Health Concerns in Black Russian Terriers
by Richard Hawkes, DVM
Any breed of dog can be afflicted with a variety of health problems and the Black Russian Terrier is no exception. While any number of disorders can be possible, there are several diseases or conditions that come to the forefront in the BRT. The following information is presented to help educate BRT buyers or current owners with respect to some of the common maladies seen in this breed:
1. Canine Hip Dysplasia (HD)
2. Hyperuricosuria (HU)
3. Hypoadrenocorticism (Addison’s Disease)
4. Canine Elbow Dysplasia (ED)
5. Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis & Polyneuropathy (JLPP)
Canine Hip Dysplasia (HD)
Hip dysplasia is a complicated multifactorial condition based on both genetic and environmental factors. The disease is believed to be polygenic (multiple genes involved) with environmental influences playing a role in the expression of the disease in the dog. According to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), the incidence of hip dysplasia in Black Russian Terriers is approximately 42% (2016).
In immature animals, HD manifests itself as a predisposition to luxation or subluxation of the coxofemoral (hip) joint. This excessive laxity creates abnormal forces across the joint, which can interfere with normal development of the joint. This in turn can cause a misshapen femoral head/neck and acetabulum, as well as microfractures in the articular cartilage. This is the onset of degenerative joint disease (DJD). Owners may notice a popping sound (Ortolani Sign) when the dog walks as the femoral head subluxates across the acetabulum. Some puppies will also ‘bunny hop’ when running.
As a dog with HD ages, signs of the progression of the disease will appear. An owner may note the dog’s reluctance to sit or stand. The dog may show a decrease in activity or willingness to exercise, or a reluctance to run or jump. Often, muscle atrophy in the rear legs will become evident. A decreased range of motion of the hip joint ensues and the dog may display evidence of pain (limping, vocalizing, or refusal to have hip joints touched or manipulated).
Hip dysplasia can be diagnosed by your veterinarian. A good physical exam often is enough to determine if the dog is dysplastic. Radiographs (x-rays) should be done to confirm the diagnosis and assess the severity of the disease.
There are several treatment options for a dysplastic dog. Maintaining a healthy weight is very important, as is regular low-impact exercise to maintain muscle strength. Several joint supplements, such as glucosamine/chondroitin, may help slow progression of the disease. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAID) are the mainstay of treatment for HD. These drugs are used to decrease pain and inflammation to help keep the dog comfortable. Chronic NSAID use can be associated with side effects however, and should be done under the supervision of your veterinarian. Other modalities include physical therapy, massage therapy, acupuncture and laser therapy.
Sometimes medical therapy is not enough and surgery may be recommended for the dysplastic dog. Young dogs may benefit from a triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO) in which the acetabulum is repositioned over the femoral head to better seat the head in the acetabular fossa. Older dogs may require a total hip replacement (THR) to regain the ability to walk pain-free. A salvage procedure called femoral head ostectomy (FHO) is sometimes performed, but this procedure is not well suited for a large dog.
How does one avoid hip dysplasia in their dog? Since we know that dysplasia is influenced by genetic as well as environmental factors, one needs to focus on both of these. In selecting dogs for breeding, animals with dysplastic hips should not be bred. This may be easier said than done with respect to BRTs however, as the gene pool is relatively small and the incidence rate of HD is extremely high.
If a dysplastic dog is a desirable breeding animal (with many other desirable traits such that it should not be eliminated from the gene pool based on poor hips alone), it should be bred only to a non-dysplastic dog – preferably a dog with good or excellent hip scores. But this is no guarantee that puppies will not be affected by HD. Regular tracking of offspring by the breeder should be done to determine how successful the breeding is.
Environmental factors are in the control of the puppy owner. Limiting rambunctious play where the puppy may get injured should be considered. Also, do not force a puppy into excessive activity (i.e., when the puppy is tired, let it rest). Nutrition can play a role in the development of HD. Generally rapid, quick growth can influence the development of bone and joint disorders. High protein, calcium-rich diets have been implicated in the development of several joint diseases, including HD. Feeding a high quality, large breed puppy food is important. If one desires to home prepare a diet for their dog, consulting with a veterinary nutritionist is highly recommended. Protein level and getting the correct calcium/phosphorous ratio is extremely important in a growing puppy and dog.
Hyperuricosuria is a genetic condition known to be present in the Black Russian Terrier. HU is caused by a mutated gene that is autosomal recessive in nature. This means that a dog has to have two copies of the gene – one from each parent – to be affected.
A test for the HU mutation has been developed and is readily available from several commercial laboratories, including the University of California, Davis. The definitive diagnosis of HU is made from a cheek swab and often before the dog shows any clinical signs of the disease. Any BRT owner who does not know the HU status of your dog is highly encouraged to perform this simple test.
Dogs affected by HU do not have the ability to properly break down protein in their body. Normally the end product of protein metabolism is allantoin, which is soluble and excreted in the urine. In an affected BRT, the conversion of uric acid into allantoin is impaired. Thus the dog excretes uric acid in the urine. Uric acid is not readily soluble in urine and will precipitate as urate in a crystallized form. It is these crystals that have potential to cause problems. In some dogs, these crystals will irritate the bladder wall causing inflammation (cystitis). A dog suffering from cystitis will often show signs of discomfort when urinating. They may strain and urinate frequently, often only producing a small amount of urine. The urine may be noticeably blood-tinged. The bladder will become very thick as well. These dogs often lick at their private parts. This is often misdiagnosed as a urinary tract infection.
Sometimes the urate crystals will congregate to form solid urate stones. When this happens the stones can accumulate anywhere in the urinary track, with the bladder being the most common site. Sometimes the stones are small enough to be voided out in the urine. An owner may actually see grit or small stones when cleaning up an accident. In male animals voiding of stones also poses a risk of urinary blockage. The male dog has a constriction in the urethra at the os penis – the boney structure present in the penis. Because the urethra travels through a boney tunnel, it cannot dilate. This can lead to a blockage at the base of the penis, making urine passage difficult or impossible. The dog will strain to urinate, often only passing a few bloody drops. This situation is a true emergency and if it occurs you must have your dog seen immediately by a veterinarian. At the veterinary clinic, a urinalysis may reveal urate crystals, increasing the index of suspicion for HU. Radiographs can show stones in the bladder or urethra, but urate stones are not always radio dense and thus may not be seen without contrast material or an ultrasound.
Emergency treatment is directed at unblocking the urethra and re-establishing urine patency. Sometimes a catheter can be used to flush stones back into the bladder, allowing stones to be retrieved by cystotomy. Sometimes the stones cannot be flushed and a urethrostomy (incision over the stones into the urethra) must be performed. If the dog continues to form stones, a permanent urethrostomy may be proposed to give the dog an opening wide enough to pass any stones it produces. This is a very invasive surgery (permanently altering the dogs anatomy) and can have a high complication rate.
There is no cure for HU but certain strategies can help reduce the possibility of crystals or stones. An HU-affected dog will always be at risk for the formation of urate crystals or stones, but certain strategies can be implemented to reduce the chances of this happening. Since uric acid is the product of purine metabolism, a diet low in purines is essential. The purine level of various foods can be found in many places. Generally avoiding red meats, organ meats and some fish, such as sardines and mackerel, is indicated. Eggs, cheese and white meats, such as chicken, can be a good source of low purine protein. It is very important however, to feed your dog a balanced diet, so consulting a veterinary nutritionist should be considered if you are considering a home-prepared diet for your dog. There are several veterinary diets on the market designed to reduce or eliminate urate stones that can be used as well.
Producing dilute urine is extremely important! When the urine is diluted, it is much more difficult for urate crystals to congregate and form into stones. Increasing water consumption by drenching food in warm water can greatly reduce the incidence of cystitis or urate stone formation. In fact, increasing water consumption to reduce urine concentration is the single most important strategy in preventing urinary stone formation.
Breeding considerations: Since HU is autosomal recessive, choosing mates to prevent affected HU puppies is achievable through DNA testing. It is strongly recommended that breeders test BRTs to ascertain their HU status prior to breeding. A database has been created for the compilation of these results. With good breeding practices, HU can possibly be eliminated from the BRT breed. Breeding with no concern for the HU status of the dog only serves to unnecessarily increase the prevalence of the disease.
The classic example of HU is in the Dalmatian, in which the abnormal gene is a fixed trait. This means nearly all Dalmatians carry the two abnormal copies and are at risk of developing urate crystals or stones. Decades ago, a backcross project was done (breeding a Dalmatian to a pointer that did not have the genetic mutation for HU) to try to introduce the normal gene back into the Dalmatian breed. We do not want this to have to happen to the Black Russian Terrier breed. A strategic breeding program is essential to prevent HU from also becoming fixed in the Black Russian Terrier.
Hypoadrenocorticism (Addison’s Disease)
Addison’s disease is a rare disorder that affects the adrenal glands, causing the deficient production of glucocorticoids (e.g., cortisol) and/or mineralcorticoids (e.g., aldosterone). Addison’s disease is known to have a genetic predisposition affecting several breeds, and which is suspected to include the Black Russian Terrier.
There are two forms of the disease: 1) Typical, in which the dog suffers both cortisol and aldosterone deficiency, and 2) Atypical, in which only the cortisol production is deficient. Signs of Addison’s are extremely variable, explaining why it is often called ‘the great pretender’ in veterinary circles. Dogs often have a waxing, waning course of illness that may include weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, anorexia, weight loss, trembling, increased thirst/urination and collapse. Rarely, seizures may occur as well. The signs may be acute (i.e., come on very suddenly and sometimes referred to as an Addisonian crisis) or chronic, occurring off and on over several months.
Diagnosing Addison’s disease can be challenging due to the many symptoms it can have. Generally, blood work is recommended to look for a low sodium-to-potassium ratio, indicating a possible aldosterone deficiency. If the ratio is below 27, Addison’s should be considered. However, with atypical Addison’s disease, the ratio will not be affected. Also, low sodium potassium ratios can also be found in dogs that have other diseases affecting electrolyte balance. Other findings might include elevated renal values, microcardia (small heart) on chest films, poor blood pressure, bradycardia (slow heart rate) and hypothermia. If Addison’s disease is suspected, an adrenal stimulation test (ACTH stim) can be performed to definitively diagnose the condition.
Treatment of Addison’s involves the replacement of the deficient hormones. Generally, dogs are placed on daily prednisone and a mineralcorticoid supplement (either daily oral Flurinef or injectable Percorten-V every 25-28 days). Assuming the dog is properly diagnosed and survives the acute Addisonian crisis if present (these dogs often die before a diagnosis is made and proper treatment instituted), treatment for Addison’s disease is highly successful. Unfortunately, the treatment is extremely expensive and will be for the life of the pet. If your vet is unfamiliar with the Black Russian Terrier, be sure they are made aware of the possibility of Addison’s disease if your BRT ever becomes ill or is a chronic ‘poor doer.’ Breeding of Addison’s-affected dogs should be avoided due to the likelihood of a genetic component to the disease.
Canine Elbow Dysplasia (ED)
Elbow dysplasia encompasses a variety of conditions affecting the canine elbow joint. This includes fragmented medial coronoid process (FCP), ununited anconeal process (UAP), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and elbow incongruity. Without going into detail on each disorder, the net affect of these conditions is degenerative joint disease (DJD) of the elbow joint. This will manifest itself as lameness of the front leg(s) and sometimes a thickened, swollen elbow joint. Elbow dysplasia is very common in the BRT. The incidence of elbow dysplasia in the BRT is approximately 28% according to the OFA database (2016).
Diagnosis of elbow dysplasia is usually made with radiographs. Degenerative changes and arthritis are often readily apparent later in the course of the disease. It may be difficult to diagnose early on, however, and sometimes more detailed images from a CT scan or MRI are necessary to confirm a suspected diagnosis. Treatment will depend on the underlying condition(s) present in the elbow and the severity of the disease. It may involve medications (NSAIDs and joint supplements), weight loss, exercise routines, and alternative treatments, such as laser therapy or acupuncture, among others.
Sometimes surgery (traditional or arthroscopic) is recommended as well. With FCP, the fragmented coronoid process is removed. With UAP, the ununited portion of the anconeal process is removed. With OCD, the abnormal piece of cartilage is removed. Unfortunately, surgery is not always successful in resolving lameness. These dogs are often left with a slightly unstable joint, which contributes to the continued development of DJD. Newer surgical options are becoming available (total elbow replacement), which may provide for better long-term outcomes than current modalities.
Like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia has a genetic link. Breeding dysplastic dogs to dysplastic dogs should be discouraged. If possible, only dogs free of ED should be included in a breeding program.
Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis & Polyneuropathy (JLPP)
Juvenile laryngeal paralysis & polyneuropathy is a relatively newly recognized disorder in Black Russian Terriers. Incidence rates have not yet been determined, but JLPP has been seen in both Europe and North America. JLPP is an autosomal recessive hereditary disease that affects BRT puppies. The mortality rate in affected puppies is 100 percent, with affected puppies typically not surviving beyond six months of age.
A DNA test is now available. Researchers at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014 successfully identified the mutation associated with JLPP in Black Russian Terriers. The resulting DNA test identifies carriers of this trait. As long as both parents in a breeding program are tested and one parent is clear of the mutation, no affected pups will be born. The DNA test allows breeders to eliminate the possibility of producing JLPP-affected puppies. If you do not know whether your puppy’s parents were tested and would like to know your puppy’s status, you can go to the OFA website and order the test by clicking here. Just scroll down the page until you see Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis and Polyneuropathy. The test is $65 (as of June 2015).
JLPP usually presents itself in a puppy at or shortly after weaning, (hence the term juvenile). JLPP-affected puppies have difficulty breathing and may have a change in their bark. Puppies lose the ability to control the larynx properly. This will set them up for aspiration of food as the larynx will not close properly to cover the windpipe when swallowing. A somewhat harsh breathing sound may be noted due to the inability of the arytenoid cartilage to retract from the windpipe during inhalation and exhalation.
If the puppy lives long enough, the neuropathy will progress to the rear legs. At this time the pup will show weakness in the hind end and may stumble or appear uncoordinated. Eventually the front legs will also become affected and eventually lead to complete paralysis. More often than not, the puppy will contract aspiration pneumonia and die. If this occurs prior to the onset of hind-limb weakness, the diagnosis of JLPP may never be made. The death will be attributed to the pneumonia. If a puppy shows issues with breathing, swallowing or weakness in the hind limbs, JLPP should be suspected.
Since JLPP is passed on from the parents to the puppies as an autosomal recessive trait, the parent dogs of a JLPP-affected puppy are both carriers of the disease (similar to carriers of HU). It is extremely important that breeders test breeding dogs and avoid breeding carriers to carriers to ensure that no JLPP-affected puppies are born. It is also important to note that breeding a JLPP carrier to a normal dog will not produce a JLPP-affected puppy; however, it will produce more carriers of the gene.
Other health issues can affect a BRT
In addition to the above issues, BRTs are also known to suffer from allergies, forms of heart disease, such as aortic stenosis, as well as patellar luxation, epilepsy and an array of other maladies. When purchasing a BRT puppy, it is important to do basic research into the lines from which your puppy may come. What types of problems have been seen in these lines? What health tests has the breeder performed? Have results of these tests been made public? Does the breeder have references? Is there a health guarantee on the puppy, and if so, what does it cover? What will be expected of you as the puppy’s new owner? Read our article on Buying a Black Russian Terrier Puppy to learn more.
You can also learn more about what tests should be performed by breeders on breeding dogs and what to expect from the results in our article called Health Testing In the Black Russian Terrier. This article provides good information on what to look for in health testing as you are researching and choosing a breeder.