The majority of Swissys that reach old age die between 8 and 10 years of age, though there is an occasional GSMD that has lived to be 14. A common saying is 3 years a young dog, 3 years a good dog, 3 years an old dog, and added time is a gift from God. The most common causes of death are GDV, Splenic Torsion, Epilepsy, and Cancer, with the incidence increasing as age increases. All in all, for a giant breed dog, although health conditions do occur, Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs are a generally healthy breed.
Two Life-Threatening Emergency Conditions
Swissy Owners MUST Know About
Bloat/Torsion/GDV (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus)
Gastric Dilation is the distension of the stomach (bloat) while Gastric Volvulus is when the stomach twists on its axis (torsion). A dog can bloat without torsion. Torsion can happen with or without spleen involvement. And, because of our issues with splenic torsion, the stomach can torsion without signs of bloat. In any case, both Bloat and Torsion are a LIFE THREATENING EMERGENCY! Time is of extreme importance and first priority with a dog demonstrating symptoms of bloat or torsion is to GET TO THE VET. Do NOT delay! For bloat or torsion, the vet’s first priority will be to stabilize the dog and deflate the stomach. Radiographs are most likely going to be taken and in the case of torsion, emergency surgery is a priority to untwist the stomach. Unfortunately, about 33% of cases corrected by surgery die, with 50% of deaths occurring the day of surgery and 25% within the next four days. In cases of GDV, death of the gastric wall tissue, rupture of the stomach, infection and sepsis are the most common causes of death after surgery.
Research suggests the primary causes of GDV are large breed size and a deep chest (which certainly fits the description of the Swissy), overeating, rapid eating, single daily meals, high water consumption, exercise after eating, processed foods with high grain or soy content, stress, genetic predisposition, delayed gastric emptying time, and increasing age.
GDV is common in the Swissy. There is no way around that fact. Because of their structural build, tendency to eat fast and drink a lot of water, there are simply some factors you cannot control. Control those that you can. Feed your Swissy two or three smaller meals as opposed to one large one. Feed a quality diet without soy and with meat as the most prominent ingredients. Limit the amount of water consumed at one time and do not exercise your dog within 30 minutes before a meal or at minimum one hour after. Socialize your puppy so they learn to handle stressful situations. The most current research indicates the common practice of elevating the food bowl actually increases the incidence of GDV by a 300% margin and is no longer recommended. Strongly consider gastropexy surgery where the stomach is attached to either a rib or the abdominal wall preventing torsion. I highly recommend every Swissy have a gastropexy performed when it is spayed or neutered.
Unfortunately, all information about splenic torsion is anecdotal and there has not been any real research to determine the causes of splenic torsion because in the general dog population, splenic torsion is extremely rare. So rare, that most veterinarians have never, and will never see a case of splenic torsion in their entire career. However, splenic torsion is NOT rare in Swissys. One clinic on the East coast that has records of 80-100 Swissys in a 7 year time span recorded over a 19% incidence of splenic torsion in the breed. During that same 7 years, no other dog of ANY other breed was presented to the clinic with splenic torsion. This very rare disease is NOT rare in Swissys. Unfortunately, because this disease is so rare in the general dog population, when you present your sick Swissy to the vet, splenic torsion will often not even cross their mind. It is up to the Swissy owner to MAKE SURE your vet listens and realizes this condition MUST be considered and to check for the problem. Splenic torsion is a LIFE THREATENING EMERGENCY. If the spleen twists away from the stomach, the spleen can actually twist 4 to 5 times. If the spleen twists towards the stomach, the stomach may be twisted along with the spleen, causing a double whammy for your dog.
So, how do you recognize splenic torsion and know to take your dog to the vet? Well, it isn’t always easy. Symptoms can be chronic (occurring over a long period of time) or symptoms can cause acute distress. In the case of chronic symptoms you can see pale mucous membranes, possible intermittent nausea and vomiting, lick fits, or basically a dog that just doesn’t act right. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but you, as the owner, know your dog just doesn’t feel good. The dog may be lethargic or he may have a stilted walk/gait, but still be alert and responsive, vibrant and goofy when examined. In the case of acute symptoms, you may see a sudden onset of collapse, urgent incessant nausea and vomiting, very pale mucous membranes, painful or rigid (though not distended) abdomen. Upon blood evaluation, a PCV of less than 30 is common (normal is 37-55). Even in this acute stage, these dogs generally walk (or bound) into the vet’s office, and though the owner is distraught, the vet sees a dog that does not present as in a crisis. This is where the owner must step in and remind the vet of our commonality of splenic torsion. With immediate treatment for shock, a blood evaluation should be done along with radiographs and/or ultrasound of the abdomen, and the vet should prepare for emergency exploratory surgery. If caught in time, dogs recover well from surgery.
I certainly don’t recommend a state of panic and an emergency trip to the vet every time your dog vomits, as all dogs vomit on occasion, but pay attention to your dog. If you are observant and practical, you will know when your dog is sick and needs to see the vet. Likewise if you have a medical situation and your vet cannot pinpoint a reason for your dog’s illness, seriously consider checking your dog’s spleen. Because we don’t know the causes, there really are no preventative measures you can take. Follow basic suggestions for preventing GDV and most of all, be observant and pay attention to your dog.
Common Swissy Issues
Urinary Incontinence (in females)
Urinary Incontinence is the involuntary leakage of urine. Leakage can vary from minor to quite severe. You may notice that the floor may be wet where the dog has been lying and she may be damp as well. She may suffer from continuous leakage or she may go days or weeks in between episodes. It may happen once a week or several times a day. Urinary Incontinence in young females is generally due to the immature development of the urinary sphincter that usually resolves as the puppy matures. Urinary Incontinence in older females is generally due to a lack of estrogen and a weak urinary sphincter. Drug therapy is the most common treatment and is normally quite effective.
It is imperative that you do not spay your female GSMD before she is a minimum of 12 months old. GSMD that are spayed at any early age seem to have a great tendency towards incontinence. It is preferable to wait until she has gone through a heat cycle. I realize that there will be some inconvenience related to letting her go through a heat cycle, but GSMD that have gone through a heat cycle seem to be much less prone to incontinence than those who have not. Many “pet” vets will try to convince you that it is in your puppy’s best interest to spay earlier. It is true that dogs that go through a heat cycle have a slightly increased risk of mammary tumors (maybe 5%). It is also true that a Swissy spayed at a young age may be as much as 40% more likely to develop incontinence. It is up to you to weigh the risk. It is not your vet who will be living with a 100 lb dog that leaks urine. The truth be known, most vets want to spay at an early age because it is much easier surgery. You need to stand your ground on this issue.
Males are not affected with the incontinence issue, but you may want to wait until your male is 12 months or older as well. Males that are neutered earlier tend towards excessive long bone growth and tend to end up slightly “bitchy” looking. Swissys are very slow maturing and waiting until a year old does not have any ill effects.
Idiopathic Epilepsy is basically the term for seizures of unknown cause. Epilepsy occurs in all breeds of dogs, purebred and mixbred alike, and Swissys are no exception. Estimated to occur in 6% of Swissys, epilepsy simply happens too often. Epilepsy is believed to have a genetic link, but there is no genetic test that allows us to test for it. Breeders diligently remove any affected dogs from their breeding programs, but unfortunately, dogs that do not show symptoms can still pass on affected genes. The first signs of epilepsy generally show up between 1 and 5 years of age and symptoms generally worsen as the dog ages. Epilepsy in Swissys can be difficult to control through medication. Every Swissy owner should be familiar with the symptoms of seizures and learn what to do if a seizure should occur. Epilepsy is characterized by seizures, but not all seizures are epilepsy. Seizures can occur in response to various triggers, even as a possible drug reaction. Any dog that seizures should be examined by a veterinarian.
“Lick Fit” is a term Swissy enthusiasts use to describe the frantic licking Swissys can be prone to. This phenomenon has been reported to hit roughly 17% of the breed. When in the middle of a Lick Fit, the dog will lick anything they can (carpet, floors, walls) and will eat anything they can find (grass, leaves, dirt, carpet) and will gulp air and swallow constantly. Their actions make it obvious they are in severe gastrointestinal discomfort. Many Swissy owners speculate as to the causes, theorizing about acid reflux or gas buildup in the stomach. Most agree that the easiest way to solve the problem is to induce vomiting with a few teaspoons of hydrogen peroxide given by mouth, followed by a slice or two of bread and a couple Gas-X capsules once the vomiting stops. Lick Fits are most common in young Swissys, but any age can be affected. Many owners are able to prevent lick fits by ensuring the dog never has an empty stomach, using more frequent, smaller meals as opposed to one large one and feeding large dog biscuits as between meal snacks.
Entropian & Distichiasis
The two most common eye issues Swissys are faced with are Entropian and Distichiasis, with non-symptomatic Distichiasis being the most common issue Swissys face. Dogs that appear to be “squinting” should be examined by a veterinarian. While there are many vets well qualified to handle both of these problems, other vets choose to refer these cases to a Veterinary Ophthalmologist. Entropian (found in about 3% of the breed) is the rolling in of the eyelids, which causes the eyelashes to irritate the eye. Entropian is a condition that most often requires surgery to fix, but once fixed causes no future issues for the dog. Entropian is not a common issue in the Swissy, but is occasionally seen. Thankfully it is simple to fix and is not an ongoing issue. Distichiasis (reported at 19% in the breed) can be nothing to worry about, or it can be a bit trickier. In the vast majority of cases, Distichiasis is non-symptomatic and never causes an issue for the dog. Distichiasis is the presence of extra eyelashes along the eyelid and should not be confused with entropian. The distichia (extra eyelashes) can be seen along the eyelid, but occasionally a magnifying lens is needed to see them. Sometimes extra eyelashes grow in such a manner that they irritate the eye. Unfortunately, symptomatic cases do require attention from a vet. Treatment will vary from vet to vet, some choosing to freeze the affected hair follicles, and others choosing to use electrocautery. Regardless of the treatment, symptomatic distichiasis can cause major eye irritation if not attended to.
Just as humans are sometimes affected by allergies, dogs can also be affected by allergies. While the majority of dogs do not have issues with allergies, dogs that are affected can be quite miserable. As people, we can be affected by just about anything, and unfortunately, so can our dogs. The most common symptoms of canine allergies are red/irritated/watery eyes, itching and scratching, and ear infections, but can also include vomiting and/or diarrhea. Ear infections are not common in Swissys and are most often caused by an underlying allergen. The best treatment for allergies is to boost the immune system as much as possible and to avoid known allergens. Feeding a high quality diet, using a conservative vaccine protocol, and keeping the dog in good physical conditioning are probably the best methods towards keeping your dog as healthy as possible.
Food Allergy/Food Intolerance
Food Allergy and Food Intolerance have also been reported in Swissys. Food allergies are true allergies and show the characteristic symptoms of itching and skin problems. Food intolerances can result in diarrhea or vomiting and do not create a typical allergic response. Food intolerances would be similar to people that get diarrhea or an upset stomach from eating spicy or fried foods. Fortunately, both food intolerances and allergies can be eliminated with a diet free from offending agents. It can be difficult to diagnose food allergy/food intolerance issues, but they should be suspected in dogs that have recurrent ear problems (particularly yeast infections), very young dog with moderate or severe skin problems, a dog that suffers from allergies year-round or if the symptoms begin in the winter, or a dog that is very itchy but does not respond to antihistamines. Unfortunately blood tests for food allergies are simply not accurate and the only way to diagnose food allergy is with an elimination diet under the supervision of your veterinarian.
Cancer can occur in any dog at any age. Thankfully, as a whole, Swissys are not commonly affected by cancer at young ages. Most often, cancer strikes a Swissy in their older years. Cancer is a common cause of death in the older dog. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) has been seen in Swissys, though is not what I would consider common. Probably the most common cancer in older Swissys is lymphosarcoma. Hereditary aspects of lymphosarcoma in the dog have not been established. A dog that seems to be not quite what he used to be or one that starts losing weight without explanation should be examined by a veterinarian. Routine blood screenings as your Swissy ages is a good idea.
Irritable Bowel Disease
The Causes of IBD are relatively unknown. IBD is a chronic, ongoing disease with symptoms including diarrhea and/or vomiting, weight loss, increased frequency of defecation with less and less volume, increased mucous in the stool with or without the presence of blood. The only definitive way to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease is through a biopsy that demonstrates increased numbers of inflammatory cells in the intestinal wall. The first step in diagnosing IBD is to rule out other possible causes under the treatment of a veterinarian. IBD can be difficult to distinguish from food allergy/intolerance. Dogs with IBD can be managed, but not cured.
Bone Issues in Swissys
Canine Hip Dysplasia
Dysplasia is the word used when describing a joint that is “malformed”. Degree from normal will vary for each case of Dysplasia. Hip Dysplasia is certainly the most well known dysplasia that we deal with in dogs. All breeds can be affected by hip dysplasia, and certainly, Swissys are no exception. Before breeding, all breeding stock should be evaluated for hip dysplasia. This is done by x-ray, and hip dysplasia cannot be detected in any other manner. Once x-rays of a dog’s hips are taken, they should be sent to an evaluator, the most commonly known evaluator being the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). OFA has a team of experts each individually evaluate the x-rays and a consensus rating is then assigned to the dog. OFA ratings are either Normal (Excellent, Good, or Fair), Borderline, or Dysplastic (Mild, Moderate, or Severe). Dogs that rate Borderline should be re x-rayed and then reevaluated at a later date. While about 18% of Swissys are affected with hip dysplasia, thankfully the vast majority of dysplastic dogs are rated as Mildly Dysplastic. Most often, a mildly dysplastic dog does not have any ongoing issues and goes through life without pain or discomfort. The biggest aid for a dysplastic dog is to keep the dog in good physical condition; being sure they get plenty of exercise and are not allowed to be overweight. Breeders focus breeding programs on dogs with Normal rated hips. Unfortunately, even Normal rated parents can produce dysplastic puppies. The odds are smaller, but it can indeed still occur. Because there are no genetic tests available (only phenotypic tests such as x-rays), we cannot detect which dogs may carry deleterious genes, we can only eliminate the dogs that appear to be abnormal, and thus we cannot completely eliminate the genes that cause the problem. Being overweight or receiving too much or not enough exercise have been demonstrated to make hip dysplasia worse. Puppies should be kept lean and well muscled (but not over exercised) through their growth periods.
Canine Elbow Dysplasia
The elbow is another joint where we see issues with dysplasia. The major issues with elbows include FCP (fragmented coronoid process), UAP (ununified anconeal process) and DJD (degenerative joint disease). The form of elbow dysplasia that affects Swissys most often is DJD, and affects the Swissy as a slow, and sometimes progressive, form of cartilage degeneration usually cause by trauma or abnormal wear on the joint. Elbow dysplasia is evaluated by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation of America) and falls into a grade system of Normal, Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade 3. The vast majority of Swissys are either rated normal or Grade 1. They have never displayed any clinical signs, have no pain, no stiffness, and are not affected by decreased range of motion and are not lame. The serious forms of elbow dysplasia, including FCP, UAP, or severe DJD can indeed cause discomfort for the dog, but thankfully we do not often see these problems. At this point in time, a genetic predisposition cannot be established for DJD, and with that, opinions vary when it comes to breeding decisions. The general consensus is to primarily breed Normal rated Swissys and breed quality individuals that rate Grade 1 to a Normal rated partner. Grade 2 or 3, or dogs rated with FCP or UAP are not bred.
OCD (Osteochondrosis Dessicans)
OCD is most common in the shoulder joint, though it does occasionally appear in other joints such as the elbow or the hock. Some say that OCD is actually the most common joint issue Swissys are faced with. The good news about OCD is that most affected dogs undergo surgery and recover 100%. OCD occurs during the fastest growth period of the puppy when the puppy tends to shoot up in height. The critical time is between 5 months and 9 months of age. OCD occurs when a piece of cartilage tears in the joint. If the tear is a small partial tear, the dog has a chance at healing itself with cage rest and very limited exercise. If the tear is complete or large, surgery is most likely going to be required. OCD has been demonstrated to be hereditary and dogs with OCD should not be used in breeding programs. The best prevention for OCD is to be cautious during the critical time (5 to 9 months) and to limit rough play, slipping on slick surfaces or jumping down from high surfaces thus causing impact, and to keep the puppy well exercised, in good muscle condition, and in good weight. Lean is always better than heavy. Caution does not mean the dog should not participate in normal everyday activities or be kept from going up or down stairs in a controlled manner.
Panosteitis (reported in roughly 5% of the breed), often called Pano, is a noninfectious degenerative disease of the bone marrow that affects young, fast growing dogs. Because it is self-limiting, meaning it resolves itself, there has not been a lot of research into the causes of Pano. The symptoms of Pano include acute symptoms of lameness which often shifts from leg to leg. Limping can be accompanied by fever, depression and loss of appetite. The illness lasts a few days, but the limping often continues for two to three weeks. After it clears in one leg, it may then develop in another. Pano generally affects puppies between 5 and 12 months old and symptoms almost always resolve themselves by the age of 2 years. Pano is painful, but generally controllable with anti-inflammatory drugs, rest and limited exercises. There are no long term affects from Pano.
Though much more common in smaller dogs, Patellar Luxation occasionally occurs in Swissys. Patellar Luxation occurs when the groove the patella (knee cap) sits in is not quite deep enough to hold the bone in place, thus causing the ligaments to pull the patella to the side of the knee, or by loose ligaments or a misalignment of the tendons in the knee. This condition is almost always hereditary. The condition is painful when the knee slips out of place. Patella luxation is simple to diagnose at any veterinarian. Most often no treatment is required, but severe cases may require surgery.