North Island St.Bernard Assn.Inc

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New Zealand
New Zealand
North Island St.Bernard
Association Inc.
Est: 1981


Hereditary Disorders in the St Bernard

At the time the NZKC Hereditary Disorders Subcommittee asked breed clubs to list the known inherited diseases for their breed, Dr Boyd Jones, formerly of Massey University and now of Dublin University, assisted New Zealand St Bernard owners to identify over 25 conditions. Thankfully, many of those listed have never been identified in New Zealand.

The following is an honest attempt to list the disorders occasionally seen in New Zealand St.Bernards.

Skeletal – OCD

Hip Dysplasia
Hip Dysplasia (HD) is a progressive, degenerative joint disease involving the femur and pelvis. The hips are poorly fitted , usually caused by the dog having a shallow socket and an abnormal femur head and/or femoral neck often combined with loose ligaments. Dysplasia is known to affect many breeds of dogs, ‘giant’ breeds are usually more likely to exhibit the secondary symptoms of arthritis rather than the smaller breeds. Radiographic evaluation of the hips and selective breeding by responsible breeders has seen the average hip score for St Bernards reduce to 16.8 today.

Since 1994, 38 St Bernards have been hip scored. Hip Dysplasia is considered to be a complex inherited and environmental problem. In our giant breed, environmental influences such as excessive weight, poor nutrition, plus over supplementation with calcium and/or other additives will place great stress on hip joint development. So it is crucial puppies are fed and handled correctly during their growing stages.

PENN HIP was developed as a more reliable means of measuring Hip Dyslasia with one of the benefits being that young dogs can be scored to determine their suitability to be used for future breeding. The other main advantage is that PENN HIP is an international system that measures the Distraction Index and then provides a comparison of your Saint against other Saint Bernard's only which is a more accurate indication of the state of St Bernard hips world wide.

New Zealand has adopted PENN HIP and xrays are sent digitally to the United States for reading with a result returned in 48 hours or less.

Previously, under the NZVA method, xrays were taken and if the veterinarian advised the hips did not look good, the owner would not submit them and as a result the Hip Dyplasia figure for the breed represented primarily those dogs who were thought to have good hips.

As a result after many years of evaluating Hips, those vital health scores had not improved for many breeds although there had been improvement in New Zealand.

Under PENN HIP, if the xrays are taken, they MUST be submitted. This provides a true indication of the condition of the the skeletal Hip health for St Bernard's. 39 St Bernard's, world wide, have been measure using Penn Hip in the two years Sept 2015 - Dec 2017. As at December 2017, a total of 344 St Bernard's have been measured with an average Distraction Index of .63 (down from .65 two years ago).

Elbow Dysplasia
Elbow disease denotes joint problems that occur in many breeds of dogs, these cover conditions such as fragmented coronoid process (FCP) ununited anconeal process (UAP) and osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD). These conditions can be genetic or related to trauma associated with rapid growth. Clinical signs of UAP, i.e. lameness, are not usually apparent before 7-8 months of age, whereas dogs with OCD and FCP often present symptoms of lameness earlier. Surgery is usually necessary to repair and correct the damaged joint. All these conditions can be bilateral. X-raying and grading elbows is one way of monitoring these conditions, so that animals with high grades are not used in breeding programmes.

Dog breeds, such as St Bernards, that have problems with hip displasia also have elbow disease as an equally important problem. The average elbow score for St Bernards in New Zealand is 1.0

Entropia & Ectropia
Entropia is a condition where the eyelids turn inwards so that the eyelashes rub on the eyeball causing irritations such as weepy eyes and ulceration. Ectropia is where the lower eyelid is excessively loose and turns out exposing too much haw. Both of these eye conditions are due to poor eye conformation. In extreme cases they can cause considerable distress to the dog and the eye irritation can lead to blindness.

This condition is probably one of the most common causes of premature death in the Saint Bernard breed. It is primarily a disease associated with large and giant dog breeds with some 80% of afflicted animals being male dogs between the ages of 4 to 6 years. It is a disease affecting the heart muscle, causing progressive weakness. Dogs suffering from this condition will usually fall over onto their side in a faint after excitement or exertion.

The number of St Bernards succumbing to Heart Disease is on the decrease as breeders are factoring this when choosing mates for their dogs.

Two decades ago the average age for a St Bernard was 7 years old.

Over the years breeders have addressed life threatening health issues and now feed a more balanced diet. The result is that they have extended the average life expectancy of a St Bernard to 9 years of age, and frequently they live past 10 years or more. Various Cancers not diagnosed previously, now afflict
our breed. Of them all Osteoscarcoma (Bone Cancer) is the most common. The most common site for this cancer is on the front leg
although there have been some cases of tumors occurring in the hind leg. The condition is terminal and will present itself as a lump
appearing on the front leg accompanied by lameness , a tenderness of the afflicted limb, lack of appetite and general poor
health as the disease progresses. Once diagnosed by x-ray with this disease, Saints rarely survive longer than 4 months. It is an
extremely painful condition and euthanasia is usually the kindest option.

Three other conditions, not proven to be inherited, also affect the breed.

They are the potentially fatal Bloat (Gastric dilation) which can lead to Gastric Torsion. If caught in time there is a chance that a life may not be lost, but this depends entirely on early diagnosis of the symptoms. Bloat is a rapid accumulation of gas in the stomach and the stomach will look swollen and hard, Often it will occur after a meal. If the dog is taken to the vets immediately, a tube can be passed through the mouth into the stomach so the gas can escape. If treatment is unsuccessful or unavailable, torsion will occur, where the stomach will flip over. Once this
happens few dogs will survive the attack as the blood supply to the stomach and other major organs is interrupted. Because the Saint
Bernard is prone to bloat owners should avoid feeding only one meal a day, but rather feed twice daily two smaller-sized portions and mix wet and dried food together.  Keeping food bowls at floor level is also important.

The third condition, not proven to be inherited but relatively common in the St Bernard is the Ruptured Cruciate Ligament. It does appear more common in some lines, but the inherited incidence is unproven. The weight and size of the St Bernard means it is more prone to cruciate injury than smaller breeds of dogs. Two cruciate ligaments are found in the stifle joint, one is called the anterior cruciate ligament and the other the posterior cruciate ligament. The two ligaments cross through the stifle joint from opposite sides to maintain joint stability but they can be damaged when excessive and sudden twisting of the joint occurs.
Both ligaments can be damaged or torn, however damage to the anterior cruciate is more common. Poor hip construction and patellar luxation will place an even higher stress load on these ligaments. The operation to correct this, if followed by the recommended amount of rest, is nearly always successful.
If untreated, osteoarthritis in the stifle will develop and the dog will retain a permanent limp in the hind quarter.

The management of the St Bernard has changed considerably over the last decade. Once it was considered essential to supplement a growing St with large quantities of calcium.
Thankfully now, that practice has been recognized as more harmful than beneficial and most breeders/owners now feed AAFCO approved commercially prepared balanced diets.

It is the responsibility of every breeder to recognise and accept the inherited diseases that afflict their lines, and to breed responsibly in light of those observations with a view to improving the health and longevity of their breed of dog.

NB: The most useful piece of equipment you can own for a St Bernard is a thermometer. Their temperature should be 38.6 degrees Celsius and a temperature over 40 degrees Celsius is dangerous. Consult a vet immediately.


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