Dwarfism in Dogs: Types, Health Concerns & Breeds It Affects

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Can dogs have dwarfism? The short answer is yes. Dogs diagnosed with dwarfism can often be identified by their bulging eyes and shorter legs. This is usually due to a lack of growth hormones. That said, different forms of dwarfism — achondroplasia and pituitary dwarfism, for instance — can affect dogs differently.

Let's take a closer look at what causes dwarfism, how dogs with dwarfism are affected and the breeds that are most likely to have this condition.

Types and Causes of Dwarfism in Dogs

While there are several different types of dwarfism that can cause a genetic change to a dog's normal growth, size, quality of life and lifespan, dogs diagnosed with dwarfism usually have one of the following types:

Achondroplasia

The most common version of dwarfism in dogs is achondroplasia — a condition also observed in humans. Achondroplasia in humans is caused by the genes that encode for growth factor receptors in a cell type known as a fibroblast. Although we don't know the exact genetic location in dogs, a similar inherited mutation results in the disproportionately short limbs we observe in certain dog breeds, such as dachshunds and corgis.

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Dogs with achondroplasia are also referred to as having chondrodysplasia or osteochondrodysplasia. This nomenclature is based on the fact that the affected genes impact a dog's bones and cartilage (the root "chondro" refers to cartilage while "osteo" refers to bones).

Pituitary Dwarfism

Also referred to as juvenile-onset panhypopituitarism, this disorder can often be more serious, on average, than achondroplasia. Pituitary dwarfism occurs either when part of the pituitary gland fails to develop normally during fetal development or as the result of a benign brain tumor affecting this area. The result is a depletion or complete lack of growth hormone, which is often accompanied by other hormone deficiencies. Dwarfism is the inevitable result in all cases.

Dwarfism's Effect on Dogs

With achondroplasia, dogs tend to have the following:

  • Larger than normal head
  • Undershot jaw
  • Shorter nose
  • Crooked teeth
  • Enlarged joints
  • Corkscrew tails
  • Bowed limbs

Some dogs diagnosed with dwarfism may have more severe problems associated with the disease, including spinal problems such as spina bifida, spinal deviations, hemivertebrae, brachycephalic syndrome, angular/rotational limb deformities and intervertebral disc disease, among others. In some breeds, these diseases are inherited by design, while in others, the mutation occurs more sporadically. In this latter group, the additional problems associated with achondroplasia are often more severe.

In the case of pituitary dwarfism in dogs, affected dogs will fail to grow normally starting at about two months of age. Their bones don't achieve skeletal maturity until they're about four years old, and the deficiency of related hormones typically leads to a loss of hair and a lack of adult dentition, among other issues depending on what hormonal deficiencies they're experiencing. Sadly, these dogs tend to have a shortened lifespan.

Breeds Prone to Dwarfism

Pug pulls a stick out of a human hand against a blurred forest. Red leather collar. Copy space. Horizontal.

As mentioned above, some dogs are expressly bred for dwarfism. By design, dogs like dachshunds, many bulldog breeds, corgis, basset hounds, pugs and Pekingese (among others) are genetically selected for this form of dwarfism.

In the case of pituitary dwarfism in dogs, German shepherds are overrepresented among affected breeds. This lends affected dogs a coyote-like appearance, which is the textbook visual representation of this condition. Pituitary dwarfism in dogs is also accompanied by a characteristically shrill bark. Other breeds, including the Finnish Spitz, Miniature Pinscher and Karelian bear dogs, have also been reported to inherit this autosomal recessive trait.

Health Conditions for Dogs with Dwarfism

While dogs with achondroplasia-related dwarfism don't tend to lead significantly shorter lives, they do experience a much higher incidence of many of the above-mentioned diseases associated with their dwarfism. These diseases can limit their mobility, respiration, comfort level and overall quality of life.

German shepherds and other dogs affected by pituitary dwarfism tend to be more severely affected. Not only is their lifespan markedly shorter than average, but their affiliated hormonal conditions, such as Addison disease and hypothyroidism, must also be treated.

Outlook for Dogs Diagnosed with Dwarfism

Dwarfism in dogs is not considered directly treatable. Given that these are genetic diseases, there is no therapy available to reverse these changes. They are, however, treatable insofar as their associated diseases might be managed.

Pituitary dwarfism in dogs must be treated with hormone therapy if they are to survive comfortably beyond adolescence. Growth hormone and thyroid hormone treatment is almost always recommended for these dogs. Treatment for any concurrent disease, like Addison disease, also requires hormone supplementation and careful supervision.

While we love our purebreds, it's also important to recognize that when we build breeds using DNA as our building blocks, certain medical conditions also come into play. Animal welfare advocates are beginning to focus in on breeds affected by dwarfism due to their inherent diseases. They suggest we take greater care to thoughtfully limit the unintended consequences of breeding for traits like dwarfism.

That said, all dogs with dwarfism can lead happy lives when pet parents are aware of their potential health concerns and make plans to handle any health care issues that may arise during their dogs' lifetimes.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Patty Khuly

Dr. Patty Khuly, DVM, MBA

Dr. Patty Khuly is an award-winning veterinarian known for her independent thinking, her spirited pet advocacy, her passion for the veterinary profession, and her famously irreverent pet health writing. She is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program.

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