Dwarfism in German Shepherds – Everything You Need to Know

Don’t let anyone convince you that dwarf German shepherds are a new and rare designer breed! Dwarfism in German Shepherds is a serious genetic disorder that causes a purebred German Shepherd Dog to retain its puppy appearance and small size.

So, can German Shepherds stay small forever? No, there is no such thing as a miniature or small purebred German Shepherd. A healthy purebred German Shepherd puppy should grow into a large, athletic, and agile dog. The only way a purebred German Shepherd puppy can stay small its entire life is if it suffers from dwarfism. 

While dwarf German Shepherds may look cute, they suffer from many health problems and have significantly shorter lifespans than healthy GSD. Read on to learn more about dwarfism in German Shepherds, including causes, symptoms, and treatment!

What Is Dog Dwarfism?

Pituitary dwarfism in dogs is an autosomal genetic disorder that affects the function of the pituitary gland. While this disorder can affect any dog breed, it’s more common in German Shepherds and other pastoral breeds.

But what is a pituitary gland, you may wonder! The pituitary gland is a small endocrine gland found at the base of the brain that consists of the anterior lobe and the posterior lobe (source). This pea-sized gland secretes many hormones, including the canine growth hormone, prolactin, thyroid hormones, and many more.

In dogs with canine dwarfism, the pituitary gland can’t produce enough growth hormones which causes stunted growth and many other health issues in an affected dog.

Since this disorder is caused by a recessive gene, both German Shepherd parents need to carry the gene for a German Shepherd puppy to be born with it. When the two carriers are mated, on average 50 percent of their litter will also be carriers and 25 percent of the litter will suffer from dwarfism.

It’s believed that 20 percent of all German Shepherds in the world carry this gene, meaning that dwarfism in German Shepherds may be on the rise in the years to come.

What Causes Dwarfism in German Shepherds

Dwarfism in German Shepherds is usually caused by the lack of growth hormones secreted by the pituitary gland. However, there are several other potential causes for this disorder. 

Here are the other most likely causes of dwarfism in German Shepherds:

  • Tumors
  • Cysts
  • Chronic infections
  • Lack of development

How Can You Tell If a Dog Has Dwarfism?

How Can You Tell If a Dog Has Dwarfism

If your German Shepherd has pituitary dwarfism, you will most likely notice that they are growing way slower than they should. In fact, smaller size is the most common symptom associated with dwarfism in dogs. 

Besides lack of growth, several other signs point to the diagnosis of pituitary dwarfism. The most common signs of this disorder are usually seen within the first couple of months of a puppy’s life. They are:

  • Small size, becomes obvious by 12 weeks of age
  • Slow growth rate
  • Abnormal retention of the puppy coat
  • Alopecia or hair loss
  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Renal failure due to undeveloped kidneys and liver
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Undescended testes in male dogs
  • Irregular or absent heat cycles in female dogs
  • Below average intelligence due to an underactive thyroid gland
  • Abnormal cervical vertebra
  • Delay in dental growth
  • High pitched puppy bark

Is Dwarfism Common in German Shepherds?

Unfortunately, pituitary dwarfism is common in German Shepherds, and signs of slow growth will become apparent by two to three months in age. 

While there are still no scientific studies, it is believed that about 11 percent of German Shepherds in Europe carry the genetic mutation that causes pituitary dwarfism (source).

Some experts estimate that around 20 percent of all German Shepherds are carriers of this mutation and can transmit the faulty gene to their offspring. 

Pituitary dwarfism is a serious condition that affects the quality of life and the lifespan of the affected dogs. However, as long as two dogs carrying the defective gene aren’t bred, dwarf puppies won’t be born, and the spread of the faulty genes can be stopped! 

Are There Any Treatments for Dwarfism in German Shepherds?

There is still no way of completely curing dwarfism in German Shepherds. However, some treatments can manage this condition and provide a better quality of life to the affected dogs.

Since dogs with pituitary dwarfism experience hormone deficiencies, the treatment involves replenishing the missing hormones. The treatment of dwarfism in German Shepherds usually includes:

  • Porcine (pig) growth hormone. Results can vary from one dog to the next.
  • Progestins are steroidal drugs used to stimulate the production of growth hormones
  • Thyroid hormones like levothyroxine showed some success in treating this disorder

Although these treatments can improve a dog’s quality of life, to some extent, they can also cause serious side effects. 

How Long Can Dwarf German Shepherds Live?

Sadly, most German Shepherds with pituitary dwarfism on average live for only three to four years. 

The majority of dogs affected by this disorder die in the womb, shortly after birth, or are seen as fading puppies. Those that do survive are often sold to unsuspected owners before their condition becomes apparent. 

However, some dogs manage to live more than a few years, most likely because in some cases the pituitary gland continues to produce a minimal amount of hormones. 

Conclusion

Pituitary dwarfism is a serious disorder that affects many German Shepherd Dogs worldwide. Because this condition affects the function of the pituitary gland, dwarf GSD lack essential hormones and suffer from an array of health problems during their short lifespans.

Thanks to a genetic test, breeders can screen their dogs before mating to see if they carry the mutation that causes dwarfism in German Shepherds. An ethical breeder will test its breeding stock and remove any dogs carrying the faulty gene from their breeding program. 

If you decide that a German Shepherd is an ideal dog for you, talk with the breeder and have them show you that their dogs have been tested and aren’t carrying defective genes. If more breeders used DNA testing when breeding their dogs, the occurrence of dwarfism in German Shepherds would be greatly reduced! 

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