Here’s the background:
Last night, a research study came across my Google Scholar alerts called Demography and disorders of German Shepherd Dogs under primary veterinary care in the UK. This study recorded that, among other things, the most common causes of death for GSDs in the UK were musculoskeletal disorder (16.3%) and inability to stand (14.9%).
This study also came across other people’s alerts, of course, and was picked up by a blog that tries to point out all the horrible things that people do when they breed purebred dogs. This resulted in a blog post called “Shocking new study: German Shepherds die because they can no longer stand up.” I am not going to link the blog, because I have no desire to give them even one click from my work. Google it if you want to read it.
The big problem is: That conclusion is completely wrong. German Shepherds don’t die because they can’t stand up, and the demographic study explicitly says so. But first…
Here is what you need to know:
The cause of death data is coming from a commercial software program called VetCompass. Practices in the UK that use VetCompass get all their practice data dumped into a big relational database that can then be accessed by researchers. This has led to a bunch of what I’d call quick-and-dirty demographic analyses, where connections are made between the various pieces of data the veterinarians or techs input. Virtually all of them are lead-written by one population epidemiologist, Dan O’Neill. He releases a new one every few weeks, which is why I say these are pretty quick and dirty. O’Neill isn’t an expert on GSDs or on musculoskeletal issues or on dogs standing up; he just looks at patterns of diagnosis data associated with breeds. There’s nothing wrong with doing quick epidemiological studies; they’re a great way to identify where serious research effort should go. But they shouldn’t be confused with serious research themselves.
The other important thing you need to know to understand these results is that the words used for the causes of death of these dogs are not words at all. They’re VeNom codes, which are the numerical codes assigned to diagnoses in the UK. Vets are not keying in “inability to stand”; they are looking for the closest description for the reason the dog is being euthanized, and choosing that code.
So what does the study actually say?
First, GSDs are actually a long-lived breed, especially for their size. The average lifespan across all GSDs was 10.3 years, which takes into account puppy deaths, injuries, and so on. Bitches actually had an average lifespan of 11.1 years, which (remember, that also counts puppies, car hits, and so on) is wonderful. Old dogs are dying at around age 12-13, which is a very normal lifespan for all dogs. As the study author himself says, “GSDs are not particularly short-lived given their large body-size.”
Second, and most important, as the study says, “The true underlying causes for inability to stand can only be speculated but are likely to be multi-factorial and to include combinations of musculoskeletal, neurological, neoplastic and other diverse conditions.”
So why is “inability to stand” so common as a reason to euthanize? Well, I’m not a vet in the UK, but I would make an educated guess that it will start to make sense once you consider how we, as owners, describe the reasons we make the ultimate and final choice for our dogs at the end of their lives. I know I’ve said it, and I am sure you have too – “He just couldn’t get up any more, and I knew it was time.” It is extremely normal for owners to continue to care for their dogs for the last weeks of their lives, even though they know the end is very near, as long as the dogs are relatively active and mobile. When the dog stops being able to stand up and move around, either because of weakness or pain, the dog is euthanized. “Couldn’t get up anymore” or “Too painful to stand and move” aren’t VeNom codes, but “Inability to stand” and the very vague “Musculoskeletal disorder” are.
So don’t read this study as “German Shepherds die because they can no longer stand up” – read it as “Old German Shepherds are euthanized when they can no longer stand up.”
Now go pet your dog, whether she’s a GSD or a Cardigan or any other breed or non-breed. That’s a lot more important than demographic data, after all.