Caring for Your Faithful Companion
Bernese Mountain Dogs: What a Unique Breed!
Your dog is special! She’s your best friend, companion, and a source of unconditional love. Chances are that you chose her because you like Berners and you expected her to have certain traits that would fit your lifestyle:
- An excellent family dog that loves human companionship
- Good with children and other pets
- Affectionate, easygoing, and lovable
- Loyal and loving companion
- Good watchdog with a loud bark
- Intelligent and easy to train
However, no dog is perfect! You may have also noticed these characteristics:
- Sheds quite a bit and needs to be brushed regularly
- Prone to a number of health problems
- Needs regular exercise to prevent chewing, digging, and other problems stemming from boredom
- Sensitive, matures slowly
- Standoffish toward strangers
- Doesn’t do well in the heat
Is it all worth it? Of course! She’s full of personality, and you love her for it! The Berner is a calm and gentle companion, if properly socalized.
The Bernese Mountain Dog originated in the mountainous regions of Switzerland in the early 18th century and was used for droving, guarding, and draft work. The Berner is still often seen pulling carts in drafting events around the country. They are a large breed that can be slow to mature, so strenuous activity must be limited during their growth period. The Bernese has an average lifespan of 7-9 years and is known to suffer from some common conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia, bloat, and cancer.
Your Bernese Mountain Dog’s Health
We know that because you care so much about your dog, you want to take good care of her. That is why we have summarized the health concerns we will be discussing with you over the life of your Bernese. By knowing about health concerns specific to Bernese Mountain Dogs, we can tailor a preventive health plan to watch for and hopefully prevent some predictable risks.
Many diseases and health conditions are genetic, meaning they are related to your pet’s breed. There is a general consensus among canine genetic researchers and veterinary practitioners that the conditions we’ve described herein have a significant rate of incidence and/or impact in this breed. That does not mean your dog will have these problems; it just means that she is more at risk than other dogs. We will describe the most common issues seen in Bernese Mountain Dogs to give you an idea of what may come up in her future. Of course, we can’t cover every possibility here, so always check with us if you notice any unusual signs or symptoms.
This guide contains general health information important to all canines as well as the most important genetic predispositions for Bernese Mountain Dogs. This information helps you and us together plan for your pet’s unique medical needs. At the end of the booklet, we have also included a description of what you can do at home to keep your Berner looking and feeling her best. You will know what to watch for, and we will all feel better knowing that we’re taking the best possible care of your pal.
General Health Information for your Bernese Mountain Dog
Dental disease is the most common chronic problem in pets, affecting 80% of all dogs by age two. And unfortunately, your Bernese Mountain Dog is more likely than other dogs to have problems with her teeth. It starts with tartar build-up on the teeth and progresses to infection of the gums and roots of the teeth. If we don’t prevent or treat dental disease, your buddy will lose her teeth and be in danger of damaging her kidneys, liver, heart, and joints. In fact, your Bernese Mountain Dog’s life span may be cut short by one to three years! We’ll clean your dog’s teeth regularly and let you know what you can do at home to keep those pearly whites clean.
Bernese Mountain Dogs are susceptible to bacterial and viral infections — the same ones that all dogs can get — such as parvo, rabies, and distemper. Many of these infections are preventable through vaccination, which we will recommend based on the diseases we see in our area, her age, and other factors.
Obesity can be a significant health problem in Bernese Mountain Dogs. It is a serious disease that may cause or worsen joint problems, metabolic and digestive disorders, back pain and heart disease. Though it’s tempting to give your pal food when she looks at you with those soulful eyes, you can “love her to death” with leftover people food and doggie treats. Instead, give her a hug, brush her fur or teeth, play a game with her, or perhaps take her for a walk. She’ll feel better, and so will you!
All kinds of worms and bugs can invade your Berner’s body, inside and out. Everything from fleas and ticks to ear mites can infest her skin and ears. Hookworms, roundworms, heartworms, and whipworms can get into her system in a number of ways: drinking unclean water, walking on contaminated soil, or being bitten by an infected mosquito. Some of these parasites can be transmitted to you or a family member and are a serious concern for everyone. For your canine friend, these parasites can cause pain, discomfort, and even death, so it’s important that we test for them on a regular basis. We’ll also recommend preventive medication as necessary to keep her healthy.
Spay or Neuter
One of the best things you can do for your Bernese is to have her spayed (neutered for males). In females, this means we surgically remove the ovaries and usually the uterus, and in males, it means we surgically remove the testicles. Spaying or neutering decreases the likelihood of certain types of cancers and eliminates the possibility of your pet becoming pregnant or fathering unwanted puppies. Performing this surgery also gives us a chance, while your pet is under anesthesia, to identify and address some of the diseases your dog is likely to develop. For example, if your pet needs hip X-rays or a puppy tooth extracted, this would be a good time. This is convenient for you and easy for your friend. Routine blood testing prior to surgery also helps us to identify and take precautions for common problems that increase anesthetic or surgical risk. Don’t worry; we’ll discuss the specific problems we will be looking for when the time arrives.
Genetic Predispositions for Bernese Mountain Dogs
Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus, also known as GDV or Bloat, usually occurs in dogs with deep, narrow chests. This means your Bernese is more at risk than other breeds. When a dog bloats, the stomach twists on itself and fills with gas. The twisting cuts off blood supply to the stomach, and sometimes the spleen. Left untreated, the disease is quickly fatal, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes. Your dog may retch or heave (but little or nothing comes out), act restless, have an enlarged abdomen, or lie in a prayer position (front feet down, rear end up). Preventive surgery in which the stomach is tacked down or sutured in place so that it is unlikely to twist is an option. If you see symptoms, take your pet to an emergency hospital immediately!
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia
Both hips and elbows are at risk for dysplasia, an inherited disease that causes the joints to develop improperly and results in arthritis. Stiffness in your Bernese’s elbows or hips may become a problem for him, especially as he matures. You may notice that he begins to show lameness in his legs or has difficulty getting up from lying down. We can treat the arthritis—the sooner the better—to minimize discomfort and pain. We’ll take X-rays of your dog’s bones to identify issues as early as possible. Surgery is sometimes a good option in severe and life-limiting cases. Keep in mind that overweight dogs may develop arthritis years earlier than those of normal weight, causing undue pain and suffering!
When Bernese puppies are allowed to grow too quickly, the cartilage in their joints may not attach to the bone properly. This problem is known as osteochondritis dissecans or OCD. If this occurs, surgery may be required to fix the problem. It’s best to stick to our recommended growth rate of no more than four pounds per week. Don’t overfeed him and don’t supplement with additional calcium. Feed a large-breed puppy diet rather than an adult or a regular puppy diet. Weigh your puppy every three to four weeks.
Cataracts are a common cause of blindness in older Berneses. We’ll watch for the lenses of his eyes to become more opaque—meaning they look cloudy instead of clear—when we examine him. Many dogs adjust well to losing their vision and get along just fine. Surgery to remove cataracts and restore sight may also be an option.
There are several types of inherited bleeding disorders which occur in dogs. They range in severity from very mild to very severe. Many times a pet seems normal until a serious injury occurs or surgery is performed, and then severe bleeding can result. Von Willebrand’s disease is a blood clotting disorder frequently found in Bernese Mountain Dogs. We’ll conduct diagnostic testing for blood clotting time or a specific DNA blood test for Von Willebrand’s disease or other similar disorders to check for this problem before we perform surgery.
Many older dogs have arthritis , and bigger dogs tend to have more pain and disability than smaller dogs. Bernese Mountain Dogs are particularly prone to developing arthritis, for which we need to use many treatments. The earlier we begin treatment, the better the results. Good nutrition and proper exercise are also very important to help reduce bone and joint problems as your pet gets older. Do not let him become overweight; this puts a huge strain on the joints.
Knee Ligament Tear
The cranial cruciate ligament is one of the four tough bands of tissue that hold each knee together. A torn cranial cruciate ligament is a common injury in active dogs, which includes your Berner. Usually surgical correction is done to stabilize the knee and help prevent crippling arthritis. Physical therapy and multimodal pain management are necessary to get the best outcome. Keeping him at the right weight, feeding a high-quality diet, and avoiding too much twisting of the knees (like playing Frisbee) are key in avoiding this painful injury.
In humans, an allergy to pollen, mold, or dust makes people sneeze and their eyes itch. In dogs, rather than sneeze, allergies make their skin itchy. We call this skin allergy “atopy”, and Berneses often have it. Commonly, the feet, belly, folds of the skin, and ears are most affected. Symptoms typically start between the ages of one and three and can get worse every year. Licking the paws, rubbing the face, and frequent ear infections are the most common signs. The good news is that there are many treatment options available for this condition.
There are three types of seizures in dogs: reactive, secondary, and primary. Reactive seizures are caused by the brain’s reaction to a metabolic problem like low blood sugar, organ failure, or a toxin. Secondary seizures are the result of a brain tumor, stroke, or trauma. If no other cause can be found, the disease is called primary, or idiopathic epilepsy. This problem is often an inherited condition, with Bernese Mountain Dogs commonly afflicted. If your friend is prone to seizures, they will usually begin between six months and three years of age. An initial diagnostic workup may help find the cause. Lifelong medication is usually necessary to help keep seizures under control, with periodic blood testing required to monitor side effects and effectiveness. If your dog has a seizure: Carefully prevent him from injuring himself, but don’t try to control his mouth or tongue. It won’t help him, and he may bite you accidentally! Note the length of the seizure, and call us or an emergency hospital.
Addison’s Disease is an endocrine system disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands fail to produce enough hormones to keep the body functioning normally. Left untreated, hypoadrenocorticism can be fatal, and symptoms often mimic many other diseases. Fortunately, we can run a specialized timed blood test to check for this condition. Though any dog can acquire this disease, Berneses seem to get it more frequently. We’ll be watching for clinical signs at every exam, and will periodically check his electrolyte levels to screen for this problem.
Lymphoma or lymphosarcoma is a type of cancer that afflicts Bernese Mountain Dogs more than other breeds. This disease makes the body form abnormal lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. Because white blood cells can be found throughout the body, this cancer can show up almost anywhere. Lymphoma is a very treatable form of cancer, with an excellent success rate in dogs receiving chemotherapy. Treatment can be costly, however, and is a lifelong commitment. Luckily, lymphoma is one of the few types of cancer that can often be found with a blood test, so we may recommend a complete blood count twice yearly. Watch for swollen glands (ask us, we’ll show you where to look), weight loss, or labored breathing at home and be sure to call us if you notice any unusual symptoms.
Hemangiosarcoma is a type of bleeding tumor that affects Bernese Mountain Dogs at greater than average incidence. These tumors commonly form in the spleen, but can form in other organs as well. Unbeknownst to a pet owner, the tumor breaks open and internal bleeding occurs. Some tumors can be volleyball-sized or larger before signs of sickness show. We often find clues that one of these tumors is present during senior wellness testing, so have his blood tested and an ultrasound performed at least yearly.
Degenerative Myelopathy is a neurologic condition, similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in people, that causes weakness and poor nerve function in the hind legs. It affects Berneses more frequently than other breeds. If your dog has this disease, he will become increasingly weak and disabled in the hind legs and will eventually suffer from paralysis in his hindquarters, along with incontinence. Rehabilitation, exercise, acupuncture, and dietary supplements can be helpful, but there is no cure. A genetic test is available to determine whether your dog is at risk for this heritable disease.
Entropion is a condition where the eyelid rolls inward, causing the eyelashes to rub against the cornea (surface of the eyeball). This is an extremely irritating and painful condition that can ultimately lead to blindness. It can happen in any dog breed; however, your Bernese is especially at risk for this heritable disorder. Surgical correction is usually successful if performed early.
Glomerulonephropathy is an inherited disease that slowly damages your Bernese Mountain Dog’s kidneys causing them to fail, often at an early age. Because damaged kidneys leak protein, we may be able to diagnose this disease by testing his urine for excessive protein. We recommend yearly urine analysis because early detection leads to a happier pet and an easier, more affordable treatment plan. We may also recommend a special diet as part of the therapy plan.
Growing Berneses can suffer from a painful inflammation of the long bones in the legs, a condition called eosinophilic panosteitis, pano or eo-pan. It usually starts at around six to ten months of age and shifts from leg to leg. We’ll look for this condition upon examination; if your pal exhibits pain when the area is squeezed or palpated, we’ll take X-rays to diagnose the problem. Panosteitis usually causes no permanent damage, but requires pain medication. If your dog has the condition and has developed an abnormal gait to compensate for the sore leg(s), rehabilitation exercises may be required.
Each time a female goes through her heat cycle, her hormones cause a growth of nourishing cells to line the walls of the uterus. This becomes a lush environment for the development of a raging bacterial infection that can progress rapidly into a critical emergency that may require surgery. Pyometra can happen to any female dog, but it seems to be more common in Berneses. If you don’t plan to use your friend as a breeding animal, a spay/neuter procedure is best for health!
Hemolytic Anemia and Thrombocytopenia
Berneses are particularly prone to some relatively rare diseases of the blood. They occur when the immune system goes haywire and starts attacking the pet’s own red blood cells or platelets. If the immune system destroys red blood cells, your dog quickly becomes anemic, weak, and lethargic. His gums will look whitish or yellow instead of the normal bright pink color. If the immune system destroys platelets, his blood won’t clot properly and he’ll have bruises or abnormal bleeding. We’ll perform diagnostic testing for blood clotting to check for these problems before we perform any surgeries. To slow or stop the immune system’s destruction of cells, we’ll prescribe steroids and other immune-suppressive drugs. Sometimes an emergency transfusion of red blood cells or platelets is needed.
Your Berner is more likely than other dogs to have a liver disorder called portosystemic shunt (PSS). Some of the blood supply that should go to the liver goes around it instead, depriving the liver of the blood flow it needs to grow and function properly. If your friend has PSS, his liver cannot remove toxins from his bloodstream effectively. To check for this problem, we’ll conduct a liver function test in addition to a standard pre-anesthetic panel every time he undergoes anesthesia. If he develops symptoms such as stunted growth or seizures, we’ll test his blood and possibly conduct an ultrasound scan of his liver. Surgery may be needed, but in some cases, we can treat with a special diet and medication.
Much of what you can do to keep your dog happy and healthy is common sense, just like it is for people. Watch her diet, make sure she gets plenty of exercise, regularly brush her teeth and coat, and call us or a pet emergency hospital when something seems unusual (see “What to Watch For” below). Be sure to adhere to the schedule of examinations and vaccinations that we recommend for her. This is when we’ll give her the necessary “check-ups” and test for diseases and conditions that are common in Berneses. Another very important step in caring for your pet is signing up for pet health insurance. There will certainly be medical tests and procedures she will need throughout her life and pet health insurance will help you cover those costs.
Routine Care, Diet, and Exercise
Build her routine care into your schedule to help your Berner live longer, stay healthier, and be happier during her lifetime. We cannot overemphasize the importance of a proper diet and exercise routine.
- Supervise your pet as you would a toddler. Keep doors closed, pick up after yourself, and block off rooms as necessary. This will keep her out of trouble and away from objects she shouldn’t put in her mouth.
- She needs a thorough brushing at least weekly most of the year. Twice a year she blows her coat and loses crazy amounts of hair; daily brushing is recommended during this time.
- Bernese Mountain Dogs generally have good teeth, and you can keep them perfect by brushing them at least twice a week!
- Clean her ears weekly, even as a puppy. Don’t worry—we’ll show you how!
- She’s a large smart dog with lots of energy, so keep her mind and body active, or she’ll get bored. That’s when the naughty stuff starts.
- Keep your dog’s diet consistent and don’t give her people food.
- Feed a high-quality diet appropriate for her age.
- Exercise your dog regularly, but don’t overdo it at first.
What to Watch For
Any abnormal symptom could be a sign of serious disease, or it could just be a minor or temporary problem. The important thing is to be able to tell when to seek veterinary help, and how urgently. Many diseases cause dogs to have a characteristic combination of symptoms, which together can be a clear signal that your Bernese Mountain Dog needs help.
Give us a call for an appointment if you notice any of these types of signs:
- Change in appetite or water consumption
- Tartar build-up, bad breath, red gums, or broken teeth
- Itchy skin (scratching, chewing or licking), hair loss
- Lethargy, mental dullness, or excessive sleeping
- Fearfulness, aggression, or other behavioral changes
Seek medical care immediately if you notice any of these types of signs:
- Scratching or shaking the head, tender ears, or ear discharge
- Inability or straining to urinate; discolored urine
- Cloudiness, redness, itching, or any other abnormality involving the eyes
- Dry heaving or a large, tight, painful abdomen
- General reluctance to run or play
- Stiffness or reluctance to rise/sit/use stairs
- Any abnormal shaking, trembling, or excessive involuntary tremors
- General listlessness, droopy facial expression, vomiting, diarrhea
- Swollen lymph nodes or glands, unexplained weight loss
- Pale gums, labored breathing, weakness, or sudden collapse
- Dragging the hind toes and hind limb weakness
- Gums that are a color other than bright pink
- Slow or stunted growth; sometimes seizures after eating
Partners in Health Care
DNA testing is a rapidly advancing field with new tests constantly emerging to help in the diagnosis of inherited diseases before they can become a problem for your friend. For the most up-to-date information on DNA and other screening tests available for your pal, visit www.Genesis4Pets.com.
Your Bernese counts on you to take good care of her, and we look forward to working with you to ensure that she lives a long and healthy life. Our goal is to provide the best health care possible: health care that’s based on her breed, lifestyle, and age. Please contact us when you have questions or concerns.
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- Gough A, Thomas A. Breed Predispositions to Disease in Dogs and Cats. 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.
- Crook A, Dawson S, Cote E, MacDonald S, Berry J. Canine Inherited Disorders Database [Internet]. University of Prince Edward Island. 2011. [cited 2013 Apr 11]. Available from: http:/ic.upei.ca/cidd/breed/bernese-mountain-dog
- Breed Specific Health Concerns [Internet]. American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, Inc. [cited 2013 Apr 11]. Available from: http:/www.akcchf.org/canine-health/breed-specific-concerns/?breed=bernese-mountain-dog