Bernese Mountain Dog sticking out his tongue

I love dogs. All of ‘em, no matter what their size, breed or mix. They all have something special to offer that we humans don’t get from any other species: their loving hearts.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t recognize when some breeds are in trouble. They may have health problems, or their numbers may be so high that breed-rescue groups and shelters are overwhelmed with dogs in need of forever homes.

Not long ago, I wrote about giant breeds I’d like to see more of. Now I’m going to share five giant breeds I’d like to see less of. Not because they are bad breeds — there’s no such thing — but because I’d like to see improvements in their situations so they can go on to have the healthy, wanted life that should be the birthright of every dog.

Health Hazards

Bernese Mountain Dog. These majestic dogs of the Alps are wonderful companions, but they tend to fall victim to a whole host of health problems. From A to V, the conditions and diseases a Berner owner may encounter in his pet include aseptic meningitis, bloat, multiple types of cancer, cataracts and other eye diseases, degenerative myelopathy (rear-end paralysis), elbow and hip dysplasia and other orthopedic problems as well as von Willebrand’s disease, a bleeding disorder. It’s no surprise that their lifespan is a tragically short 7 to 10 years. As wonderful as individual Berners can be, their health problems can be heartbreaking for their people — including their veterinarians.

Saint Bernard. The lovable avalanche of fur that is the Saint Bernard ranks 50th in popularity among the 178 breeds and varieties registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC). That’s down a bit from their ranking in 2013, but I’m concerned by the breed’s still-high level of popularity, given the number of health problems it can suffer. Common health concerns include entropion and ectropion (eyelids that roll inward or outward), orthopedic problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia and osteochondritis dissecans, bone cancer, bloat, epilepsy and heart disease. Everyone loves a Saint, but I’ll confess to wishing they had a less sinful number of health problems.

Irish Wolfhound. It’s hard not to fall for these tall, regal sighthounds with their rough coat and gentle manner. They, too, are rising in popularity, moving from 84th place in the AKC’s rankings in 2009 to 70th in 2014. That’s astounding for a dog with a lifespan that can be as brief as 6 to 8 years. Among the diseases that can affect the breed are bone cancer (osteosarcoma), heart disease and bloat. They may also develop joint problems, progressive retinal atrophy, seizures and more.

Popularity Problems

Cane Corso. This Italian mastiff breed may be rising in popularity because of his recent recognition by the AKC and his large, imposing appearance. He is a protective breed who requires an experienced owner, but too often inexperienced people acquire one of these powerful dogs and find that they are in over their head. Cane Corso rescue groups and shelters are inundated with dogs surrendered by people who can’t keep them. Until they are no longer struggling to place unwanted dogs, I’d like to see fewer of them.

Rottweiler. These handsome black-and-tan dogs are the 10th most popular breed registered by the AKC. While I love them dearly, I’m concerned about their high registration numbers given the many Rottweilers and Rottweiler mixes that are found in shelters and rescue groups. Based on a quick look at the Petfinder website, nearly 2,000 are currently available for adoption nationwide. Folks, that’s just too many. For the most part, these are sweet and stable dogs, but negative media attention can make it difficult to find homes for them. I’d like to see fewer Rotties and more permanent homes for them.

What To Do

Many dog owners have had great experiences with one or more of these breeds, and lots of these dogs live healthy, happy lives. And many breeders of these dogs support research to reduce their breed’s health problems, while others work tirelessly to help take and place dogs who need homes.

You can do your part to help, too. Before you commit to a dog — particularly one with potential health issues — I would encourage you to educate yourself. Learn as much as possible about a breed before purchasing one to make sure it’s the right fit for your family. Make sure the breeder you buy from has proof of testing for heritable diseases and is willing to discuss openly any potential health problems — or consider adopting an adult dog from a shelter or rescue group.

My goal as a veterinarian is not only to care for your pet, whatever his breed, cross or mix, but also to seek improvements in canine health overall, including population health. None of us want to see dogs in shelters because they weren’t matched properly with their people. Let’s all do what we can to make things better for the dogs we love — all of them.

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