puppy plays after having a hereditary and congenital conditions health screening for dogs

Hereditary and Congenital Conditions in Dogs: What’s the Difference?


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Hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs are just about as common as they are in humans. Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, certain breeds can be more prone to specific hereditary and/or congenital conditions.

Knowing which of these conditions is more likely to affect your pooch can help you plan their roadmap to prolonged health. You’ll know what the signs are to sniff out so you can nip them in the bud so to speak.

Basically, if you know your stuff you can feed your German Shepherd the right nutrients to help avoid (or reduce) hip problems. Or prevent your sausage dog from jumping stairs to avoid spine problems.

You get the drift: knowledge is the power to protect your furry friend! A good starting point is knowing the difference between hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs.

Let’s get through the basics.

Hereditary conditions like hip dysplasia are more likely to affect this German Shepherd dog

Hereditary VS congenital conditions in dogs

What is the difference between hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs? This important question helps in two ways. Firstly, knowing the root cause helps identify the best possible treatments and management plans. And secondly, it also helps you with your pet insurance (more on that below).

Here’s the basic difference between hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs:

Can develop at any time in lifeAlways present at birth (with or without symptoms)
Always inherited from parents’ genesSometimes inherited from parents’ genes
Can be worsened by environmental factorsCan be caused by environmental factors

Hereditary conditions are genetic disorders that a dog inherits. In other words, they’re genetic mutations that get passed on through the genes of the parent/s to the puppy.

On the other hand congenital conditions are birth defects. They don’t always present symptoms right away and in fact won’t always become problematic. Sometimes a birth defect just stays dormant until it’s triggered by an accident or illness.

A congenital defect starts in the uterus and can be the result of infection, trauma, abnormalities in the mum dog’s metabolism, temperature extremes or toxins. (Speaking of toxins, be sure you keep these things that can poison your pet out of paws’ reach! And these poisonous plants for dogs and cats too.)

Although these are the basic differences between hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs, congenital problems can also sometimes be genetic. Hereditary conditions always are.

During vet checks your vet might be able to identify hereditary conditions in dogs early on. Watch this video where Dr Cath Watson shows us what’s involved in a vet health checks:

Common hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs

Both hereditary and congenital conditions seem more prevalent in certain purebred dogs than others. When it comes to hereditary conditions, poor breeding practices and breeding from a limited gene pool can cause mutations.

That’s why it’s essential to find ethical dog breeders that do health screening on dogs before breeding them. Unless, of course, you’re planning on bringing home an adopted dog from a shelter – in which case all you need is to find the perfect personality match!

Now onto a (non-exhaustive) list of some common hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs.

Hereditary conditions in dogs

In this list we name some of the most common hereditary conditions and also certain breeds they’re more likely to affect. If you see your breed on this list, don’t panic. It’s just a roadmap you can use to know which is the best route to take to get to and maintain your pet’s health.

It gives you the know-how and the tools to speak to your vet. Ask them for recommendations on diet and exercise (and we’ll give you some tips here too).

To recap, hereditary conditions in dogs are the ones that are passed on genetically from one or both parents to the next generation. Now onto some examples…

1. Hip dysplasia

hereditary and congenital conditions in this dog require early identification

Hip dysplasia is a common problem for bigger breeds. The condition is also more prevalent in certain breeds, perhaps because of breeding for certain looks and a lack of genetic diversity.

In nature genetic diversity happens organically. Even with packs of lions that are all related, every so often they move out into bigger territories and crossover to mating with lions from another pride. But because we tend to breed for common traits, a lot of inbreeding or linebreeding is needed and can cause mutations that then become part of that family line’s DNA.

Hip dysplasia is a common hereditary condition for breeds including the Labrador, German Shepherd and Saint Bernard (which, sadly, has a 50% rate of hip dysplasia). Early diagnosis is important because it gives you a broader range of possible treatment options.

If your breed is likely to encounter this hereditary condition, avoid over-feeding them. Keeping a healthy weight can reduce the pressure on their hips and joints and goes a long way in alleviating discomfort. Read about National Pet Obesity Day for healthy treat options.

When it comes to exercise, consider exercising your dog without walking. Exercises that reduce load-bearing pressure can reduce symptoms by keeping the load off your dog’s joints.

Find out more about the ins and outs of hip dysplasia in dogs to help safeguard your pooch against it.

2. Brachycephalic airway obstructive syndrome

Hereditary conditions in dogs like Brachycephalic airways condition can affect Pugs like this one

Brachycephalic is pretty hard to say (we’ve tried), but its meaning is pretty straightforward. Let’s break it down… ‘brachy‘ basically means short, or shortened and ‘cephalic‘ means head, or relating to the head. You put them together and you get a short-muzzled or flat-faced pup.

This look is actually a genetic mutation. But because we humans like the way it looks, we’ve intentionally bred dogs to have this in the extremes. And while it sure makes for a cuddly face, it makes breathing and a whole range of physical factors hard for these pups.

Because the more we flatten a dog’s snout, the more it goes inward. The bones in the skull are forced to develop in an altered way and they end up pressing against the inside of a dog’s head causing a squishing of breathing tubes and soft palate.

Breeds such as the French Bulldog, Bull Mastiff, Boxer and Pug are some of the dogs well-known for this look. The range of symptoms these guys are highly likely to experience is called Brachycephalic Airway Obstructive Syndrome. Find out more about how it affects brachycephalic breeds.

3. Chondrodysplasia 

this Dachshund is prone to certain hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs

Another common hereditary condition that is intentionally bred in dogs is called Chondrodysplasia. That’s the fancy word, but ultimately it’s canine dwarfism. As you may or may not know, dwarfism can cause lots of related health issues and often leads to a shortened lifespan.

But again, it’s cute, and instead of dogs being accidentally born with canine dwarfism, we’ve made entire breeds from the trait. In fact some of the most popular breeds we all love and know are produced from this recessive genetic defect. These include breeds like the Dachshund, Beagle and Basset Hound.

This hereditary condition causes a dog’s cartilage in its legs to grow in an abnormal way, making them grow unevenly. A dog with shorter legs has a spine that’s disproportionately longer, putting it under more pressure.

This is why this common hereditary condition causes yet another common hereditary condition. Read about IVDD in Dachshunds to unlock the full story.

Congenital conditions in dogs

As we mentioned earlier, congenital conditions are always present from birth. But they may not always be noticeable or have any symptoms. And while the cause can be prompted by infection from the mother, toxins or be inherited, it’s not always possible to say.

Sometimes the real cause for congenital conditions is never found. Also, the condition may not always be the illness that later emerges, but can sometimes be what causes it. Let’s look at some common congenital conditions in dogs to understand more.

1. Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a congenital condition that mostly affects medium to large dogs

Hypothyroidism can be caused by congenital diseases that result in abnormal thyroid gland development. It’s not always congenital though and can also be caused by other progressive deficiencies.

When a dog’s thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones it results in a slowed metabolism. This causes dogs to gain weight for no apparent reason and it can also cause skin issues, hair loss and a general lack of energy.

Hypothyroidism is a common health condition in dogs and can affect any dog breed. However it appears more common in dogs that are medium to large and less so in miniature breeds and toy dogs.

2. Hernia

Weimaraner dog can be prone to congenital conditions in dogs like umbilical hernias

Like hypothyroidism, a hernia can be congenital but isn’t always. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the basics of what a hernia is. A hernia is when a weak spot in muscle or tissue results in an organ or other internal tissue bulging through to another location in the body.

Just like humans, our furry friends can also be born with a hernia. The most common type of hernia in dogs is the congenital type called an umbilical hernia.

Hernias are a common congenital condition in the Weimaraner dog breed but can happen to other breeds too. If your puppy has a sticky-outy belly button it might be caused by a hernia. Your vet will need to monitor whether or not surgery is needed.

Besides being a common congenital condition in dogs, other reasons for hernias can be when a dog bites another dog or accidents like getting hit by a car. Speaking of the latter, read what to do if you hit an animal while driving in New Zealand.

3. Cleft palates

Maltese puppy with a congenital cleft palate

A cleft palate is a facial defect that affects the jaw, leaving an open space in the roof of the mouth. Because a congenital condition can occur during any part of the fetal developmental stage, it’s usually more severe if it happens earlier during fetal development.

Brachycephalic breeds are more likely to be born with a cleft palate. Unfortunately the condition can cause breathing issues or make a puppy more prone to respiratory infection. It can also make drinking mum’s milk hard, which would mean missing out on the natural and much-needed maternal antibodies.

Luckily, cleft palates are a congenital condition that’s usually easy to identify right from the get-go. Most of the time these can be fixed through surgery. And some cleft palates don’t actually get in the way of your puppy living a healthy life.

Insurance for hereditary and congenital conditions in dogs

When it comes to pet insurance – or type of any insurance for that matter – your cover isn’t retroactive. Put simply that means your insurance can only cover for incidents that occur once your plan starts and your waiting periods are complete.

Take home insurance for example. It won’t cover your home for damage that happened before you got your policy. Likewise it’s important to know pet insurance doesn’t cover congenital conditions. That said, both PD Insurance Classic and Deluxe dog insurance and cat insurance plans do cover hereditary conditions once your waiting period is over.

Ultimately, the best time to get your pet’s plan is when they’re young and in optimum health. That way you’ll get a wider range of cover from hospital stays to non-routine vet visits and much, much more.

Click below to start today.

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