Required Health Screenings and Certificates
To ensure that they're breeding healthy dogs, quality breeders test their dogs for hereditary diseases and only breed those that are certified disease-free. Dogs that don't pass these tests are altered (spayed or neutered) and are not bred.
The irresponsible breeder does not test his dogs. If he does, and the test doesn't come back the way he'd like, he breeds the dog anyway. Many bad breeders will do this, even knowing that this vastly increases the risk of hereditary disease. If your puppy turns out to be one of these irresponsibly bred pups, you could end up losing your money and having your heart broken. It's clearly worth the time and the effort it takes to find a good breeder.
German shepherds should be tested for multiple hereditary diseases. These tests are expensive, but the breeder who really cares about her dogs' health has these tests performed as a matter of course. Breeders should be sure their breeding dogs pass the following tests prior to breeding:
Von Willebrand's disease (vWD)
Multiple eye disorders
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)
This organization certifies the results for hip and elbow dysplasia, cardiac disease, and von Willebrand's disease (vWD). (All of OFA's databases are searchable, so puppy buyers can verify a breeder's claims of healthy hip ratings.) Hips are rated according to the health of the joints when the dog is twenty-four months or older. The following ratings receive an OFA number, which means the dog is approved for breeding: “Fair,” “Good,” and “Excellent.” Dysplastic hips do not receive an OFA number but are rated as follows: “Borderline,” “Mild,” “Moderate,” or “Severe.”
The OFA rates dysplasia found in elbows as either normal with no signs of disease (“OFA-Elbows Normal”), or as dysplastic. The dysplastic cases are classified from mild to severe (with ratings from “1” to “3”).
The OFA's cardiac registry includes a large number of hereditary diseases of the heart. If a German shepherd does not show any signs of disease, he may receive the rating “OFA-Cardiac neg.” German shepherds may also be tested for vWD with the results registered through the OFA. If a dog does not have the disease, he receives the following certification: “OFA-vWD neg.”
Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF)
CERF certifies that there is an absence of hereditary eye disease in dogs examined by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. Breeders commonly refer to a dog that gets a pass as being “CERFed.” It is important to note, however, that a German shepherd can be CERFed with a warning. In other words, a dog can still receive a pass if she has one of four hereditary eye diseases — distichiasis, corneal dystrophy, retinal dysplasia, or micro-papilla. (See Chapter 18 for more information on these specific diseases.) If a dog is diagnosed with one of these diseases, CERF recommends that the shepherd only be bred to another dog that is free of the same disease.
Are CERF passes good for the life of the dog?
The pass is only valid for twelve months. Dogs need to be retested for hereditary eye diseases each year. Always ask about a dog's current CERF status before purchasing her or one of her puppies.
Many diseases from which German shepherds can suffer aren't certified or recorded, but they are equally important to the potential puppy buyer. These include chronic gastrointestinal problems, bloat, skin allergies, and various cancers. A good breeder will be able to give you health details on each dog in a puppy's three-generation pedigree, including how long the dog lived, what conditions he suffered from, if any, and the cause of death.