Health Concerns  

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Belgian Sheepdogs are GREAT dogs they are loyal, loving, agile, outgoing, sweet, thoughtful and always glad to see you. But, every breed has health concerns that owners (both new and experienced) need to be aware of in order to make the best decision about ownership.

In this breed, the common problems that we experience are stomach cancer, epilepsy, hip and elbow dysplasia, PRA and cataracts. Hypothyroidism and retained testicles are common also. Each of these health issues are commonly found across pedigree lines. A breeder that subscribes to Ethics and Codes of Conduct will try to reduce the likelihood that these health issues will occur in the dogs that they produce  but most of the health issues detailed below are polygenetic and come from more than one gene pair. These traits are more complex than the typical dominant or recessive genetic trait and therefore, much more difficult to identify in breeding stock unless the dog is symptomatically affected.

The information provided below is designed to provide general information about health issues that are realized in the Belgian Breed. This page is included to assist potential Belgian owners in making an educated decision as to whether this is the breed for them - not to deter potential owners from selecting this breed. I would prefer that every dog owner make an educated decision BEFORE they purchase a puppy or a dog and be ready to make a life long commitment to that pet.

Another point that I'd like to make is that many of the health concerns addressed below are very rarely unmanageable - or result in the death of a pet- except for Stomach Cancer. Many times, the health concerns referenced below are much more of an inconvenience to the owners than they are to the dogs - who learn to compensate quickly.

Stomach cancer (gastric carcinoma) is a highly malignant cancer and it is almost always fatal. Early detection, prevention, and improved therapies depend on recognition of factors that contribute to causing stomach cancer. This information comes from the Tufts University Gastric Carcinoma Cancer Study. Even though it is exceptionally difficult to think about when your Belgian Sheepdog is sick, I encourage everyone who has a Belgian Sheepdog with Stomach Cancer to submit blood and tissue samples if available, as well as medical history and pedigree to this study. We all would like to eliminate this terrible disease from our breed - and research like this is the key.

In general, stomach cancer is rare in dogs. Veterinary databases indicate that about 0.1% of dogs (1 in 1000) received this diagnosis. However, certain breeds are diagnosed with stomach cancer much more frequently. Chow Chows have between 10-20 times the risk of stomach cancer compared to other breeds and we have been studying this cancer in Chows for a number of years with the goal of identifying the gene(s) that lead to stomach cancer predisposition. Now we are also investigating stomach cancer in other breeds that demonstrate an increased risk 1) based on data from the Veterinary Medicine Database or 2) in which we have identified a familial pattern of occurrence. One of these breeds is the Belgian sheepdog. Belgian sheepdogs have 15 times the risk for stomach cancer compared to other dogs. I have seen stomach cancer occur in Belgians as young as 5 years and as old as 11 years of age.


The signs of stomach cancer can be very vague and subtle. Any of the following could indicate stomach cancer:
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloat
  • Dark tarry stool
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Loss of energy
NOTE: Not all dogs have all the signs! and many times Blood Work completed on the dog will look completely normal.

Hip Dysplasia is a genetic disease because of the various degrees of arthritis (also called degenerative joint disease, arthrosis, osteoarthrosis) it can eventually produce, leading to pain and debilitation.

The very first step in the development of arthritis is articular cartilage (the type of cartilage lining the joint) damage due to the inherited bad biomechanics of an abnormally developed hip joint. Traumatic articular fracture through the joint surface is another way cartilage is damaged. With cartilage damage, lots of degradative enzymes are released into the joint. These enzymes degrade and decrease the synthesis of important constituent molecules that form hyaline cartilage called proteoglycans. This causes the cartilage to lose its thickness and elasticity, which are important in absorbing mechanical loads placed across the joint during movement. Eventually, more debris and enzymes spill into the joint fluid and destroy molecules called glycosaminoglycan and hyaluronate which are important precursors that form the cartilage proteoglycans. The joint's lubrication and ability to block inflammatory cells are lost and the debris-tainted joint fluid loses its ability to properly nourish the cartilage through impairment of nutrient-waste exchange across the joint cartilage cells. The damage then spreads to the synovial membrane lining the joint capsule and more degradative enzymes and inflammatory cells stream into the joint. Full thickness loss of cartilage allows the synovial fluid to contact nerve endings in the subchondral bone, resulting in pain. In an attempt to stabilize the joint to decrease the pain, the animal's body produces new bone at the edges of the joint surface, joint capsule, ligament and muscle attachments (bone spurs). The joint capsule also eventually thickens and the joint's range of motion decreases.

No one can predict when or even if a dysplastic dog will start showing clinical signs of lameness due to pain. There are multiple environmental factors such as caloric intake, level of exercise, and weather that can affect the severity of clinical signs and phenotypic expression (radiographic changes). There is no rhyme or reason to the severity of radiographic changes correlated with the clinical findings. There are a number of dysplastic dogs with severe arthritis that run, jump, and play as if nothing is wrong and some dogs with barely any arthritic radiographic changes that are severely lame.

Elbow dysplasia is a general term used to identify an inherited polygenic disease in the elbow of dogs. Three specific etiologies make up this disease and they can occur independently or in conjunction with one another. These etiologies include:
  • Pathology involving the medial coronoid of the ulna (FCP)
  • Osteochondritis of the medial humeral condyle in the elbow joint (OCD)
  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)
Studies have shown the inherited polygenic traits causing these etiologies are independent of one another. Clinical signs involve lameness which may remain subtle for long periods of time. No one can predict at what age lameness will occur in a dog due to a large number of genetic and environmental factors such as degree of severity of changes, rate of weight gain, amount of exercise, etc. Subtle changes in gait may be characterized by excessive inward deviation of the paw which raises the outside of the paw so that it receives less weight and distributes more mechanical weight on the outside (lateral) aspect of the elbow joint away from the lesions located on the inside of the joint. Range of motion in the elbow is also decreased. For more information on Hip and Elbow Dysplasia please visit the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) website.

Canine Epilepsy is a chronic condition characterized by recurrent seizures. Although seizures are always abnormal events, not all seizures in dogs are caused by canine epilepsy.

Canine Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain where abnormal electrical activity triggers further uncoordinated nerve transmission. This uncoordinated and haphazard nerve tissue activity scrambles messages to the muscles of your dog's body and the coordinated use of the muscles is then inhibited.

Because there are many causes of chronic recurrent seizures in dogs, canine epilepsy is not a specific disease or even a single syndrome, but rather a diverse category of disorders. Canine Epilepsy is broadly divided into idiopathic and symptomatic disorders. Idiopathic Epilepsy, also called primary epilepsy, means that there is no identifiable brain abnormality other than seizures. Symptomatic epilepsy (also called secondary epilepsy) is seizures that are the consequence of an identifiable lesion or other specific cause.

Most dogs with idiopathic epilepsy suffer their first seizure between the ages of one and five years of age. A genetic basis for idiopathic epilepsy is strongly suspected in several breeds including the Beagle, Belgian Tervuren, Keeshond, Dachshund, British Alsatian, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever and Collie. Idiopathic canine epilepsy may have aninherited basis in other breeds also.

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is a hereditary disease of the eye that causes blindness. The retina is the tissue lining the back wall of the inside of the eye and is composed of two classes of photoreceptor cells called rods and cones; the rods function in dim light, and the cones in bright light. A PRA affected dog begins to have difficulty seeing in dim light, then gradually loses the ability to see in bright light, eventually becoming completely blind. As the vision fails, the pupils become increasingly dilated, and may take on a shiny or iridescent quality. When properly trained and managed most dogs can adjust to blindness well.

PRA is hereditary and is always assumed to be an autosomal recessive trait until proven otherwise. (A recessive trait requires two copies of the defective gene. An autosomal recessive trait is one in which a recessive trait is carried on a chromosome pair other than the XY sex pair.) The Siberian Husky is the only breed as yet proven to have a different mode of inheritance, and it is sex-linked. As a result, most of the PRA affected Siberian Huskies are male.

Cataract is a common term used to describe changes in the lens of the eye that we usually attribute to older age, and call an "aging change." Many people have surgery to remove cataracts and we all know someone who has had cataract surgery, if we haven't had to undergo the procedure ourselves. It has a very high success rate in people, has few complications and is even an outpatient procedure performed under local anesthesia. This disease also occurs as an aging change in the eyes of dogs. Cataracts diagnosed in younger dogs are from genetic causes. This means that dogs can inherit cataracts as a "disease" from their parents. First, let's explain where the lens is, what it does, and what a cataract looks like when it forms in the lens.

The lens in located inside the eye and is a soft, transparent structure without blood vessels (see picture below). It changes shape when small muscles pull on the lens and thus allows the eye to focus on views both near and far away. A capsule surrounds the lens and is necessary to supply shape and nutrition for the lens, as well as providing an anchor for the small muscles. A typical change that occurs in the lenses of dogs and people when they are older is called nuclear or lenticular sclerosis. This change occurs before cataracts form and typically is seen in dogs after they are 8 to 10 years old. The eyes will look gray, silver or bluish to the owner. The silver appearing color should come from the "inside" of the eye, not the surface. The surface or cornea should still appear clear and the iris or colored part of the eye should still be clearly visible (see picture).

Genetic cataracts are diagnosed in many breeds of dogs and are initially diagnosed from 2 months up to 7 years of age. The size of the cataract, whether blindness results from the cataract and the age of first diagnosis is breed dependent. For more information on eye defects, please visit the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) website.

Hypothyroidism : Autoimmune thyroiditis is the most common cause of primary hypothyroidism in dogs. The disease has variable onset, but tends to clinically manifest itself at 2 to 5 years of age. Dogs may be clinically normal for years, only to become hypothyroid at a later date. The marker for autoimmune thyroiditis, thyroglobulin autoantibody formation, usually occurs prior to the occurrence of clinical signs. Therefore, periodic retesting is recommended.

The majority of dogs that develop autoantibodies have them by 3 to 4 years of age. Development of autoantibodies to any time in the dog life is an indication that the dog, most likely, has the genetic form of the disease. Using today's technology only a small fraction of false positive tests occur.

As a result of the variable onset of the presence of autoantibodies, periodic testing will be necessary. Dogs that are negative at 1 year of age may become positive at 6 years of age. Dogs should be tested every year or two in order to be certain they have not developed the condition. Since the majority of affected dogs will have autoantibodies by 4 years of age, annual testing for the first 4 years is recommended. After that, testing every other year should suffice. Unfortunately, a negative at any one time will not guarantee that the dog will not develop thyroiditis.

Retained testicles (cryptorchidism or sometimes called monorchidism) are frequent findings in male Belgians. Dogs with undescended testicles are at greater risk of developing testicular cancer, and should be neutered at an early age.