♦ Health conditions & diseases known to affect Bernese Mountain Dogs ♦


We provide the following health information on our website to enhance understanding of health conditions and management concerns known to impact the length and quality of life in the Bernese Mountain Dog breed as a whole.

The BMDCA Health Committee encourages breeders, owners and buyers to approach decisions and choices pertaining to health issues and their management in Bernese from the standpoint of knowledge.

To gain a better understanding of the incidence of the conditions in Bernese Mountain Dogs noted below, please see the 2000 and 2005 Health Surveys. To obtain data on Bernese Mountain Dog breeders' management of health concerns, individual dog records and associated pedigree information see the Berner-Garde Database at: BERNER-GARDE FOUNDATION.

Health conditions listing is alphabetical.

Allergies, especially those that are food related, pose a problem for some Bernese. These are often difficult to diagnose and manage. Inflammatory bowel disease and sensitive digestive systems that may require special diets are present in some Bernese. There may be hereditary components to allergies and digestive conditions. Breeders and buyers are urged to consider incidence of allergies and digestive tract disease in families of dogs being selected for breeding/buying.

Autoimmune Diseases are impacting Berners just like the other purebred breeds. One such illness is Aseptic Meningitis, which can be difficult to diagnose and potentially life-threatening if not treated properly and in a timely manner. Generally dogs 3-12 months are most commonly affected, and one sex is not affected more than the other. The rate of occurrence for various autoimmune disorders is not known.

Bloat (gastric torsion and/or volvulus) is potentially life threatening and incredibly swift in onset. It is a condition that occurs when the stomach fills with gas and then may rotate. Immediate medical treatment, most likely emergency surgery, is mandatory, and minutes, not hours, may save a life. Studies on this condition have revealed so many factors that precede bloating in dogs that no single cause can be named. Further studies are being conducted to better understand this disease and the ways of preventing it. Bloat has a very high morbidity rate. Dogs that bloat once have a higher tendency to do so again.

Cancer presents great challenges to breeders in genetic selection and a greater challenge for dog owners. In Bernese, some forms of cancer are thought to have a genetic basis. Histiocytic Sarcoma has been shown to be inherited. How cancers are inherited is not known, although a polygenic mode of inheritance is suspected. In the 2005 BMDCA Health Study, 67% of all dogs that died succumbed to some form of cancer.

Histiocytic Sarcoma or malignant histiocytosis is the most prevalent cancer in the breed. Studies are ongoing to attempt to isolate the genetic basis for the disease in an attempt to breed away from it. For more information see:
        UC Davis - Histyocytosis
        Histiocytic Diseases

Hemangiosarcoma is a cancer of the blood vessel cells, the tumors are filled with blood, and a rupture can be immediately life threatening. Long term prognosis is not good, but treatments are continually evolving and improving.

Lymphoma or Lymphosarcoma is a cancer that can occur in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, liver and spleen. There are several different types of lymphoma, and some are more responsive to treatment than others. Some breeds seem to be at higher risk for lymphoma, but it can occur in any breed at any age.

Mast Cell Tumors (MCT): As many as 25% of all skin tumors in dogs are MCTs. Half of these tumors are malignant. Most of them appear as raised nodular masses that feel soft to solid. 10 - 15% of them are indistinguishable from fatty cysts which lie under the skin in the subcutis. Half of them are found on the body, 40% are found on the legs, and 10% are found on the head or neck. Although these tumors may be found anywhere, including the liver, spleen, and bone marrow, most of the MCTs are found in the skin. MCTs can occur in a dog of any age, but they are typically found in middle age or older dogs, with a mean age of 8.5 years. They are found in males and females equally; there is no sex predilection. Heredity is thought to play a role.

Please note: BMDs may be affected by other forms of cancer not included in the list above.

Cataracts of various types are verified in Bernese through examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Depending on the type and location in the eye, cataracts may or may not present problems with vision. Owners are urged to have eyes checked by a canine ophthalmologist throughout the dog's life.

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): Rear end paralysis can occur for a number of reasons (spinal embolism, back injuries / pinched nerves, cervical disc disease, spondylosis, etc.). DM is a progressive disease which causes eventual paralysis in older dogs. It is an inherited disease, but the exact method of inheritance is not yet fully understood. Two different genetic mutations have been identified in Berners. As of April 2011, there is a genetic test for the more common mutation available from OFA.

Diarrhea/Digestive Tract Issues:

Diarrhea can be caused from a great many problems, from eating garbage, parasites, or more serious health issues. It can be sudden, or it can last a long time. Diagnosing the cause is often the hardest part. You will always want to have the dog seen by your vet.

Coccidia: this is a parasite, and it usually causes vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and in severe cases bloody diarrhea. Puppies can be very susceptible to infection, and it is very contagious.

Colitis: this is caused by inflammation of the large intestine which can be caused by stress, parasites, bacteria, among others. This is usually marked by liquid stools often containing mucus or even red blood. Treatment needs to be tailored to the cause: dewormer, antibiotic, or an anti-inflammatory.

Copraphagy: or poop eating. This is a frustrating and disgusting problem but it can also cause diarrhea. It may note a dietary deficiency, or it may indicate the fact that dogs have less discriminating tastes. There are a variety of possible solutions which include quick pick-up, feeding the dog crushed pineapple, or dietary changes.

Food Allergies: some dogs are sensitive to certain foods, and a change in diet should help. Food allergies may be manifested as diarrhea, recurring ear infections, hot spots, and other skin and foot irritations.

Giardia: this is a protozoa that is often acquired from drinking contaminated water. Diagnosis can be difficult; it's not always possible to detect the organism in the stool. Treatment typically involves Metronidazole (Flagyl), Panacur (Fenbendazole), Marquis (Ponazuril) and others. This can be difficult to cure.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease: IBD describes a group of diseases often marked by diarrhea, vomiting, or weight loss. Irritation to the lining of the intestine causes it to become thickened and inflamed. A biopsy is needed to diagnose the disease.

Intussusception: this is a secondary symptom where the intestine telescopes on itself. This cuts off circulation to part of the intestine, and can be fatal. We typically hear of this in younger dogs.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS is a chronic condition generally linked to stress. A biopsy of the intestinal lining would be normal.

Parasites: Some forms of parasites will cause diarrhea, most notably whipworms. A course of deworming would be required.

Pica: Eating inappropriate objects can be life threatening. Items can run the gamut from garbage, clothing, children's toys, kitchen towels, bones, stones, paper, string, etc. Pica can be caused by behavioral issues, or by health issues. Sometimes the items will pass on their own, other times they may cause a blockage. Vomiting (particularly after eating), diarrhea, weight loss, bad breath may indicate a blockage. Surgery is generally required for a blockage.

Elbow Dysplasia (ED) is a general term that is used to describe several different abnormalities of the elbow joint. ED is another potentially crippling condition that affects some Berners. A degenerative joint disease like HD (Hip Dysplasia, see below), ED causes arthritic changes to occur in the elbow joint. Elbow dysplasia in BMDs is most often a result of fragmented coronoid process, but the un-united anconeal process form of ED and OCD (Osteochondritis Dissecans see below) of the elbow have been seen. Elbow dysplasia can result in lameness and affect puppies as young as 5 months. The only way to confirm and evaluate ED is by x-ray. OFA certifies elbow radiographs and issues a certificate and registry number to dogs free of this disease. Knowing the elbow status of as many family members as possible helps breeders improve their probability of producing puppies with normal elbows. Diet can also play an important role (see HD).

Entropion and Ectropion (eyelids turned in or out) affect the eyelids, which should be tight-fitting in BMDs. Either condition can result in damage to the dog's eye. Entropion can be an inheritable condition where the eyelid rolls inward, causing irritation to the surface of the eye. Ectropion is the reverse where the eyelid rolls out, serving as a "catcher's mitt" for tiny bits of debris that can irritate pink tissues on the inside of the eyelid.

Hip Dysplasia (HD) results from an unstable hip socket and subsequent degenerative arthritic changes that result from this instability. HD typically cannot be detected in pups at placement age. HD can affect young puppies but most often leads to a degenerative, sometimes crippling, arthritis as an affected dog ages. Some HD-affected dogs will experience no lameness. Some dogs with mild HD may be uncomfortable and other dogs with more severe HD may show no pain or gait problems. For some dogs the disease is completely debilitating. HD affects dogs from age 6 months to old age. Health tests are available to certify that a dog is likely to be free of HD. Diet can also play an important role. A growing large breed puppy needs food with carefully balanced amounts of calcium and phosphorous. High calorie food that promotes fast growth is to be avoided.

Hypothyroidism is a condition found fairly frequently in the breed. It can present itself via a variety of symptoms including hair coat changes (dryness, brittleness, brown pigmentation, sparseness), and changes in temperament. Dogs suffering from an underactive thyroid can experience reproductive failure and may put on excess weight even when fed a modest ration. A veterinarian can prescribe supplementation of thyroid hormone after a blood test is evaluated to determine whether the thyroid gland is working optimally. Heritability of these conditions is not understood entirely. This condition is usually easily treated with good results.

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) is a disease of the cartilage that also can lead to crippling arthritic changes. Like HD and ED, there are genetic components to this disease, although there are no scientific studies in Berners to help determine the heritability of OCD. OFA certifies shoulder radiographs and issues a certificate and registry number to dogs free of this disease in the shoulder. Diet can also play an important role (see HD).

Panosteitis (Pano) is a disease of the long bones in the legs and is a condition that typically affects growing dogs from 5-8 months and up to 2 years of age. Diagnosis can often be done with x-rays, but mild forms may be difficult to detect. The disease can impair movement, cause intermittent or chronic lameness that may last for weeks or months, cause pain that makes the dog quite uncomfortable, and may "wander" from one leg to another. The condition will generally resolve with rest and subside completely when the affected dog reaches maturity. Pano is not related to trauma. The mode of inheritance needs further study but the condition does seem to run in families. Diet can also play an important role (see HD).

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is a disease of the eyes, which causes eventual blindness. This is an inherited disease in Berners, and it is likely autosomal recessive. More affected dogs are needed to research this disease, as of April 2011 the genetic mutation has not yet been identified.

Sub-aortic Stenosis (SAS) is a condition where dogs have a partial obstruction to the flow of blood leaving the left side of the heart, which is caused by a fibrous band, most commonly just below the aortic valve. This condition may give no outward warning to impending problems. Rather, a seemingly healthy dog may suddenly drop dead. SAS is hereditary in some breeds likely including Berners.

Von Willebrand's Disease (vWD) is a bleeding disorder that occurs in many different breeds. In Bernese, vWD is an autosomal recessive trait. Vet Gen ( has a vWD genetic test for Bernese Mountain Dogs. It is recommended that each dog's clotting factor be assessed prior to surgery.