10 Common Health Problems Seen in Bernese Mountain Dogs

Large Bernese Mountain Dog lying on the grass in the park, panting.
© Kriste Sorokaite/iStock via Getty Images

Written by Sharon Parry

Published: December 16, 2023

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Bernese mountain dogs are the gentle giants of the canine community. They are known for being loyal, faithful, affectionate – and very large. These guys can reach 27 inches to the shoulder and weigh over 100 pounds. However, these gorgeous dogs can suffer from some serious health conditions and their life expectancy is relatively short (7-10 years) compared to some other breeds. Some studies have shown that the leading cause of death in these dogs is neoplasia (cancer), followed by degenerative joint disease, spinal disorders, kidney injury, and bloat. They can also suffer from some other non-fatal health conditions that will require considerable investment from their owners both in terms of time and finances. Here we examine the 10 common health problems seen in Bernese mountain dogs.

1.Hip Dysplasia

X-ray film of dog lateral view with red highlight in hip bone pain area or hip dysplasia dog- Veterinary medicine- Veterinary anatomy Concept

Hip dysplasia occurs when the hip joints function abnormally.

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The term dysplasia describes an abnormality of development so this is a condition where the hip joint is not working as it should. It is a genetic condition and is passed down through generations of Bernese mountain dogs. That said, puppies are born with normal hips but the ligaments and joint capsules that normally keep the joint stable become lax within a few weeks. It usually affects both hips and affected dogs go on to develop osteoarthritis in the hip joints.

Hip dysplasia is one of the most common health problems seen in Bernese mountain dogs and is seen in many other large, rapidly growing dog breeds. It is usually diagnosed at between 6 and 12 months. You may notice that your dog is walking stiffly, does not like to exercise, and has difficulty lying down, sitting, and rising. It can sometimes be managed with body weight management and physiotherapy but may require surgery.

2.Elbow Dysplasia

Bernese Mountain Dog Puppy 6 Month old

Elbow dysplasia affects the front limbs.

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The elbow is a complex joint involving three bones and in elbow dysplasia, the joint is not functioning normally. It is a genetic condition inherited from the dog’s parents but other factors such as gaining too much weight in puppyhood can play a role. The condition is caused by abnormal forces within the joint but these are exerted in many different ways and each case is different. Dogs with elbow dysplasia are often young and are from one of the larger breeds including Bernese mountain dogs. They have a characteristic limp, especially when they have rested or exercised for a long time. It may be treated with weight management, physiotherapy, and medication but surgery may also be required.

3. Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Beautiful happy female Bernese Mountain dog relaxing on the sofa at home

Blindness in Bernese mountain dogs can be caused by progressive retinal atrophy.

©Matt_Collingwood/iStock via Getty Images

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is an inherited disease that can affect Bernese mountain dogs. It is not painful but starts to affect your dog’s eyesight when they are around six to eight years of age. It involves the cells of the retina which is the lining at the back of the eye that collects the light and turns it into nerve signals which are sent to the brain.

In PRA, both eyes are affected and progression is gradual. You may first notice that your Bernese mountain dog struggles to see at night. Later, their day vision is affected and they may bump into things. You may also notice that their eyes start to look grey or cloudy. There is no treatment so it is a case of you learning to help your dog adjust to life without their sight.

4. Histiocytosis

Bernese mountain dog being examined by veterinarian

Bernese mountain dogs get a type of cancer called histiocytic sarcoma.

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Histocytes are a type of white blood cell. Malignant histiocytosis is a rare but aggressive disease that produces multiple tumors in the skin of the limbs and trunk of dogs. Experts are not sure what causes it but it is more common in Bernese mountain dogs. In fact, one of the most common types of cancer in Bernese mountain dogs is histiocytic sarcoma. The localized form often occurs in bones, skin, lungs, and joints. The disseminated form affects multiple areas and the hemophagocytic form starts in the spleen but spreads rapidly. The symptoms vary according to the type and location of the cancer but often include lethargy, weight loss, and loss of appetite. Some cancers can be treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

5.Von Willebrand’s Disease

Senior Bernese mountain dog

Bernese mountain dogs with Von Willebrand’s disease may have bleeding gums.

©iStock.com/Kriste Sorokaite

Dogs can suffer from several inherited bleeding disorders but Von Willebrand’s disease is the most common. Dogs with this disease often bleed excessively because their blood does not clot as normal. It is caused by a lack of a protein needed for clotting called von Willebrand Factor (vWF). Bernese mountain dogs are predisposed to the Type I version of the disease. You may notice that your dog bruises easily or bleeds excessively from minor wounds or from their gums and nose. There is no cure but with correct management many dogs with this condition lead long and happy lives.

6.Bloat

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Dogs fed once a day are more likely to get bloat.

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The medical term for bloat is gastric dilatation volvulus and it is always a medical emergency. During bloat the stomach fills with air and as the pressure builds it stops blood from returning to the heart. Blood pools at the back of the body and the dog goes into shock. What’s more, the stomach can flip over dragging the spleen and pancreas with it which makes the pancreas produce toxic hormones. These cause the heart to stop suddenly.

Whilst we don’t know exactly why some dogs develop bloat and others don’t, we do know that it is more common in larger breeds. It is also seen more often in dogs that are only fed once a day.

7. Arthritis

Bernese mountain dog puppy outside. So cute and small bernese puppy.

You can reduce the risk of arthritis by preventing your Bernese pup from growing too fast.

©Eve Photography/Shutterstock.com

More correctly, this condition is called osteoarthritis and it is a degenerative condition affecting the joints. It is caused when the layer of cartilage that normally allows bones to move smoothly across each other in a joint becomes rough. The joint becomes stiff, painful, and inflamed. Larger breeds such as the Bernese mountain dogs are more prone to arthritis because their joints suffer more wear and tear and larger forces.

You may be able to prevent it to some extent with an appropriate diet when your dog is a pup so that they do not grow too fast. High-fat foods should also be avoided.

Dogs with arthritis are often stiff and limp before and after walks. They may also avoid exercise and seem a bit grumpy. There is no cure but it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.

8. Allergies and Hot Spots

Bernese Mountain Dog lying on the floor, pile of hair and a brush next to him.

Allergies can cause itching, hot spots and hair loss.

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Bernese mountain dogs can get allergies. The symptoms can be gastrointestinal – giving them disturbed intestines with diarrhea. Others have irritated skin which can result in itchy paws or ears and hot spots of irritation on their skin.

You will need to work with your vet to try to determine the cause of the allergy. It could be something that your dog is eating or something in the environment. There is also medication that your vet can prescribe that will help with the allergic reaction and the symptoms it causes.

9. Cruciate Disease and Injuries

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Active Bernese mountain dogs can get sudden cruciate ligament injuries.

©vahamrick/Shutterstock.com

One of the tough bands of tissue holding the knee together is the cranial cruciate ligament.  Active Bernese mountain dogs can tear this ligament but the injury can range in severity. Obesity and unbalanced conformation can predispose a dog to this type of injury. The affected dogs are often in a lot of pain and are very lame. Some injuries are sudden but they can also develop gradually. If the trauma is progressive it can lead to arthritis of the joint. Some ligament injuries require surgery whilst others are managed with weight control, medication, or rehabilitation therapy.  

10. Epilepsy

Burnese mountain dog

Bernese mountain dogs can have localized or generalized seizures.

©sharon metson/iStock via Getty Images

Epilepsy is a disorder affecting the brain of several animals including humans and dogs. The causes are not entirely understood but we know that some dog breeds get it more often than others and Bernese mountain dogs are one of those breeds along with beagles and border collies to name just a few.

Dogs with epilepsy have seizures that can be localized or generalized. Dogs experiencing generalized seizures stumble and fall over, poop and pee, and shake violently. This lasts for between 30 and 90 seconds and then they appear confused, disorientated, and dazed. Epilepsy in dogs can be treated with anticonvulsant medication and many are able to resume a normal lifestyle.

Summary of Common Health Problems Seen in Bernese Mountain Dogs

NumberCondition
1Hip dysplasia
2Elbow dysplasia
3Progressive retinal atrophy
4Histiocytosis
5Von Willebrand’s disease
6Bloat
7Arthritis
8Allergies and hot spots
9Cruciate disease and injuries
10Epilepsy

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Parry is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on dogs, animal behavior, and research. Sharon holds a PhD from Leeds University, UK which she earned in 1998 and has been working as a science writer for the last 15 years. A resident of Wales, UK, Sharon loves taking care of her spaniel named Dexter and hiking around coastlines and mountains.

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