Health & Genetics

English Shepherds are typically healthy dogs.  Good health and longevity depend on breeders selecting for these qualities and on owners providing the care necessary to maintain good health.  Thankfully, there are guidelines to follow for both of these things.

Genetics ~ Breeding

Breeders can optimize the health of their puppies by selecting dogs for breeding that have:

  • Demonstrated functional fitness
  • Healthy and long-lived relatives
  • Normal medical and genetic screening tests

Doing these things and avoiding excessive inbreeding will minimize the risk of future problems.

Environment ~ Care & Feeding

Environmental factors play an important role in maintaining health.  The key areas that owners can control include:

  • Diet and exercise
  • Preventive care such as shots, flea/tick/heartworm preventives
  • Protection from specific hazards and toxins

With their basic needs met, many English Shepherds remain healthy and active well into their teens.

Frequently Asked Questions

What health problems are common?

Hip dysplasia occurs in English Shepherds. Breeders can address this problem by screening their dogs with hip x-rays; you often can not identify hip dysplasia simply by watching a dog move.

Keeping your dog lean and fit throughout life can greatly reduce the signs and symptoms associated with hip dysplasia. Attention to the surfaces your dog lives and exercises on can help limit the development of arthritis as well; slick surfaces, such as slippery concrete or laminate floors, can stress joints and result in damage to joints.

English Shepherds are also known to carry a genetic mutation that results in sensitivity to some medications. The mutation is called “MDR-1 mutation“. Dogs can be tested for this mutation (DNA test) and dogs with either one or two copies of the mutant gene should avoid taking certain medications. Check with your vet for more information.

Finally, there are certain genetic eye diseases that are common in herding breeds. The genetic mutations responsible for Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA) and Progressive Retinal Atrophy-rod cone degeneration (PRA-prcd) are known to occur in English Shepherds so breeders are wise to screen their breeding dogs.

These (MDR-1, CEA, and PRA-prcd) are not the only disease-causing genes to occur in English Shepherds but they are ones that have been identified and for which a test is available. In general, breeders can minimize the expression of genetic disease by cultivating a breed population that is sufficiently large and diverse to allow breeders to select for health and performance without resorting to close inbreeding. The level of inbreeding (referred to as the coefficient of inbreeding, “COI”) in any particular litter can provide an index for assessing the relative risk of genetic disease.



What screening tests should breeders do?
(1) Functional Testing

Dogs prove their soundness and resilience by their performance over time.  Breeders should evaluate dogs prior to breeding by looking at functional factors such as stamina, athleticism & ease of movement, heat/ cold tolerance, and environmental sensitivity (how well the dog copes with noises, crowds, travel, new experiences).  Compiling observations of these things takes time ~ be wary of breeders who habitually breed young dogs.  Ideally, breeding dogs should be at least 2 1/2 – 3 years of age, and in the case of stud dogs older is better.

(2) Pedigree Research

The health and character of ancestors provides a roadmap of what to expect from a breeding.  Relevant factors include the health history & longevity of ancestors, temperament & working traits, and the degree of inbreeding present in both ancestors and the proposed cross.  Breeders should pay attention to both the virtues and the problems possessed by ancestors.  The goal when choosing matches is to choose dogs that possess the traits desired and that do not “double up” on problems by having the SAME problem present in both the sire & dam’s backgrounds.

In addition to looking for health and behavior traits, breeders should be monitoring the degree of inbreeding in their matches.  Excessive inbreeding is associated with reduced health and longevity.

(3) Medical & Genetic Testing

Hip x-rays evaluated by either OFA or PennHIP.  In general, breeding dogs should have normal hip conformation and no more than a moderate degree of joint laxity (looseness).  Normal conformation is indicated by OFA ratings of fair/ good/ excellent and PennHIP evaluation of “no degenerative joint disease”.  Joint laxity is measured by PennHIP via the “distraction index” (DI).

Distraction Index (DI) is measured on a scale as follows:  DI < 0.3 indicates low risk, DI between 0.3 – 0.7 indicates moderate risk, and DI > 0.7 indicates high risk of developing arthritis in the hip.

Genetic testing that includes MDR-1, CEA, PRA-prcd, DM, CDDY, DCM, HUU, and calculation of Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI).  Some dogs are “clear by pedigree” for the genetic variants listed here, meaning neither of their parents carried a mutant form of the gene.  When that is the case, the dog is “clear by pedigree” and does not need to be tested.


What is the average lifespan?

The average longevity for my personal dogs is 15 1/2 years.  In general, it is not uncommon for English Shepherds to live 14 years or more with few veterinary expenses other than routine exams and immunizations.

That said, it is very hard to extrapolate from personal experience to averages for the breed as a whole.  One online health survey several years ago found the average lifespan reported to be closer to 11 – 12 years.

How much grooming is required?

English Shepherds have a double coat with a long outer coat and a downy undercoat.  The outer coat generally has a smooth texture and sheds dirt & mud easily, so minimal bathing or grooming is required to maintain cleanliness.  The undercoat provides insulation and sheds seasonally (once or twice per year).  When the undercoat is shedding, your dog will benefit from daily brushing with a rake for a week or two, to help remove the hair.  It is fair to say that this seasonal shed can be quite dramatic — you may rake out a bag full of fluff from your dog.  In between these sheds, most ES do not shed a great deal.

English Shepherd coats do not typically have a musky “doggy” odor.  The coat is generally silky in texture and easy to maintain.

One important consideration when spaying or neutering your dog is that removing normal hormones can change coat quality — many dogs develop a “spay (or neuter)” coat, which is heavier and more cottony in texture (prone to mats) than a normal coat.  These changes can be managed by regular brushing and trimming to prevent mats.

What are their diet and exercise needs?

English Shepherds need regular, vigorous exercise to stay healthy mentally and physically. Putting a dog outside, in the yard by itself, is not enough exercise. They need exercise where there is social interaction — working, playing, walking with their owner or other dogs; long, daily walks, with frequent (at least 4 times weekly) trips to areas where they can safely free run.

The amount of food a dog needs is directly related to the amount and intensity of their daily exercise.  Most English Shepherds are “easy keepers” – they tend to maintain their weight easily, without special diets or supplements.  In fact, many English Shepherds gain weight almost too easily: being overweight is the number one risk to most dogs’ health.  It is critical that you monitor your dog’s body condition and keep them lean.  Doing so will add years of good health to your dog’s life.

What environmental hazards are significant?

Motor vehicles

Vehicles on the road, farm, and entering/exiting driveways pose a danger to loose dogs.  Herding dogs, until taught otherwise, may want to control moving vehicles;  in addition, dogs may fail to yield to vehicles when alerting to or chasing off wildlife intruders from your property.  Delivery trucks and cars entering or exiting your driveway are also a hazard as English Shepherds may alert to visitors or try to block access to your home, with tragic consequences if a driver does not see your dog.

Common toxins & poisons

Common household items that are toxic to dogs include chemicals (pesticides, antifreeze, rodenticides*), certain plants, and some food items.  In particular, xylitol is an artificial sweetener commonly found in sugarfree foods (gum, breath mints, etc) but also, increasingly, xylitol has been cropping up in unexpected places — like peanut butter, toothpaste, and lotions.  Always check labels before sharing processed foods with dogs!  Xylitol ingestion can be fatal.

Although some rodenticides/ baits are labeled as “dog safe” it is critical that you research any such items before using them – some of the advertising can be misleading.  There have been several instances of dogs killed by “pet safe” rat/mouse bait.

Unauthorized Chewing…

Puppies will chew on anything – including electric cords, hard plastic that may splinter, and sometimes rocks or other items that may be small enough to swallow but then create an intestinal obstruction.  Provide safe chew items and supervise puppies.