Dog Health, Responsible Breeding

No, German Shepherd Dogs are not dying young because they can’t stand up.


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.


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  • Reply Michael Romanos August 2, 2017 at 1:11 am

    The correct way to give the expected lifespan of breeds of dogs would place GS much higher than 10-11, more like 11-13 and in NZ 12-14. GS are a medium size dog. Cardigan and Pembroke Corgis are small breeds and in NZ have an expected lifespan of 14-16 years but in the USA it is reduced to 13-15 years. The reasons are many but climate is one – NZ has an ideal climate for Corgis – and disease is another – NZ is a healthier environment than is many parts of the USA.

    • Reply Joanna Kimball August 2, 2017 at 9:31 pm

      Life expectancy in adults is a different thing than average lifespan. The figure of 10.3 overall and 11.1 for bitches counts ALL deaths, including puppy deaths, accidents, infections, and the other things that are not inherited but still kill dogs. If you look at the age tables in the demographic study, the number of dogs presenting at vet clinics stays quite steady until after age 12, and then it decreases rapidly. That shows that, in general, GSDs are staying pretty healthy until 12-ish, and then dying. That is absolutely to be expected for a large (and yes, they are large) and healthy breed.

  • Reply Pam Philips August 2, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    At last someone who talks sense, I know too well the blog you refer to, anything to make money out of trash press and none pedigree dogs. Lets face it anyone with common sense know that vets can not tell one line/type of GSD from another yet alone have a certified pedigree on record so for the gutter press to link it too one type. No doubt if my oldie that was pts at 11 yrs last year would be classified as one of these if my vet used this recording system yet it was secondary poisoning and total organ failure due to that.

  • Reply Heather Macdonald August 2, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    At last someone who knows what they are talking about….. I read the original media piece with utter dismay at the particularly biased angle.

  • Reply Ruth August 3, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    I’ll admit that I found the numbers for the GSD, as put forth in the mentioned study, a little dismaying, especially considering the issues brought public by the 2016 Crufts GSDs. But before I actually freak out over it I’d want to see similar comparisons done for several similarly sized breeds. Because yah, the bigger the dog is the bigger the issue is when age finally hits him and he can’t manage to stay on his feet.
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  • Reply Amayon September 6, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    But ALL dogs of all breeds are euthanized for those reasons. Why isnt there skewed data in Lhasas that say they are dying because they cant stand up? Everyone, of all breeds, uses not being able to get up as a sign that its time. If this was the reason for this data, then it would be the same across all breeds and mixed breeds as well. It doesnt add up. Something is going on here, and denying it wont make it go away.

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