Health Issues for the Bernese Mountain Dog

Bernese Mountain Dogs can suffer from a number of serious health problems. What follows is a brief outline of some of the illnesses found in the BMD.

Note: This section is intended as a source of information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional care. Always consult with your Veterinarian about health related matters. The information provided here is a brief outline of just some of the health issues which may be of concern for the Bernese Mountain Dog and should not be considered as a complete listing.

Aseptic Meningitis

Meningitis refers to the inflammation of the membranes that line the brain and spinal cord (the meninges). Most cases are due to bacterial or viral infection; however, some forms occur in specific breeds and are believed to have an inherited basis. The Bernese Mountain Dog is susceptible to the most common form — Aseptic Meningitis. Affected dogs are usually young, large-breed dogs between 4 to 24 months of age. Signs may include: fever, severe neck pain, a hunched back, stilted gait, reluctance to move. If not treated, some dogs develop neurologic deficits (i.e., weakness, paralysis, and blindness).

Additional Information:


Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV) is a condition caused by a twisting of the stomach and thus trapping the stomach contents and gases resulting in a rapid swelling of the abdomen accompanied by pain and eventual death if untreated. It is an emergency, requiring immediate veterinary action. This condition is most often found in large, deep chested dog breeds. Anyone owning a deep chested breed, susceptible to Bloat should be prepared to handle the emergency procedures necessary, including having readily available the name and phone number of emergency clinics and/or after-hours Veterinarians.

Breeds with a deeper and narrower chest are most susceptible. Within such a breed, dogs with the deepest, narrowest chests are the most vulnerable.

Symptoms can be subtle. You should learn to recognize them:

  • Continuous pacing and/or lying down in odd places
  • Salivating, panting, whining
  • Unable to get comfortable
  • Acting agitated
  • Unproductive vomiting or retching (may produce frothy foamy vomit in small quantities)
  • Excessive drooling, usually accompanied by retching noises
  • Swelling in abdominal area (may or may not be noticeable)

If ANY combination of these symptoms are noticed, CALL YOUR VET and get the dog there as fast as possible. Bloat is LIFE-THREATENING.

Additional Information:

- Bloat — Canine Inherited Disorders Database

- Bloat: The Mother of All Emergencies — Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

- Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus; Bloat — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

For more information on what you can do in the case of a Bloat emergency, see First Aid for Bloat.


Cancers in the Bernese Mountain Dog are a serious problem and a common cause of early death. The most common types of cancer found in the BMD are: Histicytosis; Mastocytoma; Lymphosarcoma; Fibrosarcoma; and Osteosarcoma.

While Histiocytosis is quite rare in other breeds, it is inherited in the Bernese Mountain Dog and the most common type of cancer found in this breed.

There are two types of Histiocytosis: malignant and systematic. Early symptoms include depression, lethargy, loss of appetite and weight loss. In systematic Histiocytosis skin abnormalities are common on the face and limbs. If the tumor has spread to the lungs, there may be trouble breathing as well and anemia is also common. Malignant Histiocytosis progresses rapidly and has usually metastasized by the time it is diagnosed.

The mode of inheritance of Histiocytosis in the Bernese Mountain Dog is polygenic, meaning many genes are involved. Because it generally does not develop until the dog is middle-aged or older, it can be hard to identify parents that carry the trait. Conscientious efforts by all breeders and owners are needed to help eliminate it from the gene pool. Owners should report all cases to their breeder.

Additional Information:

-Histiocytic Diseases of the Bernese Mountain Dog — from The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

-Histiocytosis — Canine Inherited Disorders Database

-Cancer — Additional information on these and other types of Cancer can be found in the Health & Nutrition section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.


Canine Epilepsy is a chronic condition characterized by recurrent seizures. Seizures are the result of muscle responses to an abnormal nerve-signal burst from the brain. The cause can be anything that disrupts normal brain circuitry:

Idiopathic Epilepsy, meaning "no known cause", also referred to as Primary Epilepsy, is possibly inherited. Secondary Epilepsy can be caused by:

  • Low blood sugar,
  • low thyroid function,
  • infections causing brain damage,
  • ingestion of toxins,
  • brain tumors, and
  • vaccinations.

Most dogs with Idiopathic Epilepsy suffer their first seizure between the ages of one and five years. A genetic basis for Idiopathic Epilepsy is strongly suspected in several breeds, including the Bernese Mountain Dog.

For complete details on Canine Epilepsy, visit The Epi Guardian Angels — An extensive resource for information, support, treatments and solutions for veterinarians and owners of dogs with Canine Epilepsy.

Also see the Canine Inherited Disorders Database.

Hip & Elbow Dysplasias

Hip and elbow dysplasias are common conditions in Bernese Mountain Dogs. Canine Hip Dysplasia afflicts millions of dogs each year and can result in debilitating orthopaedic disease of the hip. It is caused when the femoral head does not fit properly in the hip socket, causing instability of the joint. Over time, this malformation can cause degenerative joint disease which causes increased pain and immobility. Elbow Dysplasia may be due to different growth rates of the three bones making up the elbow. In affected dogs, the joint is lax or loose and, in mildly affected dogs, leads to painful arthritis. Severely affected dogs can develop osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), fragmented medial coronoid processes and united anconeal processes resulting from the stress in the joint.

Through selective breeding strategies, veterinarians and breeders are attempting to eliminate Canine Hip Dysplasia. All breeding dogs should be x-rayed and certified clear by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and/or by the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP).

Of all the breeds evaluated by the OFA, Bernese Mountain Dogs have the eighth highest incidence of Hip Dysplasia. 28% of the Berners whose hip X-rays are submitted are rated as dysplastic. In reality, however, the incidence in the breed may be considerably higher as many owners do not submit the X-rays if dysplasia is suspected.

Elbows are definitely a problem as well in Berners with one study finding that the heritability factor of elbow problems was even higher than that of Hip Dysplasia.

Additional Information:

- Canine Hip Dysplasia — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

- Elbow Dysplasia — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

- Hip Dysplasia — Canine Inherited Disorders Database

- Canine Hip Dysplasia — Southern California Veterinary Surgical Group

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)

OCD is a degeneration of bone underlying the cartilage layer of joints. It can affect the shoulder, ankle or elbow joint and almost always shows up during the growth phase — between six to nine months of age — of larger breeds, but signs may be seen as early as 4 months or as late as 12 to 18 months of age. It may start as an intermittent limp in one leg. Many young dogs with OCD run and play as though nothing is wrong but when they slow down they realize the limb hurts and the limp returns. If OCD is left untreated, arthritic changes in the joint may cause permanent lameness.

Contributing factors to OCD include both environmental and genetic factors. Dogs whose parents had OCD are much more likely to also suffer from this disease and physical trauma to the joints may also cause the already weakened cartilage to chip and crack. In addition, diet for the growing dog is also thought to be a factor. Excessive weight gain, calcium supplementation, and an overly nutritious diet should all be avoided.

Additional Information:

- Limping - Osteochondritis Dessicans — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

Panosteitis (Pano)

(Also known as "long bone disease," "wandering lameness," or "pano.") Most commonly seen between the ages of five to 12 months. Pano is caused by excessive bone production on the long bones. Normally, a dog affected by this condition will grow out of the problem, but it is painful.

Diet is thought to be a contributing factor in the development of Pano. High protein puppy diets may make the puppy grow too fast and increase the chance of the pup experiencing Pano which is also sometimes described as "growing pains." Pano can also show up in any leg and may come and go without warning. Puppies usually completely outgrow Pano by the age of 18 months and it rarely goes beyond two years.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy in the Bernese Mountain Dog

PRA is a family of diseases involving the gradual deterioration of the retina. In the early stages of the disease, an affected dog becomes nightblind and cannot see well in dim lighting. As the disease progresses, daytime vision also fails. Provided that the affected dog's environment remains constant, an affected dog can adapt quite well to this handicap. As the affected dog's vision fails, the pupils become increasingly dilated, causing a "shine" to his eyes. The lens of the eyes may also become cloudy, or opaque, resulting in a cataract.

It should be noted that while some breeds are affected early in life, others can develop PRA much later. There are two groupings of PRA - early onset, and late onset. In early onset, poor vision in low light may be detectable shortly after birth, with total blindness occurring from 1 to 5 years of age. In late onset forms, night blindness occurs from 1 to 5 years, progressing to total blindness anytime after 3 years of age. Early onset PRA has been diagnosed in Bernese Mountain Dogs. There may also be a late onset form of the disease in the breed, but this has not been definitively diagnosed.

PRA is hereditary and is assumed to be an autosomal recessive trait, until proven otherwise. (A recessive trait requires two copies of the defective gene. An autosomal recessive trait is one in which a recessive trait is carried on a chromosome pair other than the XY sex pair.) An affected dog must have two copies of the defective gene. A dog with only one copy of the gene is a carrier and will never have PRA, but will be able to pass that defective gene on to approximately half of his/her offspring.

Additional Information:

- Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) in Bernese Mountain Dogs — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

- Eye Problems — Additional information on this and other eye problems can be found in the Health & Nutrition section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.

Sub-aortic Stenosis (SAS)

Aortic Stenosis is a narrowing of the outflow channel between the left ventricle and the main artery of the body, the aorta. This can occur at the level of the aortic valve (valvular); above the aortic valve, in the aorta (supravalvular); or below the aortic valve, in the ventricle (subvalvular) — this is the most common. The cause of Aortic Stenosis is believed to be genetically inherited.

Symptoms can vary from no signs at all to sudden death. Dogs with mild stenosis will generally show no clinical effects and have a normal life expectancy. In most cases, an abnormal sound of the heart is the only finding. With moderate to severe stenosis, signs may vary. Some dogs may show signs of exercise intolerance or fainting. As the condition progresses, symptoms may include difficulty in breathing, coughing, abnormal heart rythms, and sudden death.

Congenital aortic stenosis is one of the most common heart defects seen in large breed dogs.

Additional Information:

- Subaortic Stenosis — Canine Inherited Disorders Database

- Aortic Stenosis — Provet Healthcare Information

Von Willebrand's Disease

vWD is a blood disorder, a deficiency in clotting factor VIII antigen. This substance is called "Von Willebrand's factor." Dogs affected by the disease do not effectively utilize their platelets for blood clotting and therefore are more likely to have excessive bleeding episodes upon injury. This is similar to hemophilia in humans.

vWD is a common inherited disorder. Certain breeds have a higher than normal incidence of this disorder.

The main symptom of vWd is excessive bleeding, generally occuring after an injury or surgery. Dog's with Von Willebrand's disease may also develop nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums; bleeding in the stomach or intestine may also occur; and some dogs may have blood in their urine. Symptoms similar to those of arthritis may also occur if bleeding is into the joints.

VetGen has developed a DNA test for vWD in Berners. The test is identical to that for Doberman Pinschers.

Additional Information:

- von Willebrand's DNA Test — Type I - Bernese Mountain Dog, Doberman Pincher, Kerry Blue Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Poodle and Papillon.
VetGen scientists, in collaboration with the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, proudly announce the discovery of the mutation that causes Type I von Willebrand's Disease (vWD) and the offering of a DNA test to detect vWD in the above breeds.

- Von Willebrand's Disease in the Bernese Mountain Dog — The Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, Inc.

- von Willebrand's Disease (vWD) — Additional information can be found in the Health & Nutrition section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.

Note: This section is intended as a source of information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional care. Always consult with your Veterinarian about health related matters. The information provided here is a brief outline of some of the health issues which may be of concern for the Bernese Mountain Dog and should not be considered as a complete listing. For more details and links to some indepth websites, please see the Health & Nutrition Section of Canada's Guide to Dogs.