Australian Shepherds are generally healthy dogs, but they can develop certain health problems, including hip dysplasia, various eye diseases, sensitivity to certain drugs, and epilepsy. Here’s a brief rundown on what you should know.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic malformation of the hip socket. Dogs with hip dysplasia may appear perfectly normal, but because the head of the thigh bone doesn't fit properly into the hip socket, over time the cartilage on the surface of the bone begins to wear away. The constant inflammation leads to arthritis.
Hip dysplasia can range from mild to severe. Severe cases usually require surgical correction, usually total hip replacement, which can cost several thousand dollars. Untreated, the dog will suffer pain and lameness. This condition can usually be diagnosed by X-rays and manual manipulation of the hips, which may require anesthesia. It's impossible to know if a dog has hip dysplasia simply from examining him or watching him move. Both of a puppy’s parents should have hips rated good or better by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHIP).
Aussies can be affected by a number of genetic eye problems. These include colobomas, in which part of the structure of the eye is missing. They can also suffer from different types of cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and detached retinas. Another eye problem is persistent pupillary membrane, little strands of fetal tissue that cross over the iris. Aussies are also among the breeds that can be affected by Collie Eye Anomaly, a group of eye disorders ranging from minor to serious.
This long list of eye problems means that you'll want to make sure your puppy's parents were certified to have normal eyes by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, with the results recorded through the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF).
Aussies are also one of the breeds that can be affected by Multiple Drug Sensitivity (MDR1). Dogs with MDR1 can have fatal reactions to a number of common veterinary drugs including the common heartworm preventive ivermectin. Screening not only your puppy's parents but your dog for these conditions is a lifesaving necessity. The test is very simple and requires only a cheek swab; information on how to test your dog is available here.
Epilepsy also occurs in the breed, but there is currently no screening test for seizure disorders in Australian Shepherds. A good breeder will be able to discuss the prevalence of all health problems, those with and without genetic screening tests, in her dogs' lines, and help puppy buyers make an informed decision about health risks to their dog.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The United States Australian Shepherd Association participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Aussies can be included, the breeder must submit test results for these conditions. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been "vet checked," then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.