Boxer lovers know all too well that the breed is prone to health issues, some of which are serious. While the lifespan of a Boxer is never long enough for those who spend their lives with this exuberant breed, some conditions lead to even shorter lives and sometimes sudden death. Dedicated breeders and owners are constantly fighting these conditions and working to improve the health and longevity of the breed. Knowing what conditions are common in the Boxer, what can be done to avoid them, and how to manage them if they do occur will minimize the risk of your Boxer suffering unnecessarily.
Responsible Boxer breeders screen their dogs for most of these health conditions before breeding. There are really no guarantees that a puppy will live a life free of genetic health issues, but buying from a responsible breeder who knows the health history of their pedigrees and screens the parents will greatly increase your odds. If you prefer to obtain your Boxer from a rescue or shelter, you will probably not have information on the parents or pedigree. In this case, knowing what to look for and how to deal with it can help you enjoy many years with your Boxer.
One of the most common cardiac diseases in all dog breeds, aortic stenosis is characterized by a thickening or ridge at or just below the aortic valve (the latter is often referred to as “subvalvular” or “subaortic”). This thickening often results in a heart murmur, which may be detected during a routine veterinary exam. Murmurs can be caused by many things, and some murmurs are not indicative of a problem at all. A Doppler echocardiogram will diagnose the cause of the murmur, and the severity of the disease, if any. Dogs that are mildly or moderately affected with AS tend to live normal lives; dogs that are severely affected have a higher risk of early or sudden death.
Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy
ARVC, or “Boxer Cardiomyopathy”, is heart condition that seems to be unique to Boxers. The disease involves abnormal heartbeats, called VPCs; when these occur in groups of four or more, the flow of blood to the brain can become compromised. In extended bouts of VPCs, the dog may pass out or could die. ARVC is often a late-onset condition, typically appearing when the dog is 6 to 8 years old, but occasionally young dogs will be diagnosed with or die from the disease. Regular evaluation of the heartbeat with a holter monitor–a 24-hour EKG–will screen out the worst-affected dogs from breeding, and can help diagnose a severely-affected dog. Holters cannot clear a Boxer of ARVC, however; a dog may have 0 VPCs in one 24-hour stretch and tens of thousands the next. A DNA test has been developed to identify a genetic mutation that is associated with ARVC in some dogs; however not all dogs with the gene will develop ARVC, and not all dogs without the gene will remain disease-free. Research is ongoing to find other genes that may also be linked to the disease.
Another late-onset disease, DM involves a progressive loss of muscle control, from the hind end to the front. The disease symptoms are similar to Multiple Sclerosis in humans, although the gene for DM recently has been linked to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). DM is not painful for the dog, and many Boxers adapt well to canine wheelchairs, which can extend the time they remain active. A DNA test is available to screen for the gene that causes DM. Dogs with two copies of the gene are considered “At Risk”–meaning they may develop the disease, but they may not. Dogs with one or zero copies of the gene are highly unlikely to ever develop DM.
Boxers are high on the list of breeds affected with hypothyroidism; even so, only about 10% of the breed is diagnosed with the disease. Hypothyroidism can lead to weight gain, allergies, hair loss, itching, behavior problems, and numerous other issues. Fortunately, it is generally easy and inexpensive to manage with thyroid supplements. A full thyroid panel (tested to OFA standards) can detect hypothyroidism or other thyroid problems, and can determine whether the issue is genetic in nature. The OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) recommends annual testing until 4 years of age, and then testing every other year.
Hip dysplasia is not common in Boxers, with about 11% of the breed affected. Dogs with hip dysplasia may develop arthritis and movement problems; although it is considered a degenerative disease, sometimes young dogs are diagnosed with and suffer from HD. Surgery may be an option for severely affected dogs. Hip dysplasia is diagnosed by x-rays, either through the OFA or the University of Pennsylvania’s PennHIP system.
The gene that causes white markings in Boxers may also, in a double dose, cause deafness in white Boxers due to a lack of pigment in the inner ear. Data from other breeds, combined with anecdotal reports in Boxers, indicate that about 18% of white Boxers are deaf in one or both ears. Boxers that are deaf in only one ear generally adapt well and are often indistinguishable from bilaterally hearing dogs.
Unfortunately, cancer is all too common in the Boxer breed. A clear genetic link has not been established, though many research projects are underway. Some families seem to have more than their fair share of cancer in their dogs, but it may be related to similar environments more than to a genetic cause. Breeders try to stay clear of lines with a pattern of dogs that die from cancer at young ages, but it is not possible to avoid cancer entirely in a pedigree. As of this writing there are no useful screening tools for cancer in Boxers.
While the laundry list of diseases that can affect Boxers may seem intimidating, if not downright depressing, it’s important to remember that most Boxers will live long, happy lives free of serious disease. Although for most conditions unaffected parents can produce affected offspring, the more health screening there is behind the pedigree, the lower the odds of a severe problem occurring. Medical advances also can improve the quality and length of life for affected dogs. As puppy buyers demand health tested parents and screening becomes more widely practiced, the incidence of life-shortening conditions in Boxers continues to decline.
If you want to help find a cure for Boxer health issues, consider becoming a member of the American Boxer Charitable Foundation. This group funds research into diseases and conditions affected Boxers, and is a founder of and the leading breed parent club contributor to the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation.
Article originally published on Examiner.com