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Hereditary Dog Defects

Dogs have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to give us all the weird and wonderful breeds we have today. Unfortunately this selective breeding has produced some defects that get passed down through the generations. Below are the most common hereditary diseases.

Breathing Problems

Difficulty in breathing is usually associated with Brachycephalic breeds (Squashed face dogs). Due to the shortened airways of these breeds and also smaller nostrils these dogs can have difficulty breathing, especially in hot weather.

Symptoms - You will notice loud breathing, snoring, and sometimes shortness of breath. In severe cases your dog will breathe through his mouth and can have nasal discharge.

Diagnosis And Treatment - If the breathing is causing a lot of stress and discomfort to your dog, it may be necessary to have the nostrils widened. Breeds Typically Affected: Boston Terrier, Bulldog, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chow Chow, Pekingese, Pug, Shih Tzu.

Breeds Chow chow serious face
The Chow chow is one of the breeds prone to breathing problems


Cataracts are when the lens of your dog’s eye becomes cloudy or gray. This is due to the breakdown of the proteins that make up the lens. When a cataract is fully formed it can result in a white, crystalline lens. It can significantly reduce your dog's sight and can lead to blindness. Cataracts can be mistaken for Nuclear Sclerosis which is a common condition is older dogs and causes the graying of both eyes, however this condition does not affect the vision. Cataracts are hereditary but can also result from other diseases such as diabetes. Hereditary cataracts occur in over 80 breeds.

Symptoms - You will notice a cloudy appearance in your dog's eye. This can be white, bluish-gray or yellow in color and may or may not cover the whole lens.

Diagnosis And Treatment - Your vet will carry out a ophthalmoscopic examination to determine whether your dog has cataracts. If the cataracts are causing blindness, surgery is used to remove the lens and an artificial lens is put in place. The procedure is quite complicated and not all dogs are good surgical candidates (older dogs tend not to cope well with surgery). However, cataract surgery is becoming more and more common.

Breeds Typically Affected: Afghan Hound, Boston Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Miniature Schnauzer, Old English Sheepdog, Siberian Husky, Welsh Springer Spaniel, West Highland Terrier.

Breeds Miniature Schnauzer
The Miniature Schnauzer is one of the breeds susceptible to cataracts

Chronic Hip Dysplasia

Dog hip dysplasia is when the ball and socket hip joint is misaligned or loose. This then causes the heads of the two hip bones (i.e ‘the ball’ part of the joint) to move and the cartilage wears down. It can occur in both or just one of the hip joints. Hip dysplasia can be caused by a number of genetic and environmental (diet, weight, activity levels) factors. Hip dysplasia is more common in fast-growing large breeds. Early onset hip dysplasia can develop at around 4 months of age. Later onset hip dysplasia can result from arthritis of the hip joint.

Symptoms - Typically your once active dog will become relatively inactive, and will be reluctant to run, jump, or climb stairs. You may notice them using swaying or bunny hopping movements to get around. Hip dysplasia will cause your dog considerable hip pain, and can cause intermittent hind limb lameness. You may also notice your dog standing with a narrow stance, as well as the shoulders becoming more muscular as your dog places more weight on their front legs.

Diagnosis And Treatment - If you notice any of the above symptoms book an appointment with your vet. Your dog will be x-rayed to diagnose and grade the severity of the hip dysplasia. In mild cases the treatment consists of keeping your dog's weight down and using moderate exercise as well as using anti-inflammatory drugs to control the pain. In severe cases surgical procedures (hip replacements) will be used.

Breeds Typically Affected: American Cocker Spaniel, Beagle, Bernese Mountain Dog, Boston Terrier, Bulldog, Dachshund, German Shepherd Dog, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Newfoundland, Rottweiler, Saint Bernard, Shih Tzu.

Breeds St Bernard family outdoors
The Saint Bernard is one of the pedigree breeds in danger of developing hip dysplasia

Congenital Deafness

Congenital deafness is when dogs are born deaf or develop deafness within a couple of weeks of being born. This deafness is associated with predominantly white-colored dogs. It is linked with two types of gene (the merle or piebald gene). Because of this, some breeds are more prone to deafness than others.

Symptoms - Dog appears unresponsive, even stupid, until the disorder is recognized.

Diagnosis And Treatment - You can do a simple test to gauge your dog's hearing. If you stand behind your dog and clap and watch the reaction you should be able to work out if there's anything wrong with their hearing. A dog with good hearing will turn directly to the source of the sound. A dog with partial hearing will look for the source but not be able to work out its location. A dog with complete deafness will not respond.

A vet can carry out a BAER test to to ascertain whether your dog is clinically deaf. There are hearing aids that have been developed for dogs; however, many dogs find these irritating. Deaf dogs can still lead a perfectly happy life, as they can rely on other senses. One method in dealing with deafness is by having a hearing companion, so that your deaf dog can gauge what is happening by watching the reactions and body language of his hearing buddy.

Breeds Typically Affected: American Foxhound, Australian Shepherd Dog, Border Collie, Boxer, Bull Terrier, Dachshund, Dalmatian, English Foxhound, English Setter, Great Dane, Old English Sheepdog, Scottish Terrier, Shetland Sheepdog.

Breeds Australian Shepherd with harness
The Australian Shepherd is prone to deafness in later life


Distichiasis is a condition that causes eyelashes to grow in an abnormal direction or location on the eyelid. A double row of eyelashes can form and be very irritating for your dog. They are usually found on both eyes on the upper and lower lids but it is more common on the upper lid.

Symptoms - In some cases the extra eyelashes will not cause problems for your dog. However, if they are causing an irritation you will notice redness, watering of the eyes, and squinting or increased blinking.

Diagnosis And Treatment - An examination by the vet will lead to a diagnosis. If the case is fairly mild, eyedrops that lubricate the cornea and offending eyelashes are used to protect the eye from irritation. If it is a severe case and the distichiasis is causing ulcers on the cornea they may need to be surgically removed.

Breeds Typically Affected: American Cocker Spaniel, Bedlington Terrier, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Bulldog, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Dachshund, Golden Retriever, Brussels Griffon, Kerry Blue Terrier, Lakeland Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Pug, Shih Tzu, Shetland Sheepdog, Yorkshire Terrier.

Breeds Shi Tzu hypoallergenic
The Shi Tzu is one of the dogs that sometimes develops the eye problem Distichiasis


Ectropion is when the lower lid of the eye turns outward making it look droopy. This exposes the the pink tissue that lines the lower eyelid (conjunctiva), making your dog more susceptible to eye infections. It can also cause inflammation of the conjunctiva and cornea with increased tear production.

Symptoms - You will be able to visibly notice protrusion of the lower eyelids, as well as staining on the face from increased tear production.

Diagnosis And Treatment - It should be fairly obvious if your dog suffers from this condition. If it is only mild, which is fairly common, especially in older dogs, it is advisable to keep your dog’s eyes clean using cotton wool dipped in tepid mild saltwater. Severe cases of ectropion will need surgical correction.

Breeds Typically Affected: all types of spaniel, Bloodhounds, Basset hounds, heavyweight Giant breeds, or dogs with excess facial skin.

Breeds Basset Hound pair in water
Basset Hounds are very prone to the eye condition Ectropion


Epilepsy is a brain disorder that results in seizures. Seizures can vary in length and your dog may or may not become unconscious during a seizure. Epilepsy in dogs can be genetic and usually manifests between the ages of ten months and three years.

Symptoms - Seizures can be varied in severity and length. During a severe seizure (known as ‘grand mal’) your dog's behavior will change. For example they may seek comfort, become restless, anxious, try to hide, as well as whimper and cry. He will then collapse and lose consciousness followed by rhythmic jerking or paddling of the legs, urinating, defecating, and salivating. This stage can last anywhere from seconds to minutes. When your dog’s consciousness returns he may be confused and dazed. Milder seizures (known as ‘petit mal’) can be harder to notice. A mild seizure can manifest as facial twitches, snapping or biting at the air as if trying to catch a fly, excessive pawing/digging or biting of a body part.

Diagnosis And Treatment - There is no specific test for epilepsy. Your vet will instead try to rule out other causes for the seizures. This will involve taking a medical history, blood tests, and carrying out a Electroencephalography (EEG). Treatment for epilepsy only begins when seizures become frequent and a pattern emerges. Treatment usually comes in the form of an oral pill, there are different types that your vet may try. During the first few weeks of treatment a side effect can be sleepiness, but this should wear off.

Breeds Typically Affected: Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, Border Collie, Dachshund, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Irish Setter, Keeshond, Labrador Retriever, Miniature Poodle, Saint Bernard, Springer Spaniel, Siberian Husky, Wire-haired Fox Terrier.

Breeds Red Setter on grass running tongue out
The Irish or Red Setter is one of several breeds that may develop epilepsy

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IDD)

The intervertebral disc is a cushioning ‘pad’ of cartilage that sits between your dog's vertebrae in their spine. In the middle of the discs is a gel like-substance that helps to absorb shock along the spine. IDD is the degeneration of the discs whereby they either bulge or burst. This then places pressure on the overlying nerves causing nerve damage, pain and discomfort to your dog. This can occur along the whole spine from the neck to the tail. Type 1 IDD is when the disc bursts (herniation) and is common in breeds that are genetically predisposed to this condition. Type 2 is the degeneration of the discs over time whereby there is a gradual protrusion of the disc. Type 2 is more common in older dogs. Smaller breeds of dog which have been selectively bred for dwarfism (chondrodystrophic dogs) are genetically prone to this condition, however it can occur in larger breeds as the dog ages.

Symptoms - You will notice an unwillingness to jump, use stairs. Your dog will become less active and may cry out in pain. If the condition has affected your dog's neck he will be unwilling to move his head and you may notice he will just move his eyes to look at you rather than his whole head. Your dog may have an arched or hunched back. If it has affected the lower region of the spine, your dog may lose control of his bladder.

Diagnosis And Treatment - Your vet will carry out a full neurological examination which can involve a Myelogram or MRI scan. These scans will allow the vet to workout where the offending disc is in your dog's spine. If your dog is suffering from a mild case of IDD treatment will include the use of steroidal and anti-inflammatory drugs as well as crate rest for up to 6 weeks. In severe cases your dog may require emergency surgery to relieve pressure on the spine at the site of the disc abnormality.

Breeds Typically Affected: American Cocker Spaniel, Beagle, Boxer, Dachshund, Dandie Dinmont Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Shih Tzu.

Breeds Lhasa Apso three dogs on lawn
The Lhasa Apso sometimes develops Intervertebral Disc Disease

Luxating Patella

Luxating Patella is when your dog's kneecap is dislocated and moves out of it's natural position during extension of the leg. It can cause a lot of discomfort to your dog and can result in lameness. This condition is more common with smaller breeds of dogs, but can also sometimes affect larger breeds.

Symptoms - You may not notice any signs of change in your dog with mild luxating patella as it may not cause any pain or discomfort. With more severe cases you will notice your dog picking up his leg and skipping when walking. At first this may be intermittent but can become fairly frequent.

Diagnosis And Treatment - Your vet will be able to diagnose Luxating Patella by examination. They will grade the severity of the condition. Grade 1 is when the kneecap pops out (either manually or by itself) but pops back in by itself. Grade 2 describes a kneecap that pops out and sometimes needs to be popped back in manually, as it doesn’t always pop back in by itself. Grade 3 is when the kneecap permanently sits outside its natural position and when manually put back in position, only stays there temporarily. Grade 4 describes a kneecap that is permanently in an unnatural position and will not stay in position when manually popped back. Grade 1 cases don’t tend to cause an issue and don’t require surgery, however you may like to use anti-inflammatory supplements that your vet can recommend. For grades 2 and above surgical correction is usually required to manage the pain.

Breeds Typically Affected: Akita, Bichon Frise, Boston Terrier, Chihuahua, Shar Pei, Flat-Coated Retrievers, Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Pomeranian, Miniature Poodle, Yorkshire Terrier.

Breeds Yorkshire Terrier with ball
The Yorkshire Terrier may develop the knee joint problem Luxating Patella

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

Progressive Retinal Atrophy is the progressive degeneration of the retina (the area of the eye that detects light) cells. The retinal cells start to die and the blood vessels near the retina shrivel. As its name suggest, this disease is progressive and ultimately blindness will result. The time span may extend from months to years. It appears to be an inherited condition; different forms of PRA are believed to be inherited in different ways, so it can be either a dominant or recessive.

Symptoms - You will first notice that your dog will struggle to see in the dark and is less confident when trying to jump off things or walk down the stairs. His eyes may be dilated and have increased shine or glow to them.

Diagnosis And Treatment - A vet will look at your dog's eye using an ophthalmoscope to view the retina. Unfortunately there is no treatment for this disease. However, preventing PRA in dogs can be done by ensuring breeding individuals are free from signs of the condition.

Breeds that are typically affected in the first two years of life: Akita, Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Border Colllie, Dachshund, Gordon Setter, Irish Setter, Miniature Schnauzer, Norwegian Elkhound, Tibetan Terrier.

Breeds that can be affected later in life: Cocker Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever.

A Border Collie with two different coloured eyes
The Border Collie is susceptible to both Progressive Retinal Atrophy and Umbilical Hernia

Umbilical Hernia

An umbilical hernia in your dog is caused when there is a weakness in the muscle wall at the umbilicus or belly button resulting in swelling. A complicated hernia is when the abdominal contents, such as the intestine, protrude out and has become trapped. An uncomplicated hernia is when there is a soft swelling around the umbilical area. Umbilical hernias tend to be more common in puppies, but can occur at any stage of your dog's life.

Symptoms - You will see a noticeable swelling around the lower belly area. Your dog may also lose his appetite and experience vomiting.

Diagnosis And Treatment - If you notice any of the above symptoms a trip to the vets will be in order. Your vet will examine your dog and will be able to determine if the swelling is an umbilical hernia. With complicated hernias your dog will have to be operated on to remove the hernia. Small uncomplicated hernias should heal by themselves.

Breeds Typically Affected: Airedale Terrier, Basenji, Bull Terrier, Border Collie, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Pointer, Shih Tzu, Weimaraner, Yorkshire Terrier.

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