Sheltie Planet

Common Health Problems in Shelties

Genetically, Shelties are more vulnerable to health problems like Patellar Luxation, Hip Dysplasia, Collie Eye, Dermatomyositis and Von Willebrande's Disease. They affect the knees, hip, eyes, skin and blood.

With modern genetic testing available to screen any breeding pair, well-bred Sheltie puppies are not prone to inherited diseases like they used to be. Pre-screening by breeders allows them to rule out affected dogs, helping to ensure they create litters of genetically healthy puppies.

However, if you bought your Sheltie from a pet store or internet seller, you can bet the backyard breeder or puppy mill spared themselves the expense of DNA testing. In this case, these are the potential issues you should look out for in your Sheltie.

You can also take a DNA cheek swab from your Sheltie and have it analyzed to identify his ancestry and inform his health outcomes, much like the human mail order DNA tests.

Healthy weight maintenance is also important for your Sheltie. All dog breeds benefit from a good diet and a healthy weight to prolong their lifespan. Proper dental care will save him from painful cavities and tooth extractions, while annual vet check-ups will help detect disease early.

De-sexing your Sheltie can also reduce the number of diseases he can potentially develop in later life. These include ovarian, mammary and uterine cancers in females, and testicular and prostate cancers in males. Read the complete pros and cons of spaying or neutering your Sheltie.

Here's a breakdown of the six main genetic culprits of poor health in Shelties:

1. Obesity

It's all too easy to overfeed a Sheltie. That's because there's no standardized amount of kibble to feed a Sheltie; it all depends on the type of kibble, her individual size, her activity level and her metabolism. You'll get to know how much to feed your Sheltie by slightly increasing or decreasing the serving size week by week, then checking her weight with a simple test:

For our Shelties, Howard and Piper (now 11), we feed half a cup of dry kibble per day, plus limited table scraps. So when kibble manufacturers recommend feeding 1-2 cups per day, this may actually be DOUBLE or QUADRUPLE what your Sheltie actually needs! Imagine if you consumed quadruple the amount of calories you need every single day. Welcome to Obesity. Population: Sheltie.

If you think half a cup of kibble per day sounds meagre, think again. The typical American Sheltie weighs around 22lbs (10kg), and the English Sheltie around 18lbs (8kg). They should not be eating the same quantity as their humans who are many multiples heavier. We often forget to make that distinction.

What's more, kibble expands to double the size in your dog's stomach. Just soak half a cup in water for 30 minutes and you'll see the difference. Your Sheltie is definitely full after a kibble meal. (For that matter, try soaking the kibble before feeding for myriad health benefits including better hydration, digestion, appetite, circulation and electrolyte balance.)

And if you want to prolong your dog's enjoyment of mealtimes, as well as prevent bloating, hiccups and regurgitation, check out these genius slow feed dog bowls.

When they were young, we used to feed our Shelties half a cup of kibble twice a day, at breakfast and dinner, along with table scraps. But both fellas soon became visibly overweight and we could feel ample fat around their ribs. Back then we didn't realize the importance of dogs staying lean and fit either.

Our attention was drawn to the fact that our dogs were getting overweight when friends started to tell us how fat Howard had become. So don't hold back - ask those people who don't see your dog every day. Is my Sheltie overweight? You may not notice yourself until it becomes really obvious and that leaves way more work to get them back to a healthy weight.

If you think your Sheltie is too fat, cut back on the kibble and scraps immediately, only feeding one meal per day, and make sure you're getting them out for at least 30 minutes of off-leash exercise each day. Swimming is really good exercise if your Sheltie is overweight or has painful joints, which is why we encourage you to desensitize your Sheltie to water when they're young.

Desensitize your Sheltie to water when he's young

Desensitize your Sheltie to water when he's young

"But what if my Sheltie is starving hungry?" I hear you cry.

Some dogs are just obsessed with food, and they may complain at the sudden withdrawal of breakfast. But one meal a day is perfectly natural for dogs and he's likely reacting out of habit. If your Sheltie is visibly anxious about eating - namely, whining at the time he used to get breakfast - give him some low calorie scraps like cooked or raw vegetables. Just be sure to avoid these 33 foods that are toxic to dogs.

In summary, if you want your Sheltie to live a long and healthy life, the most important thing you can do is look after her weight. Lots of dogs can be Gobble Guts (I'm looking at you Howard) and so this may not always be easy. But be strict, because your pet relies on you to make the right choices she can't make for herself. Always prevent your Sheltie from becoming overweight.

The Pet Owner's Guide to Shelties by Becky Casale

2. Patellar Luxation (Kneecap Dislocation)

This joint problem is more common in small dog breeds like Shelties. It's where the knee cap (patella) floats out of position (luxation). This causes pain and difficulty straightening the leg. I'm super squeamish just thinking about it.

Patella Luxation Illustration

Illustration of a luxating patella

A floating or dislocated kneecap is really common in toy and miniature breeds (think Yorkies, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas) and females are much more likely to suffer from it. If your Sheltie has patellar luxation, you'll notice her limp and hold her hind leg up. This may only last for 10 minutes before she returns to normal, but it will be a recurring problem. If severe, she may suddenly become lame and be unable to walk.

Luxation of the patella usually strikes Shelties in their mid-life (4-8 years) and can be caused by an injury or congenital malformation. Your vet can formally diagnose it with a physical exam. They can also take x-rays of the entire leg and hip joint, which reveal abnormal twisting of the surrounding bones to accommodate the injury. Fluid samples from the knee area can also reveal an increase in giveaway mononuclear cells.

Treatment involves massaging the affected kneecap dislocation but this has limited positive effects. In chronic or severe cases, your Sheltie will need surgery to correct the kneecap with a 30-60 day recovery period of no running or jumping. The kneecap can be surgically re-attached to the bone, or the bone groove deepened to better secure the kneecap. These treatments are effective in 9 out of 10 dogs.

Long term, however, around half of those dogs will have a relapse. In other words, if your Sheltie has one kneecap dislocation then it's probably going to haunt you. The good news is that further slippages after surgery are usually less severe. Because this is all caused by a genetic malformation if the knee (then triggered by injury or wear and tear) breeders should be careful not to mate Shelties with patellar luxation and pass on the vulnerability.

Tyson the Sheltie had surgery to correct Patellar Luxation on both back knee caps

Tyson had surgery to correct Patellar Luxation on both back knee caps

Learn more about Patellar Luxation at Pet MD.

3. Hip Dysplasia

Here's another joint problem which may affect Shelties. Weirdly, this is usually a large breed health problem (think German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Great Danes) however due to their genetic history, it has a tendency to crop up in Shetland Sheepdogs and some other small breeds.

Hip Dysplasia Illustration

Illustration of hip dysplasia and resulting arthritis

Hip dysplasia is caused by a slipping out (subluxation) of the ball-and-socket hip joint. Normally this joint moves smoothly to give flexibility of the hind legs, but thanks to a genetic malformation, the hip joint develops incorrectly and we get a subluxation. This, in turn, leads to loss of function as well as painful arthritis.

It's another joint-related disease to strike in middle-age (4-8 years) in Shelties although large dog breeds are likely to see an early onset in the first year. If your Sheltie has hip dysplasia you'll see him limping on his hind leg (or hopping like a rabbit) and hesitating when rising, jumping, and climbing stairs because of the pain it causes. Other signs including holding the back legs close together while standing, reluctance to run, and lameness after exercise.

Your vet can diagnose hip dysplasia with a physical exam, blood analysis to detect inflammation, and x-rays to visualize the severity. They will ask lots of questions about the onset of the symptoms and it will help to bring any information you have on your dog's ancestry.

You then have two options: medical management or surgery. The former means maintaining your dog's healthy weight, giving him low-impact exercise like slow jogging and swimming, a warm sleeping area and massage therapy.

If you can afford it, there are many types of surgical treatment available depending on the age of your dog and the severity of the hip dysplasia.

Archie the Sheltie was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at 12 months old

Archie was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at 12 months old

Learn more about Hip Dysplasia at Pet MD.

4. Dermatomyositis (Skin Inflammation)

Dermatomyositis tends to only affect Sheltie and Collie breeds which reveals its hereditary origins. It's an inflammatory disease affecting the skin, muscles and blood vessels. Those who carry the gene develop lesions on the face some time between 2 and 6 months old, although it can (rarely) affect adult dogs too. Also known as Collie Nose, the lesions are aggravated by trauma and UV light.

Shelties with Dermatomyositis

Shelties with Dermatomyositis

If your Sheltie has dermatomyositis (DMS), you will notice redness, scaling, crusting and hair loss on the eyes, ears, tail and feet when they're young. The lesions can vary in severity and can come and go over time. It can look scary but Collie Nose is not contagious and your dog can't infect humans or other pets.

Your vet will be able to diagnose it formally with a skin biopsy to rule out any similar looking conditions such as allergies, mange and ischemic dermatopathy (low blood supply to the skin). If they're not very familiar with Shelties or Collies do mention Collie Nose / Dermatomyositis often limited to these breeds. DMS experts suggest that a sure definitive sign is a bald tail tip.

Treatment for dermatomyositis in Shelties involves hypoallergenic shampoos and antibiotics for any resulting skin infections. Topical steroid cream can help, as can tattooing the affected nose area black to protect it from damaging UV light. Medication to improve blood flow may also help, as can a diet rich in Vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.

Alas there's no complete cure for Collie Nose. The best you can hope for is a mild case. The lesions will come and go over your Sheltie's lifetime and so requires ongoing medical and dietary management. Tragically, in extreme cases of suffering - where the muscles are severely inflamed and the esophagus is enlarged - euthanasia may be the only humane choice.

Learn more about Dermatomyositis at Pet MD.

5. Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA)

Collie Eye Anomaly affects up to a whopping 97 per cent of Collies in the US and the UK. Because of historic breeding patterns, Collie Eye is seen (to a much lesser extent) in several other herding breeds including Shelties. So what are the effects?

Collie Eye Anomaly affects most Collie dogs to some degree

Collie Eye Anomaly affects most Collie dogs to some degree

The problem starts in the womb, when multiple genes which control eye development go haywire. More specifically, the choroid (an area of blood vessels which nourish the retina) is poorly developed. The genetic anomalies can also cause retinal detachment.

Both eyes are affected and the disease manifests in stages culminating in blindness. Symptoms may be difficult to spot at first, so a home DNA test signalling the fault on chromosome 37 can give you an early warning.

Collie Eye is linked to certain other deformities of the eye. So investigate further if your dog has: unusually small eyes (microphthalmia), eyes that are sunken in the sockets (enophthalmia), cloudy eyes (corneal stromal mineralization), or retinal folds.

Breeders often take their puppy litters for eye checks in their first few weeks of life to rule out Collie Eye Anomaly. This also helps them decide which puppies to keep for future showing and breeding (any dog with genetic diseases such as CEA should never be bred).

The vet can also pick up on early signs of retinal detachment and prevent further damage if spotted in the first year. The next stage of the disease is marked by a coloboma - a hole in either the lens, choroid, retina, iris or optic disc. A coloboma can be large or small, with large holes leading to partial or complete blindness.

The main treatment for Collie Eye means surgically removing any colobomas with laser surgery or cryosurgery. Retinal detachments can also be repaired with surgery, although these are only expected to occur in the first year of life in relation to CEA.

The only way to prevent Collie Eye is with selective breeding practices. This reduces the incidence of the disease for future generations.

Learn more about Collie Eye at Pet MD.

6. Von Willebrande's Disease (Bleeding Disorder)

Von Willebrande's Disease (vWD) is the most common genetic bleeding disorder in both humans and dogs. The mutant gene fails to communicate sufficient production of Von Willebrand Factor (vWF) which is essential for normal platelet binding in the blood. As a result, affected dogs bleed excessively to the point of hemorrhage.

Von Willebrande's Disease shows up in Shelties from a young age, since blood clotting is so crucial to survival. There are mild and severe forms depending on inheritance patterns, and Shelties affected by vWD of any form should never be bred.

Symptoms include spontaneous hemorrhage from the nose, blood in the feces and urine, bleeding gums, blood loss after surgery, and excessive vaginal bleeding. Prolonged bleeding can lead to anemia and if left untreated, can be fatal.

If you suspect your Sheltie has on Von Willebrande's Disease, see a vet. They'll do a physical exam, ask about symptoms, and perform blood and urine analysis. A further test called a buccal mucosa bleeding time (BMBT) involves monitoring platelet clumping defects and vWF deficiency in response to a small injury.

Sounds bad right? Actually, most Shelties with mild to moderate Von Willebrande's Disease can have a good quality of life without any special treatment. Even severely affected dogs can live well - but they do need a blood transfusion before any type of surgery in anticipation of high levels of blood loss. You also need to be more vigilant with watching for episodes of prolonged bleeding and take your Sheltie to the vet for emergency blood transfusions if needed.

Learn more about Von Willebrande's Disease at Pet MD.

Author Bio

Becky Casale is a writer and science student. She has two Sheltie babies and two human babies who all smell like popcorn. See her Pet Owner's Guide to Shelties and her illustrated blog Science Me.


The Pet Owner's Guide to Shelties by Becky Casale