As purebred dogs, Boxers are prone to a number of diseases.
Some of the health problems affecting Boxers have an identifiable genetic basis that can be tested for, and some do not.
Potentially fatal illnesses that present with significant frequency in Boxers include: heart disease, neurological diseases like degenerative myelopathy and cancers including mast cell tumors.
This post is for general informational and educational purposes only. I encourage readers to see my full disclaimer here.
Diseases Boxers Are Screened For
Breeders routinely screen for a range of heritable diseases, so they can reduce the likelihood of passing those conditions on to puppies.
Testing involves blood tests, cheek swabs, x-rays, auscultation by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, Doppler echocardiograms and wearing of 24-hour holter monitors.
The American Boxer Club recommends the screening of breeding stock for illnesses including:
Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy
Arrythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that disturbs the conduction of electrical impulses. This causes an arrhythmia where the heart beats too fast or irregularly. It can result in sudden death or heart failure.
ARVC has adult onset. Symptoms include weakness and collapse.
Dilated cardiomyopathy is where the heart becomes so large, thin and weak it can’t effectively pump blood.
Symptoms of DCM include weakness, collapse, labored breathing and coughing.
Aortic And Sub Aortic Stenosis
Aortic stenosis is a congenital structural problem involving a narrowing of the outflow from the left ventricle to the aorta, resulting in arrhymias.
It can be detected as a murmur in young puppies, but sometimes doesn’t show up until later.
It needs to be differentiated from other innocent “flow” murmurs that disappear as the puppy matures.
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Degenerative myelopathy, or DM, is a progressive and incurable disease of the spinal cord that presents in older dogs.
DM is not painful but it is debilitating and ultimately fatal.
It starts with weakness or loss of coordination in the back legs, perhaps the dragging of a toe. The condition progresses to paralysis involving incontinence and can spread to the front legs.
It is similar to ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease in people. Dogs can be clear of the genes for DM, carriers or at risk of developing symptoms.
More information about DM symptoms and care in Boxers.
Hip (And Elbow) Dysplasia
This is a progressive and inherited condition involving a malformation of the hip or elbow joint that can lead to osteoarthritis.
Dogs are evaluated by x-ray once they’re older than two years and can be registered as free of the disease on a database kept by the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals.
Unfortunately hip/elbow dysplasia is just one of the joint problems that can affect Boxers.
Testing for an under-active thyroid gland involves a blood panel.
Other Diseases Affecting Boxers
Boxers also appear to have a predisposition for other serious diseases including:
- a range of cancers including mast cell tumors and brain cancer
- eye problems like corneal dystrophy (an inherited genetic disease) and corneal ulcers
- chronic kidney disease
Common Health Complaints In Boxers
As well as the officially recognized diseases of the breed, pet Boxers can suffer from a variety of other acute and chronic health problems including:
- stomach upset including irritable bowel disease (IBD) and “Boxer colitis”
- “Boxer acne” often attributed to use of plastic food bowls
- unexplained hives
- skin problems including itchiness, paw chewing
- hair loss including so-called seasonal alopecia
- head bobbing known as idiopathic head tremors
- “autoimmune” disorders
- histiocytoma, a type of benign skin tumor
- gingival hyperplasia (gum overgrowth)
- tear stains
- cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) tear, a knee injury
- hemangiosarcoma – a tumor commonly affecting the spleen, which breaks open to cause internal bleeding
Sudden Onset Health Emergencies In Boxers
Boxers are susceptible to several health emergencies requiring urgent veterinary intervention, including:
- bloat (gastric dilatation-volvulus, or GDV), a rapidly fatal condition in which the stomach becomes filled with gas and twists on itself, cutting off blood supply
- heat stroke / breathing difficulties affecting brachycephalic (short nose) breeds
- intestinal blockage from swallowing non-food items like socks etc
- bee stings (can lead to swelling, obstructed airways and anaphylactic shock)
Thankfully these conditions are usually preventable with careful supervision and good planning.
See also: How To Prevent Bloat In Boxers
Behavior Problems In Boxers
However, the large number of Boxer rescue organizations across the United States and elsewhere tells a story of an exuberant breed that can become difficult if improperly managed.
Behavioral problems seen in Boxers include:
These issues are in no way exclusive to or more common in Boxers than any other breed, but it’s worth being aware of how things can go awry.
Acepromazine: A Common Drug Deadly To Boxers
Acepromazine, or ACE, is the most commonly prescribed tranquilizer in veterinary medicine, to which Boxers have a documented sensitivity.
In Boxers this drug tends to cause what’s known as first degree heart block, a potentially serious arrhythmia, coupled with profound hypotension i.e. severe low blood pressure.
According to many anecdotal reports from both owners and vets, adverse reactions in Boxers include collapse, respiratory arrest and profound bradycardia (slow heart rate).
Acepromazine is routinely used:
- as part of anesthetic protocols for surgical procedures, and
- as a sedative prescribed for anxiety and travel
Previous editions of Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook contained warnings about the drug’s use in Boxers but this information has disappeared from the current edition.
This means your vet may be unaware that this drug should never be used in Boxers.
Make sure you insist that ACE not be used if your dog ever requires an operation.
See also: Acepromazine And Boxers
Are Boxers Sicklier Than Other Breeds?
Scrolling through the Facebook feeds of Boxer dog owners’ groups, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a disease-plagued breed.
Owners lament their dog’s constant diarrhea and chronicle their endless quests to get to the bottom of their pup’s “allergies”. They ride the merry-go-round of drugs from steroids and cytopoint injections to Apoquel and regular Benadryl.
They are in and out of vet clinics and specialists’ offices. Longtime Boxer lovers talk of their dogs as “cancer factories” and new owners take out health insurance in anticipation of a lifetime of costly bills.
There is heartache over dogs lost long before their time.
But is all this an inevitable part of being a Boxer?
The truth is just about every breed of dog suffers from an array of health problems. The particular shape the disease takes might vary, but compromised vitality seems to be somewhat the lot of the pet dog.
What is going on here?
Why Do Boxers Get Sick?
Genetics are one factor.
But, other influences that transcend breed — like diet and lifestyle — are incredibly powerful in determining a dog’s health outcomes.
The good news is these choices are entirely within your control.
When wondering what makes a Boxer sick or healthy, some things are no-brainers. It’s obvious that your dog needs to get enough exercise and maintain a lean weight.
However, there is increasing awareness that many practices that are a routine, and often unquestioned, part of dog ownership can actually contribute to disease.
This is shocking to discover, because these same products and procedures have been sold to owners on the basis that they are good for our dog’s health.
These practices include:
- feeding kibble (or any highly processed, preservative-laden dog food)
- spaying and neutering (especially when done before 2 years of age)
- ingestion of chemical wormers
- ingestion or topical application of chemical flea and tick preventatives
- vaccines (especially overvaccination including multiple puppy vaccinations)
- medication including antibiotics and steroids
- exposure to chemicals in the home (cleaning sprays, deodorizers, scented candles)
- exposure to lawncare chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides i.e. weed killers including but not limited to glyphosate
- drinking tap water
- fat overconsumption
None of the above are natural, in the sense that they were not part of dogs’ lives until domestication — and, in some cases, much more recently than that.
For instance, it wasn’t until the 1930s in the United States (and the 1960s in places like Australia) that the feeding of processed foods to dogs became the norm.
If you think about it, what most of these practices have in common is they do one of two things. They either disrupt normal bodily function (as in neutering, by the removal of the hormone-producing sex organs) or they introduce toxins into your Boxer’s body.
These toxic exposures don’t usually cause immediate symptoms. It’s much more insidious than that. Over a dog’s lifetime, they combine to create a toxic load that increases the likelihood of many serious diseases.
The majority of owners are completely unaware of the health consequences of products like chemical wormers, which have usually been recommended by their vets.
Vaccines and kibble feeding provide perhaps two of the best examples of enshrined practices that in fact predispose Boxers to ill health.
Natural rearing Breeders like Gentry Boxers have now totally stopped vaccinating their dogs.
Gentry’s Paula Vandervoort advises, “Multiple puppy vaccinations have a bad reputation both in the science and holistic communities for potentially causing some very serious side effects, some of them life threatening and long term.”
A heavy vaccine schedule provides a guaranteed income stream for conventional vets. But many clinics are now acknowledging that yearly vaccines are too frequent.
The problems with kibble extend from the basic fact that cooked food is a 100 per cent unnatural diet for a dog to the carcinogenic compounds (known as mycotoxins) produced by the often invisible molds that proliferate in opened bags of kibble.
These molds include one called Aspergillus flavus. Aspergillus flavus produces a waste product or mycotoxin named Aflatoxin B1. Aflatoxin B1 is the most potent naturally occurring carcinogenic substance known.
As Steve Brown, the author of See Spot Live Longer, says:
“While some dogs have died shortly after eating mycotoxin-contaminated foods, mycotoxins kill most dogs slowly by suppressing the immune system and creating long term health problems in all organs of the body.”
While many conventionally-trained vets still perform automatic neutering and yearly vaccinations, sell kibble, recommend chemical wormers and readily dispense drugs… many others do not and instead offer alternative modalities and natural approaches with fewer side effects.
Integrative veterinarian Dr Karen Becker is a leading light in this arena.
How To Keep Your Boxer Healthy
Creating the best possible health for your Boxer involves:
- a fresh, natural, species-appropriate diet — this means a raw meaty bone-based diet
- pure drinking water (spring or properly filtered, not tap)
- regular exercise (but not too much, especially before the age of 18 months to 2 years)
- a safe and stress-free home environment
- plenty of mental stimulation
- intermittent fasting (or fruit feeding)
Equally, consider minimizing:
- neutering/spaying (especially before 2 years old)
- chemical wormers
- chemical flea and tick treatments
- traditional vaccines
- supplements (opt for whole foods over synthetic, isolated chemistry)
- exposure to lawncare chemicals, weedkillers, pesticides and household cleaners etc
- overwashing (four times a year is sufficient as bathing your Boxer too often strips essential oils from the skin and fur, contributing to itchiness and irritation)
In addition, there are plenty of commonsense actions you can take in the everyday management of your Boxer.
Don’t leave Boxers in strong midday sun that is liable to burn their pink bits, laying the conditions for skin cancer to develop. This applies especially to white and flashy Boxers. The muzzle, eye and other sparsely coated areas are particularly vulnerable.
Supervise your Boxer when he’s in the garden in Spring and Summer and whenever bees and wasps are active. Beware of snakes.
Manage your Boxer carefully in the presence of other dogs. Dog parks can be disastrous.
Note that sometimes male Boxers that have previously been safe with other dogs can start to have issues once they reach sexual maturity around 18 months to two years old. The danger is two-fold:
- your male may behave more aggressively around other male dogs, and
- intact males can be more likely to provoke aggressive reactions from other males because they’re perceived as reproductive threats.
Dog fights are a real possibility depending on the exact situation and the particular combination of dogs present. All of this operates on the level of pheromones, making conflict sometimes difficult to predict.
Similarly, two female Boxers in the same household can sometimes clash in ways so serious that owners at times end up rehoming one of the dogs.
Good health in a Boxer, as in any living thing, is a combination of nature and nurture.
Beyond choosing a responsible breeder, you can’t do much about your dog’s DNA.
However, you can do an enormous amount to predispose your pup to a long and happy life by making good choices about what you put into his body — consider all the inputs, but particularly his food.
As the author of Give Your Dog A Bone, Dr Ian Billinghurst says, the results of misfeeding “walk through vets’ doors daily”.
Don’t let yours be one of them.