German Shepherd dogs are a very popular dog breed, owing to their many qualities. While German Shepherds were bred specifically for their herding and intelligence, they are also known for their strength, trainability, and obedience. These traits make them excellent disability assistance dogs, police dogs, and watch dogs as well as excellent pets. They are also considered easily identifiable due to their distinct tan and black or red and black markings. Many other colour varieties do exist including black masks, sable, pure black, and pure white varieties to mention a few.
This is an obviously handsome, eager to learn, and curious dog breed that is very self-assured despite the curiosity in its nature. They are loving and attentive dogs with their family members but are not inclined to make friends easily with strangers, making them quite intimidating at times. Once getting past the initial introduction, these dogs are very friendly and energetic with children as well adults.
Much is known about German Shepherds and some of their common medical ailments by pet owners and dog breeders alike. This includes hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, osteoarthritis, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency to name a few conditions the dog breed is prone to. Good breeding practices can help limit these problems in the breed. As German Shepherd dogs can also be prone to a large range of skin related problems, these can also be limited with responsible breeding practices, although some of the skin conditions are difficult to completely eradicate as individual variations do exist.
German Shepherd dogs are a common breed presented to veterinary dermatologists, including at our dermatology clinic, VetDERM Clinic. As the range of most common breed-specific dog skin problems in German Shepherds is quite vast, we will discuss these conditions over a 3-part blog series.
Here are some of the common pet allergy related problems that are seen in German Shepherd dogs:
Environmental Allergy (Canine atopic dermatitis)
An environmental allergy can occur in the predisposed individual to natural environmental substances such as grass and tree pollen, house dust, house dust mites, human dander, and environmental fungus in wet grass or close to water bodies. Indoor allergens, outdoors allergens, or a combination of them may cause dog allergy symptoms. A shepherd dog with any lifestyle can be affected by environmental allergies.
Environmental allergies can cause seasonal or round the year dog allergy symptoms at a young age including itchiness, skin infection, hair loss, ear infection, skin rashes and redness. Often, the infections are resolved with treatment but recur until allergy is identified and managed.
As an environmental allergy is a life long problem, and usually progresses with age, early intra-dermal allergy testing to identify offending allergens is encouraged. This helps to start allergy immunotherapy for better allergy control.
Allergy desensitization will generally help German Shepherd avoid long term bacterial skin infections, that they are also quite prone to.
German Shepherd dogs are also affected by contact allergies, which can be triggered by compounds coming in contact with skin. This is especially true and evident for less haired areas that are more in contact with the environment. Most signs are noted at the paws, underbelly, armpits and tail based, perianal regions for this reason. Over time, skin redness and irritation signs may progress further along additional areas of the skin. Secondary skin infections may also develop, leading to further skin problems.
Contact allergens for dogs may be substances found indoors or outdoors. Household cleaning agents, various plants, toys, carpet fibers, and even some skin products when applied for treatment are examples of agents that can cause contact allergy dermatitis.
To help minimize this skin problem, identification of the contact irritant or allergen and its avoidance is critical. Thorough patient history review and in some cases, patch testing can be performed at our pet dermatology clinic to help control this problem.
Flea Bite Hypersensitivity (also called Flea Bite Allergy)
Flea bite allergies can cause pruritic dermatitis anywhere on the body, but especially on the back of German Shepherds.
All it takes is one flea bite to cause a severe reaction! The vast majority of symptoms of this allergy, especially itching, disappear within a few days of adequate flea control.
Interestingly, it can be quite difficult to find fleas and their evidence on flea allergic patients, due to their intense itchiness on the back end, where fleas can generally be found. Excellent flea control and flea treatment products are available these days, of which the most suitable and effective for your Shepherd can help control this problem well. Remember, in the Fraser Valley and Metro Vancouver areas of the lower mainland, our weather is mild round the year and harsh winters are not seen. Thus, flea infestations and flea allergy can be seen in pets round the year.
Insect Bite Hypersensitivity
As German Shepherds possess an immune system that can be quite reactive, they can also be affected by insect bite allergies including a condition called Eosinophilic furunculosis of face. In regions with biting flies being common in warmer months, fly bite dermatitis of ear tips is also seen in this breed. Being active dogs that like to train and spend time outdoors, they are definitely more exposed to insects in the environment.
Food Hypersensitivity (also Food Allergy, or Cutaneous Adverse Food Reaction)
Food allergies also affect German Shepherd dogs, in keeping with the dog breed being prone to developing allergies. While food allergy is less common compared to flea allergy as well as environmental allergy due to pollen, grass and dust mites, it is important to consider any pet with skin problems and signs of intestinal upset, to be a possible for allergic dog. If food allergy does affect a dog, controlling exposure to one or more allergens will help prevent ongoing concerns. Food allergy may also be seen in combination with other allergies, making identification of the problem more challenging.
A fair amount of testing options are available for assessing food allergy in dogs. Not all these options are entirely reliable as blood tests and saliva tests have been proven to be of minimal benefit in benefiting the patient.
If food allergy is suspected but control over the problem has not been achieved, a vet dermatologist consultation is encouraged to help confirm and eventually control the problem and related symptoms.
Combination Allergies and Their Secondary Effects
All dogs affected by allergies, irrespective of breed and including the German Shepherd, can be affected by more than one allergen.
In fact, having allergies to more than one allergen is more common than being allergic to just one thing. Being allergic to a range of things (polysensitization) makes allergy in pets a complicated condition.
This may mean an allergy to multiple grasses, tree pollen, foods, insects, etc. in the same dog. Some pets may be affected by a large range of food allergens without having additional allergy triggers.
In dogs affected by multiple allergies, identification of the most important allergen is always the key. Ideally, most or all of the offending allergens need to be identified to help ensure good patient comfort. This in turn, will help limit secondary skin infections in a breed like German Shepherds, that is quite prone to skin infections as we will find in the next blog discussing skin infection related conditions of German Shepherds.
Early and definitive identification of allergy signs is always helpful in stopping progression of allergies and their impact in any dog, but is especially true for German Shepherds. If your German Shepherd shows allergic symptoms of itchiness, redness of skin, hair loss, or changes in skin quality, it may be time to consult with a vet dermatology clinic so that your pet dermatologist can help identify the true problem.
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Dr. Jangi Bajwa is a Board certified veterinary dermatologist at VetDERM Clinic in Surrey BC. He is also the dermatology feature editor for Canadian Veterinary Journal. Dr. Bajwa’s special interests include otitis and allergic disease in pets; as well as helping improve quality of life of pets and their families.