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Health Concerns

Every breed has health concerns that owners need to be aware.

These are the most common ones seen in Belgian Sheepdogs.

  • Stomach Cancer

  • Epilepsy

  • Hip and Elbow dysplasia

  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Anesthesia

  • Retained Testicles

  • Cataracts

Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer may not be one of the most common types of canine cancer seen in other breeds, but it can be one of the most devastating in Belgians. This cruel disease often shows no symptoms until it has already reached advanced stages and is more commonly seen in older dogs.

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. These breeds include the Akita, Belgian Sheepdog, Tervuren and Malinois, Bouvier, Irish Setter, Keeshond, Norwegian Elkhound, and the Scottish terrier.

Tufts Medical Center is doing a study on Stomach Cancer in dogs, if you know of a dog with please reach out to Tufts to help their research. See Flyer!


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 were 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 are 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 Shepherds, Keeshond, Dachshund, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever and Collie.  Idiopathic canine epilepsy may have an inherited basis in other breeds also.

Here are a few pages I recommend reading. 

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

Hip Dysplasia typically develops because of an abnormally developed hip joint but can also be caused by cartilage damage from a traumatic fracture. With cartilage damage or a hip joint that isn’t formed properly, over time the existing cartilage will lose its thickness and elasticity. This breakdown of the cartilage will eventually result in pain with any joint movement.

No one can predict when or even if a dysplastic dog will start showing clinical signs of lameness due to pain. The severity of the disease can be affected by environmental factors, such as caloric intake or level of exercise. 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 x-ray evidence that are severely lame.

Once osteoarthritis is present on a radiograph, dysplastic changes are irreversible and usually continue to progress over time. If a dysplastic dog has secondary arthritis and pain, most owners elect to first treat their dog with medical management. The key is weight control and exercise. Studies have shown that up to 76% of severely dysplastic dogs with arthritis secondary to Hip Dysplasia are able to function and live comfortable, quality lives with conservative management. With weight control, the goal is to prevent the dog from becoming overweight to reduce mechanical stresses applied to the hip joints. In general terms, the ribs should be easily palpated and there should be an indentation in front of the pelvic wings (waistline).

The OFA classifies hips into seven different categories: Excellent, Good, Fair (all within Normal limits), Borderline, and then Mild, Moderate, or Severe (the last three considered Dysplastic).

  • Excellent: Superior conformation; there is a deep-seated ball (femoral head) that fits tightly into a well-formed socket(acetabulum) with minimal joint space.

  • Good: Slightly less than superior but a well-formed congruent hip joint is visualized. The ball fits well into the socket and good coverage is present.

  • Fair: Minor irregularities; the hip joint is wider than a good hip. The ball slips slightly out of the socket. The socket may also appear slightly shallow.

  • Borderline: Not clear. Usually, more incongruency present than what occurs in a fair but there are no arthritic changes present that definitively diagnose the hip joint being dysplastic.

  • Mild: Significant subluxation present where the ball is partially out of the socket causing an increased joint space. The socket is usually shallow only partially covering the ball.

  • Moderate: The ball is barely seated into a shallow socket. There are secondary arthritic bone changes usually along the femoral neck and head (remodeling), acetabular rim changes (osteophytes or bone spurs) and various degrees of trabecular bone pattern changes.

  • Severe: Marked evidence that hip dysplasia exists. The ball is partly or completely out of a shallow socket. Significant arthritic bone changes along the femoral neck and head and acetabular rim changes.

The hip grades of excellent, good and fair are within normal limits and are given OFA numbers.

Elbow dysplasia is a general term used to identify an inherited polygenic disease in the elbow. 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 elbow dysplasia evaluations for dogs, there are no grades for a radiographically normal elbow. The only grades involved are for abnormal elbows with radiographic changes associated with secondary degenerative joint disease. Like the hip certification, the OFA will not certify a normal elbow until the dog is 2 years of age. The OFA also accepts preliminary elbow radiographs. To date, there are no long-term studies for preliminary elbow examinations like there are for hips; however, preliminary screening for elbows along with hips can also provide valuable information to the breeder.

Grade I Elbow Dysplasia: Minimal bone change along anconeal process of ulna (less than 2mm).
Grade II Elbow Dysplasia: Additional bone proliferation along anconeal process (2-5 mm) and subchondral bone changes (trochlear notch sclerosis).
Grade III Elbow Dysplasia: 
Well, developed degenerative joint disease with bone proliferation along anconeal process being greater than 5 mm.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

PRA is an inherited genetic disease. To better understand progressive retinal atrophy, one must have a basic understanding of the function of the retina. The retina is a highly specialized tissue that lines the back of the eye. The retina is analogous to film in a camera; it is responsible for integrating light into vision. Without adequate retinal function, vision is not possible. Simplified, the eye can be thought of as a light-collecting organ that focuses light rays on the retina. As light strikes the retina, a sequence of chemical reactions are initiated, propagating an electrical impulse. The impulse passes through the layers of the retina to the optic nerve and finally to the brain (visual cortex) for interpretation. The brain’s interpretation of the light signal is responsible for what we know as vision.

The retinal cells, which transform light energy to chemical energy, are known as rods and cones. Rods are responsible for black and white vision, night vision and vision for movements, whereas cone cells are used for color discrimination, vision in bright light and acute focal vision. Most domestic animals (dogs, cats, etc.) have a dominance of rods. Color vision in dogs is poor compared to people.


As the name progressive retinal atrophy (or PRA) implies, an atrophy or a degeneration of retinal tissue occurs. Progression of this disease occurs slowly, and the early signs may be overlooked in many animals. The slow loss of sight is similar to a dimming switch to reduce brightness of light in a room. If light is slowly reduced over a long period of time, our eyes adapt, and the change is not noticed until darkness occurs. A similar situation occurs in progressive retinal atrophy in animals; often the condition is not noticed until the condition is significantly progressed. Unfortunately, there is no cure available for progressive retinal atrophy. Identification of affected breeding animals is essential to prevent the spread of the condition within the breed.

Hypothyroidism (Thyroid)

With Hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland is not making enough of a hormone called thyroxine that controls metabolism (the process of turning food into fuel). Hypothyroidism causes a wide variety of symptoms but is often suspected in dogs that have trouble with weight gain or obesity and suffer from hair loss and skin problems. The good news is this disease isn’t life-threatening, it’s easy to diagnose with a blood test, and it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to treat. Treatment is typically a thyroid supplement taken daily.

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 at any time in the dog’s 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 occurs.

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.


Like many breeds that have a low fat to body weight ratio, Belgians are particularly susceptible to anesthesia. These link direct you to very important information which you will probably want to share with your veterinarian. Please feel free to print both the articles and share with any interested parties.

Retained Testicles - Cryptorchidism

Cryptorchidism is the medical term that refers to the failure of one or both testicles (testes) to descend into the scrotum. The testes develop near the kidneys within the abdomen and normally descend into the scrotum by two months of age. In certain dogs, it may occur later, but rarely after six months of age. Two major health consequences of cryptorchidism are infertility at adulthood and significantly increased risk of testicular malignancies (cancer).

Neutering is recommended to prevent future problems. Cryptorchid dogs that have both testicles removed, and no other defects, can lead a normal life.


Cataract: any opacity of the lens and/or its capsule, regardless of size or location within the lens. Cataracts are assumed to be hereditary unless associated with known trauma, ocular inflammation, specific metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. Cataracts happen in dogs both young and old.

Cataracts in their early stages have few symptoms. One of the more common signs is a change in the appearance of the eye. A healthy eye has a clear pupil, while an eye with cataracts will have a film over the pupil, giving it a cloudy, grayish blue texture.

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