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7 Belgian Malinois Health Issues (Our Vet Discusses)

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By Dr. Iulia Mihai

male and female belgian malinois

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Written by

Dr. Iulia Mihai

DVM MSc (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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The Belgian Malinois is a generally healthy dog. However, certain breed-specific health problems may occur, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, eye diseases, skin allergies, skin infections, hemangiosarcoma, epilepsy, and thyroid gland dysfunctions. A responsible owner will take their dog regularly to the veterinarian to test them for various health problems, as some have a higher incidence.

However, the incidence of these conditions in the Belgian Malinois breed has been seriously reduced over the years due to carefully coordinated selections, which aim to maintain and perpetuate a state of health as best as possible in this intelligent dog. The life expectancy of the Belgian Malinois is 12–14 years.

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The 7 Belgian Malinois Health Issues

1. Hip Dysplasia

The hip joint is a strong and complex joint between the pelvis and the thigh. It consists of the femoral head and the acetabular cavity (concave cavity at the level of the pelvis). In hip dysplasia, the femoral head does not merge perfectly with the acetabular cavity and produces a certain degree of friction that determines the erosion of the cartilage; normally, there is no degree of friction, and the rotation of the joint is done smoothly.

This condition is one of the most common orthopedic pathologies in dogs. It is a congenital disorder (inherited from the parents), but factors like improper nutrition and rapid weight gain can accentuate faster development and the early onset of clinical signs. The condition can be discovered around the age of 4–5 months.

Apart from the Belgian Malinois, other breeds prone to hip dysplasia are:1

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • Great Dane
  • Saint Bernard
  • Cane Corso
  • German Shepherd
  • Caucasian Shepherd
  • Bulldog
  • Rottweiler

Clinical Signs

Hip dysplasia causes pain that can manifest differently from dog to dog, depending on the degree of severity and the stage that the disease has reached. Regardless of breed, the clinical signs of hip dysplasia are as follows:

  • Refusal to climb the stairs, run, or jump
  • Lying down or sitting after exercise
  • Exhibiting so-called “bunny hopping,” a characteristic sign of hip dysplasia: the dog will hop with their hind legs when running
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Popping sounds from the joints
  • Abnormal position of the back legs
  • Reduced physical activity
  • Joint weakness
  • Muscle atrophy in the thighs
  • Increase in volume of muscle mass at shoulder level as a result of frequent use.

The diagnosis is based on the clinical signs and hip X-rays, and the treatment is surgical.

belgian malinois dog in the park fields
Image Credit: Irantzu Arbaizagoitia, Shutterstock

2. Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia is similar to hip dysplasia, the difference being that it occurs at the elbow joint. It is a hereditary degenerative disease that becomes disabling if it is not diagnosed quickly.

Besides the Belgian Malinois, other breeds that are prone to elbow dysplasia are:2

  • Golden and Labrador Retrievers
  • German Shepherd
  • Rottweiler
  • Boxer
  • Cane Corso
  • Dogue de Bordeaux
  • Newfoundland
  • Mastiff
  • Saint Bernard

Clinical Signs

The first signs of elbow dysplasia can occur early, at 4–8 months of life. If it is not diagnosed in time, the disease can evolve into osteoarthritis. Clinical signs of elbow dysplasia in young Belgian Malinois include:

  • Holding their front paws open, with the toes pointing outward
  • Keeping their elbows close to the chest
  • Stopping often to rest when playing
  • Staying in the sphinx position (the elbows become prominent) for a long time
  • Lameness

In adult dogs, clinical signs include lameness, staying still, and refusal to play. The diagnosis is based on the clinical signs and elbow X-rays, and the treatment is surgical.


3. Cataracts

Cataract in dogs is the opacification of the lens of the eye. This opacification varies from partial to total. When the lens (located directly behind the iris) is clouded, it will prevent light from passing through the retina, which can lead to vision loss.

This condition is a common cause of blindness in older Belgian Malinois dogs.

Clinical Signs

Cataracts can appear in young and adult dogs. Clinical signs usually refer to the degree of visual impairment. Dogs with less than 30% lens opacity show few or no clinical signs; many owners do not even realize that something has changed in their pet. Those with lens opacity over 60% may have difficulty seeing in dim light or suffer from vision loss. Dogs with lens opacity greater than 60% may show the following signs:

  • Bumping their heads into the surrounding objects
  • Getting scared more easily
  • No longer judging distances well
  • Eyes having a cloudy appearance

Many dogs adapt well to vision loss, so it can be difficult for the owners to notice that something is wrong with their pet. The diagnosis is based on the clinical signs and the ophthalmological examination. The treatment is surgical (the lens is replaced).

Woman brushes her Belgian Malinois dog
Image Credit: Sjogger, Shutterstock

4. Hemangiosarcoma

Hemangiosarcoma is a malignant tumor originating in the vascular endothelium. It occurs more often in Belgian Malinois dogs of middle or advanced age, but there are cases when it has occurred in 10-month-old dogs.3 Males are more prone than females.

It is a disease with an insidious evolution, which means the clinical signs are hidden. Hemangiosarcoma usually occurs in the spleen. When the tumor grows too much, it breaks and causes hemorrhage. The internal bleeding caused by its rupture is usually severe, and this is when the owner typically notices changes in their dog’s condition and takes them to the vet.

The primary tumor can occur in other organs than the spleen, such as:

  • Lungs
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Oral cavity
  • Muscles
  • Bones
  • Skin
  • Bladder
  • Right atrium of the heart

Clinical Signs

Hemangiosarcoma can be dermal (skin) or visceral (internal). Clinical signs may include the following:

  • Nodules in the abdomen (detectable on ultrasound)
  • Black or red mass(es) in the skin
  • Pale mucous membranes
  • Muscle weakness
  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Weight loss
  • Partial or complete loss of movement
  • Seizures and/or intermittent collapse
  • General lack of energy
  • Lameness

The diagnosis is based on clinical signs, complementary tests, and nodule biopsy. The treatment is mainly surgical (when the tumor can be reached). Unfortunately, only 10% of dogs survive more than a year after the diagnosis of visceral hemangiosarcoma.


5. Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

PRA is the name given to a series of hereditary degenerative diseases that progress to the stage of blindness. The condition consists of the evolutionary degeneration/atrophy of the photoreceptors (cone cells for day vision and rod cells for night vision). In the first phase, your Belgian Malinois can lose their night vision as the rod cells are affected. As the disease progresses, the cone cells are also affected.

The evolution of the disease occurs simultaneously in both eyes. Definitive blindness is recorded in 3–5 years from the onset of the disease. The condition often goes unnoticed by the owner, being generally discovered at an advanced stage. It is not painful and does not cause eye inflammation, tearing up, or other specific signs of eye diseases. Usually, the owner only realizes that there is something wrong with their dog when their pet almost goes blind; for example, they often bump their head into surrounding objects and get scared more easily.

The diagnosis is based on an ophthalmological examination. PRA does not have an effective treatment, but its evolution can be slowed down with antioxidants and vitamins.


6. Hypothyroidism

Belgian Malinois are prone to thyroid gland dysfunction. When your dog’s thyroid gland does not produce enough T3 and T4 thyroid hormones, they suffer from hypothyroidism. This condition can occur in dogs between the ages of 6 months and 15 years. In young dogs, the condition is congenital.

Clinical Signs

The onset of clinical signs is slow and difficult to diagnose. When the dog shows obvious signs, they are already suffering from physical and mental dysfunctions, such as:

  • Decreased sensory abilities
  • Neurological disorders like facial nerve palsy
  • Lethargy
  • Weight gain
  • Cold intolerance
  • Hair loss at the level of the tail
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Face edema
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Cardiovascular changes

The diagnosis is based on blood and urine tests, along with specific tests that evaluate the presence and amount of thyroid hormone in the body. The treatment consists of the administration of synthetic thyroid hormone.

belgian malinois dog sitting with a bowl
Image Credit: BoJack, Shutterstock

7. Epilepsy

In a Belgian Malinois, epilepsy is often hereditary. This is a chronic disease that causes seizures, usually manifested by convulsions. Abnormal electrical activity in your dog’s brain can lead to seizures. Your dog will be unconscious and go through sudden, rapid changes in their behavior or movement during a seizure. In most cases, epilepsy is a disease that a dog and their owner will have to manage throughout their life.

Clinical Signs

Unfortunately, epileptic seizures are difficult to distinguish from other convulsive episodes that can occur in other conditions (for example, intoxications). Clinical signs include:

  • Loss of control, often associated with convulsions (loss of voluntary control, uncontrolled body tremors, and muscle stiffness)
  • Convulsive episodes that start and end suddenly
  • Convulsive episodes that are similar and repetitive
  • Confusion, disorientation, and sometimes even temporary blindness (occurs when the episode ends)

Diagnosis is made by the veterinary neurologist based on the clinical signs and complementary tests. The treatment consists of the administration of anticonvulsant medication.

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Conclusion

The Belgian Malinois is generally a healthy breed, but there are a few diseases to which they are more prone, such as elbow and hip dysplasia, PRA, hemangiosarcoma, epilepsy, and hypothyroidism. Knowing about the clinical signs of these conditions and noticing them in time will decrease the risk of complications. Unfortunately, some diseases, such as hemangiosarcoma, have no treatment, and dogs may only survive for a few months after diagnosis. However, the incidence of these conditions in this breed has been reduced due to carefully coordinated breeding selections.


Featured Image Credit: Eudyptula, Shutterstock

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