Nutrition for the German Shepherd

Nutrition for the German Shepherd

Health & Safety

The German Shepherd is a true working breed; developed over 100 years ago from the native sheepdogs of Germany. Today, his loyalty, intelligence, obedience and strength mean that he is the ideal breed to undertake a variety of different roles including police and military work, search and rescue, Schutzhund, working trials, agility, guide dog, guard dog and of course, the work for which he was originally bred – herding. There is little, if anything that is beyond the German Shepherd’s capability. Providing he has sufficient exercise, company and stimulation he will be equally happy in a family pet role.

Having developed from natural working strains, the German Shepherd is typically strong, agile and enduring. He may however suffer from certain hereditary conditions that require special care and attention. His digestive tract is vulnerable, and the Shepherd is unfortunate in that he is genetically predisposed to bloat and maldigestion. He is also at risk of developmental disease such as panosteitis, conditions of the joints such as hip and elbow dysplasia, and the debilitating disease of the nervous system - chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy (CDRM). All of these conditions may not be preventable by sensible and appropriate feeding, but their incidence may be reduced or symptoms alleviated by the provision of optimal nutrition.

General Nutrition Overview

Any working dog will benefit from nutrients that help to support the additional stresses imposed on his bodily systems. The immune, cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal systems are under particular stress during any period of prolonged physical exertion. Mental health too should not be overlooked, and the nervous system may also benefit from nutritional support to help to promote alertness and improve concentration levels. Schutzhund for example, requires extreme mental alertness due to the intensity of accuracy required. When the body is under stress, this can manifest in gut problems. Shepherds may be prone to bouts of colitis (an inflamed common resulting in loose stools with blood and / or mucous present), and there are numerous possible causes. These may include bacterial infection, food allergy/inotlerance and maldigestion, but stress alone may be the primary cause in some cases. It can also exacerbate the condition if other underlying factors are responsible.

All dogs require a balanced diet that provides sufficient energy for the work undertaken. Naturally, an endurance dog will require calories far in excess of those utilised by a family pet. For peak performance, the diet must not only provide the fuel for energy (fat, and to a lesser degree carbohydrate), but optimal levels of the essential nutrients that the body requires to function efficiently. One of the most important is protein. In the past, many people have advocated low protein diets in the mistaken belief that high protein diets may cause hyperactivity. In actual fact, protein is only used as an energy source if there is insufficient fat or carbohydrate available in the diet. Furthermore, if protein is dramatically reduced then one of the other nutrients needs to be increased in order to compensate for the loss. In commercial complete diets this is usually the carbohydrate content. As largely carnivorous animals, the dog thrives on a meat or fish-based diet with sensible levels of protein and fat and moderate levels of carbohydrate.

Protein from animal sources (e.g. poultry, fish and egg) all have a very high biological value. This means that they are easily broken down into the amino acids that are necessary for the structural and functional demands of the body. Oil from named meat, fish and vegetable sources are far superior to unspecified blends. If you feed commercial pet food, look for diets with a good ratio of Omega 3 to 6 fatty acids. These essential fats have numerous benefits; with the Omega 3s being especially beneficial because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Fibre is also an important nutrient, and beet pulp is a good source for German Shepherds as it comprises both fermentable and non-fermentable fractions. Moisture, vitamins and minerals are of course, also imperative components of the canine diet.

Many complete pet foods also now contain health promoting botanicals and natural supplements. Their efficacy is negligible unless they are present in sufficient volume to actively play the part that is purported. When choosing a suitable diet for your Shepherd, not only is it wise to select one with an appropriate protein source and volume, digestible fat source and adequate fibre, it is also sensible to establish the levels of any supplementary ingredients. Feeds that include essential fatty acids, chelated minerals and antioxidant vitamins, again in sufficient volume, are also beneficial.

The following sections discuss briefly several conditions that may affect the German Shepherd, and ways in which nutrition may help.

Bloat / Volvulus Syndrome

Bloat is a very real concern to all German Shepherd owners. Bloat is a true canine emergency and immediate veterinary intervention is required should this be suspected. The abdomen fills with gas, and if untreated can result in gastric torsion (a twisted gut). The breed is regrettably prone to this condition given his size, deep-chested build and sensitive digestion. The sad fact of the matter is that even when one takes all reasonable precautions, this awful and often fatal condition may still arise. There are however a number of preventative measures that may help to reduce its likelihood including : -

  • Feed little and often – avoiding large meals may help to reduce gas build-up; choosing an energy dense feed means that portions will be smaller
  • Slow down the rate of feeding – anti gulp bowls are a very good investment; alternatively a large ball or Kong secured in the centre of the feed bowl may help
  • Avoid strenuous exercise before and after a meal (some schools of thought now do advocate a light walk on the lead to help to dispel gas after a meal)
  • Take care not to soak feed for prolonged periods (especially in hot weather) as the grain ingredients may ferment
  • Feed dry foods lightly soaked or with added water to help to prevent the natural thirst that occurs after a dry meal; good quality pet foods are designed to not swell up in the stomach, but cheaper varieties with high levels of cereals are best avoided as a precautionary measure
  • Choose a commercial complete feed with added prebiotics; probiotics are largely denatured by the cooking process so a supplement may be wise
  • Ensure that adequate fibre is present in the diet with proportions of both fermentable and non-fermentable fractions; this may help to ease the transit of food through the digestive tract as well as provide a good source of nutrients for the friendly bowel flora

Maldigestion / Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is not uncommon in the German Shepherd (in fact two thirds of the cases reported in the UK are GSDs), and the disease is reported to be heritable in an autosomal recessive manner. EPI is a disease of the digestive system characterised by a progressive loss of the pancreatic cells that normally produce the powerful enzymes required for the initial degradation of food in the small intestine. As fewer digestive enzymes are produced, maldigestion and malabsorption result. Secondary gut damage is a frequent occurrence due to a predisposition to the development of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which has an additional negative effect on intestinal function.

EPI is most common in young adult dogs between 1 and 5 years of age. Symptoms may include pica (a ravenous or depraved appetite), weight loss and steatorrhoea (loose stools containing fat). The stools are typically voluminous, poorly formed and greasy-looking. They may appear yellowish in colour. Skin and coat condition may also suffer. The condition is diagnosed by a blood test (the TLI test) that measures the amount of a pancreatic digestive enzyme (trypsinogen) in the blood stream. Faecal analysis; although far less reliable in establishing a diagnosis of EPI, may also be helpful in determining whether the bowel flora has become deranged secondary to the condition.

Fortunately, EPI can be managed successfully by supplementing each meal with pancreatic enzymes. Pre-prepared powdered porcine pancreatic extract is effective, but some owners will obtain pigs’ pancreas from the butchers’ to add to meals – although this is not for the faint hearted! This nutritionally responsive disease requires a very highly digestible diet containing a low to moderate level of fat.

Although it is primarily fat absorption that is affected with EPI, carbohydrate digestion can also be compromised. For this reason, although a “light” diet may be the initial first choice, do bear in mind that the high carbohydrate component that is typical of such recipes may not provide the best nutritional balance for every dog with this condition. Another important factor to bear in mind is that dogs eat grams and not percentages. The fat percentage in the diet will only determine its level in comparison to the other ingredients in the food. Low fat diets typically have higher daily feeding recommendations, so it is possible that the actual amount of fat ingested may not be very much less than anticipated. Most digestive conditions respond better to small meals, so a slightly more moderate fat level may be a better compromise. Much does depend on the individual animal, and a veterinary prescription diet might be recommended whilst the initial therapy is undertaken. Please do always consult your vet for advice concerning nutritional management.

Vitamin B12 deficiency may arise as a result of EPI and therefore supplementation may be necessary. A blood test can determine whether this is required. Additional treatment, such as antibiotics for bacterial overgrowth followed by pre/probiotics may also be a part of the initial therapy.

With adequate treatment, the outlook for dogs with EPI is usually good, but life-long nutritional management will be necessary.


Panosteitis is also known as enostosis or simply “growing pains”. It is a disease characterised by the production of scar tissue in the interior of bone and the production of new bone within the marrow cavity. The ulna, humorous, radius, tibia and fibula are the bones that are usually affected. The causes are thought to be multifactorial, and may include viral origin, genetic predisposition and over-nutrition. Larger breeds are affected, and the German Shepherd is at particular risk.

The disease is often episodic and is most frequently identified in German Shepherds aged 6-10 months. Some rare cases have been reported in older animals. Visual clinical signs may persist for several months, but the good news is that with appropriate rest, therapy and good dietary management, symptoms are usually absent by the time skeletal development is complete. An acute onset of lameness is frequently the first sign of panosteitis, and whilst the forelimbs are more commonly involved, the hind limbs too can be affected. The lameness may also shift from limb to limb. The dog may also suffer from other symptoms associated with pain, including inappetance, a high temperature and apathy.

Radiography is necessary to confirm diagnosis. Treatment comprises supportive therapy; restricted exercise, good dietary management (it is imperative to avoid over-nutrition and not provide calories in excess of the dog’s nutritional requirement) and analgesic drugs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories).

Excessive calcium intake can retard bone remodelling so it is essential to ensure that your chosen diet contains the correct level, at the appropriate ratio against phosphorous (and vitamin A and vitamin).

Some commercial complete pet foods include supplementary joint care such as glucosamine, chondroitin and essential fatty acids.


Stress is not a disease per se, but the adverse effects it can have on both human and canine health are often under-estimated. The German Shepherd is particularly subject to stress because he relies heavily on human interaction, constantly likes to please, and is a hard worker. This applies in all walks of his busy life, from the unquestionable demands in sport such as Schutzhund to his desire to protect and be a loyal companion in the family pet household.

When the body is under stress, free radicals are released. These are potentially harmful and may be involved in cancerous growth in predisposed animals. Without doubt, a busy German Shepherd is a happy one, and it is only when a dog becomes bored that he becomes frustrated and destructive. Ensuring that your Shepherd leads a full and active life will go a long way in promoting good health and longevity.

There are a number of ways in which appropriate feeding can assist in promoting good German Shepherd health. The timing and frequency of feeding is important. This ensures that your dog has sufficient energy at times when he needs it. Small frequent feeds are ideal for many, since this avoids blood sugar peaks and troughs, and has a subsequent beneficial effect on serotonin (the happy hormone) levels. Obviously you must be very careful not to exercise him too near to a mealtime because of the bloat risk however.

Antioxidants, if present in the diet in sufficient volume, may help to combat the potentially harmful effects of free radicals. Botanical extracts are a good source since they are a concentrated form of the original plant. If feeding commercial food, look for recipes that include rosemary, yucca and cranberry - they all have powerful natural antioxidant effects. Other potentially beneficial plant extracts include green tea, grape seed extract and quercitin.

The working dog may also benefit from added L-carnitine, nucleotides, pre/probiotics, taurine and joint supplements. Again, if present in sufficient volume, their benefits to the canine anatomy and physiology are great. The more help that can be given through safe, natural nutritional supplementation the better equipped he will be to withstand the stresses of work, be it light exercise or physical endurance where peak performance is a must.


There are many different methods of feeding, with commercial complete diets being the most popular due to their convenience and economy. The traditional wet food and mixer option is still preferred by many, whilst others feed raw or home-cooked diets. There are no hard and fast rules as to what is the best method, just as it is impossible to state that one particular brand of food is better over another. It is an absolute must, however to ensure that only the highest quality ingredients are incorporated into the German Shepherd’s diet, and that these are highly digestible in order for them to be easily utilised by the dog. This is because every German Shepherd is an individual, with his own unique digestion and rate of metabolism. What is the best diet for one animal may be completely inappropriate for another. What is important, is to observe your dog and establish what kind of food suits him through close monitoring of his weight, stool production, general bodily condition, skin and coat condition, overall demeanour, activity level and of course – his appetite.

Please note that German Shepherds can also suffer from other conditions, nutritionally responsive or otherwise. If you are worried about any aspect of your dog’s health – please do seek veterinary help first and foremost.



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