders

The biggest problem with early aged desexing in this breed, according to this study, is an increased risk of joint disorders. For example:

  • 6.6% of intact males had one or more joint disorders, but for dogs that were desexed before 6 months, 20.8% had one or more joint disorder. So joint disorder incidence was three times greater in dogs desexed before 6 months than intact dogs. For dogs that were desexed between 6-12 months, the incidence of at least one bone disorder was 16.4%.
  • Similarly, 5.1% of intact female had one or more joint disorders, but for bitches that were desexed before 6 months the incidence was 12.5%, and for bitches that were desexed at 6-11 months the incidence was 17%.
  • Of the joint disorders considered, Cranial Cruciate Ligament Tear was most highly correlated with early desexing. In entire dogs, hip dysplasia was most commonly seen.
  • For desexed dogs, rates of hip and elbow dyplasia was greater than entire dogs, but this difference was not statistically significant.
  • There was no difference between the body condition scores (i.e. fatness) between entire and neutered populations – so it’s not obesity that has caused these problems.


But why do German Shepherds have an increased incidence of joint disorders when they’re desexed before one year of age?

If a dog is desexed before one year of age, the growth plates of the dog are unlikely to have closed. (That is, the bones are still growing.) With the removal of hormone cues through the removal of gonads, the bones are likely to grow longer than they ‘should’, which disrupts joint alignment. This disruption leads to joint disorders such as those found in this and similar studies.

However, this research did not just look at bone disorders.



Unlike previous studies on cancer in other breeds, there was no statistically significant differences between neutered and entire animals. However, in terms of mammary cancer (which was only considered in bitches), 4% of intact females got mammary cancer, but <1% got mammary cancer if desexed before one year of age. The paper notes that mammary cancer seems to be uncommon in German Shepherds and refers to a recent meta-analysis that found the protective factor of neutering in terms of mammary cancer to be weak.

In terms of other cancers there was no significant differences. (My own note though: This study found that only 14% of the entire bitches were used for breeding. Lactating is a protective factor against mammary cancer, so I would suspect that if more of these bitches were breeding bitches, the rate of mammary cancer may have been lower again.)


Bitch-Specific Conditions

Urinary incontinence was seen at a rate of 7% in neutered bitches, but was not seen at all with entire bitches. (Urinary incontinence was not considered in males.) The mean age of onset of urinary incontinence in early neutered females was 5.2 years.

Pyometra in intact females was seen as a rate of 2.5%.

How does this compare to other research?

It’s important to note that this new data adds to our growing understanding of desexing implications. This study references:

  • A 2014 study saw that Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrivers were, generally, more likely to have a joint disorder the earlier they were desexed.
  • A 2013 study saw that Golden Retrievers that were early desexed had more hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tears, and lymphosarcoma. Desexing, regardless of time, increased the rate of at least one cancer by 3-4 times.
  • Another 2013 study found that, in Vizslas, the incidence of cancers was high in desexed dogs (except mammary cancer – where incidence was low).
  • Another 2013 study found that neutered male and female dogs were more likely to die of cancer than intact dogs.
  • A 2011 study that found that, in several breeds, the incidence of mast cell tumours was four times greater in spayed females as opposed to intact.
  • A 2008 study that saw that desexing before 12 months of age saw joint disorders (such as hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tears, and elbow dysplasia) occuring at 2-3 times higher rates than in intact dogs.
  • A 2007 study linked early desexing with risk factors for cranial cruciate ligament tears.
  • A 1999 study found that cardiac hemangiosarcoma was four times more common in spayed females than those intact.
  • A 1998 study, looking at several breeds, saw that osteosarcoma was two times more likely in neutered dog compared to intact dogs.
  • A 1988 study that found that splenic hemangiosarcoma was two times more likely in spayed females than intact.

The researchers involved with this study have been adding great data to the neutering/spaying discussion. They have previously published articles on Labrador vs Golden Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, and these articles had similar findings. (Though German Shepherds did not seem to be as cancer prone as the Golden Retrievers.) As all these studies are using vet clinic data, it is not known how similar or dissimilar the strains/lines are – so the sample could be genetically diverse despite being the same breed.

But it seems that, for German Shepherds, it is far better to wait until dogs are twelve months or older before desexing, if desexing is chosen at all. I’ll end on a quote from the paper:

As shown in this study, delaying neutering until the dog is at least a year of age appears to avoid the increase in risks of joint disorders is associated with neutering. This is a consideration for joint disease control that is immediately available.


Hart, B., Hart, L., Thigpen, A., & Willits, N. (2016). Neutering of German Shepherd Dogs: associated joint disorders, cancers and urinary incontinence Veterinary Medicine and Science DOI: 10.1002/vms3.34


Further Reading:

Early Neutering Poses Health Risks for German Shepherd Dogs, Study Finds

A Link Between Desexing and Reactivity

Labs and Goldens: Goldens Get Cancer Better

Desexing: It’s bad for Vizslas, too

But Mammary Cancer!

Why would you NOT desex your dog?


Photographic Guide to Saving Swimmer Puppies

Saving a swimmer puppy



I’m proud that, for a number of years, the most popular post on this blog is ‘How to Save a Swimmer Puppy‘. However, I am frequently asked for photographs to illustrate the techniques I mentioned. I have recently had a litter of puppies, so I could stage images showing techniques on young puppies for saving a swimmer puppy.


Sling Method

This is by far the most simple method. I use a pillow case, suspended from the back of a chair, and then the puppy is placed inside the pillow case, meaning the puppy is basically in a hammock. When the puppy is placed in the hammock, is important that their legs are tucked underneath them, or the puppy is on their side.

It’s important that the puppy is not allowed to get cold while in this sling, too. You can warm the material of the hammock before placing the puppy inside, and then you can also put a heat pack underneath, on the ground, too (as hot air rises).

You can do this several times a day, ensuring that the puppy stays warm and gets plenty of time to feed in between its time in the sling. Puppies are surprisingly tolerant of this process and rarely object when their stomach is full and their a good temperature.

This is a (zebra-print) pillow case that is suspended on the back of a red chair. Inside, is a baby puppy.  This process will help to fix swimmer puppies.

This is a (zebra-print) pillow case that is suspended on the back of a red chair. Inside, is a baby puppy.
This process will help to fix swimmer puppies.

A puppy (little black blob at the bottom) in a suspended sling. This will help puppies recover from swimmer syndrome.

A puppy (little black blob at the bottom) in a suspended sling. This will help puppies recover from swimmer syndrome.



Handcuff Method

Using electrical tape, you can create handcuffs that pull the puppies legs inwards, preventing them flailing out to the side as a swimmer. It’s important when using this method that you don’t do it too tight. (To be honest, when I’ve used this method, I’ve had it fall off numerous times a day because of how loose I make it. Fine by me!) You also want to make sure you don’t put too much length between the cuffs – remember the cuffs are supposed to pull the pup’s legs inwards, so if you make the cuffs too long, then the puppy’s legs are still going to be able to swim.

Tools required for the handcuff method: Electrical tape and a pair of scissors!

Tools required for the handcuff method: Electrical tape and a pair of scissors!

Step one: Cut a length of tape. We only need one length of tape, and the exact length will depend on your puppy and how far east west its legs are.

Step one: Cut a length of tape. We only need one length of tape, and the exact length will depend on your puppy and how far east west its legs are.

Step three a: Make one loop of the handcuffs. (This image is for illustration purposes - in reality you'd need the puppy's leg in that loop!)

Step two a: Make one loop of the handcuffs. (This image is for illustration purposes – in reality you’d need the puppy’s leg in that loop!)










Step three b: Make a second loop of the handcuffs. (Photo for illustration purposes - in reality, there would be a puppy with a leg through each loop!)

Step two b: Make a second loop of the handcuffs. (Photo for illustration purposes – in reality, there would be a puppy with a leg through each loop!)

I’m sorry that I am not much of a photographer, but here are some pictures to try to illustrate how these handcuffs look actually on a puppy.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

A puppy in swimmer handcuffs.

The benefits of the puppy handcuffs is that they can stay on for long periods of time, and the puppy can still feed and cuddle mum and litter mates while wearing them. Sometimes mothers will remove the handcuffs, and sometimes they fall off, so you are likely to have to put on new handcuffs several times a day. Initially, for a severely affected puppy, you may need to start with long handcuffs then reduce the distance between the handcuffs over time. Puppies are surprisingly tolerant of the handcuffs and rarely fuss once they’re on and they’re back at the milkbar!


For more tips please do see How To Save a Swimmer Puppy.


Eat Less, Live Longer

Eat less, live longer


ResearchBlogging.orgLast year I went to a Primal Paws workshop in Adelaide, and Dr Jamie mentioned research which suggested that dogs that stayed skinnier lived longer healthier lives. Obviously, I had to know more, so I found the 2002 paper on Labradors.

Young Black LabradorThe basic design of this study (published in 2002) involved 48 labradors. Each labrador was buddied with another labrador at 6 weeks of age (choosing a buddy based on sex and body weight), and then one pup in the pair was fed 25% less than the other dog in the pair throughout life.

The focus on his study was basically to see the effect that 25% less food had on longevity and other illnesses in dogs. Apparently, many other studies have been done, primarily on rodents, that have shown that less food (regardless of many other variables) results in longer living and healthier animals. However, this research hasn’t been conducted on larger mammals. (This is the first study, that the authors know of, on dogs. Research on primates is ongoing.)

Each year, for at least 14 years, the dogs alive had bloods taken and body composition scoring. Also, their deaths and any diseases that occurred were recorded alongside the year of acquisition.


The main points:

  • Dogs that had less food’s median life span was significantly longer.
    Dogs who were fed less had a median lifespan of 13 years, compared to 11.2 years in their partners.

  • “The onset of clinical signs of chronic disease generally was delayed for food-restricted dogs.”
    For dogs who had oestoarthritis (which was 43/48 dogs), 43 of these dogs required treatment. For controlled fed dogs, first treatment was needed from 6.8 years to 12.9 years. In the restricted fed group, first treatments was needed from 7.9 years to 14.1 years. Mean age was 10.3 in controlled group and 13.3 in restricted group, which was statistically significant.
    39 dogs required treatment for 1 or more chronic conditions. “Mean age to which 50% of the dogs in each group survived without requiring treatment for a chronic conditions as significantly lower for the controlled-feeding group than for the restricted-feeding group.”

  • ”No signs of nutritional deficiency (eg, progressive weight loss and general or specific clinical signs of a nutrient deficit) occurred during the study.”
    It’s important to note that, even though 24 dogs were fed a lot less food, they were still healthy!

  • Dogs in both groups had increased body condition scores (i.e. were fatter) from 6-12 years.
    This is just an interesting tidbit that illustrates a lull in the body’s metabolism at this particular point of time.



It’s hard to know whether this study will be replicable in different breeds or different genetic stock. Considering the history in the duplicity of results in other species, I think we can be pretty confident these results are solid. However, more research does this would be great.

Even though 48 dogs is a pretty good number for a sample, a bigger sample size is always better.

One question I found myself asking throughout this is, if it’s better to feed less food of a higher quality to maintain weight, instead of more food of poor quality? This would also be a good area for further research.

Indi mourns over the understanding that it's better for her to have 25% fewer chips.

Roxy mourns over the understanding that it’s better for her to have 25% fewer chips.


Take home points:

  • Feed your dog less. It might live longer.
  • Feed your dog less. It might be longer before it needs treatment for oestoarthritis (if they develop the condition).
  • Feed your dog less. It might be longer before it needs treatment for any chronic condition.
  • Feed your dog less, especially once he turns 6 years old.
  • Point from the actual text: “We recommend that for purposes of health and longevity, dogs be fed to maintain a body condition score less than 5.”

I’ve never been happier with my decision to keep my dogs at a lean weight throughout life.



Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, Mantz SL, Biery DN, Greeley EH, Lust G, Segre M, Smith GK, & Stowe HD (2002). Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 220 (9), 1315-20 PMID: 11991408


Further reading:

How to Reduce Your Dog’s Weight


CECS is a Gluten Sensitivity

ResearchBlogging.orgThe idea that CECS is a Gluten Sensitivity has been presented by recent research.

They were actually quite confident with the link between the two, saying in the research,

Canine epileptic cramping syndrome in [border terriers]s is a gluten-sensitive movement disorder triggered and perpetuated by gluten and thus responsive to a gluten-free diet.

This is pretty exciting stuff! CECS (short for Canine Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome, or sometimes called ‘Spike’s Disease’)  is an unusual condition found almost exclusively in border terriers. These dogs are normal dogs except for when they have an ‘episode’ or a seizure. During an episode, the dog will ‘cramp up’. Typically, they remain conscious, but can’t walk, and sometimes appear worried following an episode.

Chip, a border terrier that does not have CECS

Chip, a border terrier that does not have CECS

So far, there has been no real diagnostic test or explanation for the condition. In December 2013, a study looked at CECS, but it was an owner-survey, information-gaining exercise. Which is important, but doesn’t give us answers!

It was so important that it actually spurred this research. In the December 2013 study, 50% of dogs were found to ‘respond’ (i.e. have less episodes) on a gluten-free or hypoallergenic diet.

So now let’s welcome this lovely small study titled ‘The Clinical and Serological Effect of a Gluten Free Diet in Border Terriers with Canine Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome‘, which begins to look at how we can both diagnose and treat CECS. Exciting stuff!

The aim of the study was to work out if a gluten-free diet would effect dogs with CECS. Not only did the researchers want to know if the dogs stopped having episodes, but if their blood looked different with and without gluten. Naturally, they wanted to know if these things were correlated.

The dogs involved were 6 border terriers (an equal mix of male and female). Each dog:

  • Had had CECS for at least 6 months
  • Had been diagnosed with CECS via veterinary observation (including video)
  • Had had at least 2 CECS episodes
  • Had not tried gluten-free diets before

For interest sake, the average age of onset for CECS in this small sample was 2.6 years.

Winnie, another border terrier who does not have CECS

Winnie, another border terrier who does not have CECS

Once recruited, the dogs had blood taken and the owners were given instructions for the dog going on a total gluten-free diet (Hypoallergenic Canine Dry from Royal Canin). The dog underwent a general physical examine (and some dogs went through more intensive procedures, owners consenting) and all were determined to be healthy, beyond the presentation of CECS.

The blood was again taken at 3, 6, and 9 month periods.

The blood was tested for antibodies which are considered important in diagnosing gluten sensitivity in humans.

The blood of non-CECS border terriers was also taken and tested.

The owner was asked to keep a record of the incidents of CECS in their borders.

Are you ready for the results? They’re pretty compelling.

So all that changed in these border terriers’ lives was that they were put on a completely gluten free diet. With this one change, all of the borders terriers, when they adhered to the gluten free diet, stopped having seizures within 4 weeks. Three dogs did not have seizures at all once they started the diet.

Two dog owners, upon completion of the trial, accidentally fed their dogs treats with gluten… And the dogs had seizures again. So not only did a gluten free diet stop seizures, the reintroduction of gluten caused seizures.

Now let’s talk about “Dog 6″. Dog 6′s owner is the epitome of why these kind of studies, where dogs are left with their owners, are hard work! Throughout the study, Dog 6 was a dog that continued to have seizures. Dog 6′s owner presumably fed the dog the gluten free diet, but then allowed the dog to continue to graze on horse poo when out and about.  This issue wasn’t identified until late in the study and so Dog 6 was excluded from the serum results listed in this article. However, when Dog 6′s owner actually did was they were told and stopped the horse poo eating, Dog 6 stopped having seizures too! When Dog 6′s blood was tested 3 months after the study ended (but 3 months into the owner actually doing it right), that dog’s blood results was consistent with the other dogs, and it too had ceased having episodes.

Why is this study such a big deal?

Up until now, we have had no way to diagnose nor treat CECS. (In fact, one of the criteria established in the 2013 study of CECS indicated that if a dog fails to respond to epilepsy medication then it probably is CECS. Nice to know, but not a great deal of help.)

The blood results from these dogs showed high levels of relevant antibodies in affected dogs while they consumed a diet with gluten. The presence of gluten-associated antibodies could be used to diagnose CECS.

Clearly, a treatment has been identified too: avoid gluten!

Other areas that are of interest:

  • Signs of gastrointestinal upsets could be a sign of gluten problems, or of future CECS. Vomiting, soft stools, or belly grumbling was reported in 2 of the dogs featured in this study. The presentation of belly problems and CECS together can be an indication of just one problem – gluten sensitivity!
  • The story of ‘Dog 6′, to me, really shows the importance of owners in being vigilant. I feel that many dog owners take a rather lazy approach to food elimination diets, but elimination means to completely remove. If you don’t completely remove, you can’t say that it’s been tried!
  • In humans, celiac disease has sometimes been associated with a rash… Which makes me think back to the correlation between CECS and skin-conditions in borders identified in the 2013 study.

Another quote from the study:

These investigations support the hypothesis that CECS is a manifestation of gluten sensitivity, making this the first [sudden onset] movement disorder in veterinary medicine with a serological link to gluten.

What research from here?

This is a very small study, and it’s important that we do more research before making solid conclusions. This study itself suggests further research:

  • With a larger sample size
  • More research into the correlation of gastrointestinal upsets and CECS
  • A double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial

But in the meantime, while we’re waiting to know more, these researchers (and I!) recommend that, if you have a border terrier with CECS, you switch the dog to a diet that eliminates all gluten foods.



Lowrie M, Garden OA, Hadjivassiliou M, Harvey RJ, Sanders DS, Powell R, & Garosi L (2015). The Clinical and Serological Effect of a Gluten-Free Diet in Border Terriers with Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome. Journal of veterinary internal medicine / American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 29 (6), 1564-8 PMID: 26500168


Further reading:

Gluten Sensitivity Triggers Epileptoid Cramping Syndrome in Border Terriers


CECS is a Gluten Sensitivity



Flea Prevention in a Foster Home

Anyone who has had fleas in their house before knows what a nightmare it is – for the humans and the dogs. The clean up following a flea infestation is very painful as well.

In coordinating a dog rescue for about seven years, I have got flea control down to an art. Here are my suggestions on ensuring that foster homes stay free of fleas.

When a dog enters care and has evidence of fleas (e.g. flea dirt around their groin), or for any dog that has come from a pound environment, flea treatment and prevent starts on pick up.

  • As I put the dog in the car, I treat with a spot-on flea treatment for dogs (like Frontline).
  • In the case of multi-dog transport, then all dogs in the car are treated with a spot-on treatment.

Once the dog has vacated my car, I then have to make my car flea-free. I use bug spray on pretty much everything. This includes bug-spraying:

  • Each side of the bedding the dog had in the crate.
  • The internal surfaces of the crate.
  • On all surfaces in the car, including in particular fabric surfaces.

Any bedding the dog used then goes either straight into the wash, or, if soiled, into a secured bag and into the bin.

Any other pets in the new foster household should be treated with a spot-on as well.

Following these steps should help flea infestations taking hold in a foster home. If, however, a dog ‘sneaks’ fleas into the house, then you will need to take remedial action. My process is:

  1. All animals in the household are dosed with a flea treatment.
  2. All bedding occupied by the flea-infested dog is treated with bug spray and washed.
  3. All areas of the house are vacuumed.
  4. All surrounding areas the dog came into contact with (like carpets, couches, etc) are doused in bug spray. I particularly concentrate the bug spray in nooks (e.g. under and behind furniture) and on the thresholds of rooms (e.g. in doorways).

It took me quite a few years to work out the exact method for getting a handle on flea infestations. I have learnt that prevention is easier (and cheaper!) than cure. Despite having some close encounters (such as foster dogs sneaking in their flea-visitors), I have never had a major problem in recent years. I put it down to these techniques.

Do you have any additional ideas on controlling fleas in a foster home?


Other posts of interest:

5 Ways to Keep Fleas Out of the House

Parasite Treatment Comparisons

Oral Flea Treatment Most Effective in Dogs