The Dobermann’s health is usually pretty good, but work needs to be done to extend the average life expectancy, which is around 9 years (although some live happily and healthily to 13 or even beyond). There are three major genetic health problems: von Willebrand’s disease (vWD), dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and hypothyroidism.
vWD is a bleeding disease found in several breeds, including Dobermanns. Dogs can be clear, carriers, or affected. Very careful thought should be given to using an affected dog as a stud but, with a small gene pool, if the stud dog is from a line with excellent longevity and health, then this may be a good dog to use, provided the bitch is clear of vWD. The pups will then all be clear or carriers. Carriers should only be mated with clear dogs. You can check a dobe’s vWD status (if it has been tested) by going to the Kennel Club’s records. If both parents are clear, the puppies will be hereditarily clear and will not show on these lists. Never buy a puppy if you do not know its vWD status.
DCM is a heart condition, more common in large breeds like the dobermann, where the wall of the left ventricle of the heart (the main pumping chamber) fails to pump normally, and so it stretches and thins. As the disease progresses, pressures build up in the heart, and then can dam back into the lungs. If the lungs fill with fluid, this is called congestive heart failure (CHF). The enlarged heart and the fluid in the lungs together lead to shortness of breath and coughing, which progresses to severe breathing difficulties. The right side of the heart can also be affected, and if this fails, the abdomen becomes distended with fluid that has leaked out of the congested liver.
The abnormal heart muscle can also have abnormal electrical activity, leading to irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia). These irregular beats are usually from the main pumping chambers of the heart, the ventricles, and are called ventricular premature complexes (VPCs). If there are fast runs of abnormal complexes, this is called ventricular tachycardia (VT), which can lead to fainting or even, if the heart rhythm degenerates further, to sudden death. Some dobermanns show the arrhythmias even before the heart itself is dilated.
One genetic marker has been identified in the USA, but research on UK and German dobes showed no significant link with that gene. There is therapy to help manage DCM and extend the dog’s healthy life if it is diagnosed in time. Dogs can be tested for the presence of signs of DCM and should certainly be tested before being mated. The test only checks for the presence currently; it cannot predict whether the dog will develop the disease later and so retesting is needed from time to time on breeding stock. Always ask the DCM status of the parents before buying a puppy. The current gold standard tests are echocardiography (ultrasound of the heart) and 24 hour Holter monitor (testing for abnormal rhythms). There is research being carried out to assess the value of using simple blood tests for High-sensitivity Troponin I and NT-pro-BNP, which are much cheaper and easier to carry out and this looks promising. As regards treatment, a clinical trial has been carried out that demonstrates that a drug called pimobendan (brand name Vetmedin), previously used to treat symptoms of DCM, can be used before there are symptoms to reduce heart size and delay onset of heart failure or sudden death by an average of nine months. This reinforces the value of testing to pick up hidden or ‘occult’ DCM as early as possible.
Hypothyroidism is fairly common in dobes (as it is in humans). It is not life-threatening and can be managed with drugs. My article on Hypothyroidism in Dobermanns was first published in Dog World in June 2009.
Pyometra & Mammary Tumours
Pyometra and mammary tumours are a real problem in bitches and dobermanns seem to be at high risk. Pyometra is a uterine infection of unspayed bitches. It can occur at any age, although it is more prevalent in older bitches. The risk time is the 8 weeks after season. With open pyometra, the cervix is still open. The most obvious symptom will be a pus discharge. In closed pyometra, the cervix is closed and the pus is likely to escape into the body, possibly causing peritonitis. In both cases, the bitch may experience vomiting, loss of appetite, depression, and increased drinking and urinating. In serious cases, septic shock can occur. Treatment is usually by intravenous fluids and antibiotics and often an emergency spay. Mammary tumours are more prevalent in unspayed dogs and about half are cancerous. Treatment is usually by surgery. Some research has shown that spaying after diagnosis has a beneficial effect, but other research contradicts this.