Many people want to know how healthy Berners are, how long they live, and facts regarding the breed’s susceptibility to diseases such as cancer and hip dysplasia. There is plenty of information readily available on the Web and only the basic information is outlined below. One of the most comprehensive website on Berner-related matters is BMDInfo.org. It is highly recommended that anyone interested in the breed bookmarks this website. The health section has a comprehensive information on potential issues, including guidelines on bloat/torsion and what to do when it is suspected. There is an excellent reference guide on this issue which should be kept handy at all time.
An old Swiss adage of ‘3 years a young dog, 3 years a good dog, and 3 years an old dog’ may be an overestimation of the average lifespan of Berners. This likely still offers accurate insight, however, into the aging process throughout life of a Bernese. There are no published statistics that say how long our Berners are now living. Many thoughts on this are influenced by personal experience in how long Berners live. It is unfortunately found that a number of Berners die at 6 to 7 years of age. Please also understand that these sort of tragedies are like the nightly news: bad news is more likely to ‘make the broadcast’. Tragedy seems to stick in our minds, more so than the ‘quiet’ news of a senior Berner.
Berners over ten years of age are the exception, and highly regarded treasures by their owners.
Bernese (like many breeds – particularly large breeds) can be prone to OCD problems like Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia and the occasional shoulder concern. Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, while treatable in most cases, can be life altering diseases. Both diseases are found in some Berners today. All Bernese in New Zealand who are used for breeding should have been evaluated for hip and elbow dysplasia (under the Bernese Mountain Dog Club’s Code of Ethics). These problems are said to be hereditary but can also be brought on by an accident or the environment in which a puppy is raised, ie: too strenuous exercise, limit a small puppy’s exercise to a 10 minute walk daily, do not allow jumping or running up and down stairs, steps or onto furniture. Don’t allow a puppy to jump from heights such as out of the car. Don’t exercise a puppy on sand, don’t let a puppy play or exercise with much larger or heavier dogs. Be extremely careful if you have slippery floors, discourage your puppy from running and sliding on them.
Luckily, in NZ and the world, responsible breeders are appropriately screening their dogs to omit any affected dogs from their breeding programs to try and curb the occurrence of the above problems. Even with screening, the most discerning breeder will produce the occasional dog with one of the problems and the problems can rarely be detected in a very young puppy. They often raise their ugly heads when the pups are between 6 to 12 months old. Please note that in general affected puppies can and do lead happy, active and fruitful lives. Often being operated on, only rarely is the problem so severe that euthanasia is the only alternative.
So what keeps us coming back to Berners, even though the breed has these problems? It is the temperament of this breed that endears them to us. The Berner is devoted to his/her family (they are definitely family dogs, not wide ranging, sporting dogs). Although a Berner may initially be indifferent to strangers, most show interest once it is known the owner has accepted the person as a friend. Many Berners are guarded when strangers approach. Some Berners, on the other had, tend to immediately welcome strangers. Berners are above average in intelligence, this is demonstrated in daily life with them in many ways. Berners as a breed are famous for their sense of (burlesque) humor – they will nudge you at the most inopportune moments (spilling your coffee first thing in the morning). While they are thrilled to retrieve a stick the first time you throw it, should you repeat the trick, the Berner quickly summarizes, you don’t want the stick back!
While all breeders would like to produce only dogs who are healthy, of good temperament and who live a long time, there are no such guarantees with any living being. As with ownership of any breed, it is advisable that you be willing to face the tears as well as the smiles our breed offers. No matter how much homework a breeder does, and tries to breed the best possible litter, genetic is a gamble and we just cannot control all factors. There are always risks. Hopefully if we, the breeders, do our best, it is a calculated risk.
Every breed of dog presents challenges to conscientious breeders. Buying from a conscientious breeder does not “guarantee” that your puppy will never suffer from health problems. Buying from a conscientious breeder will increase your chances of having a support system should your puppy become ill. A conscientious breeder will help you when you have problems (of any kind) or if they cannot actually help, will at least offer emotional support so that you do not face the problem alone. A conscientious breeder will cheer with you when your pup does well and will cry with you when it does not.
In summary, we cannot imagine life without a Berner even when problems arise. The love and devotion this breed gives far outweighs, in our opinion, the problems that can arise.
Your dog’s wellbeing is a fulltime and long term commitment, arrangements must be in place to cover vacations and “getting hung up” in the office.
The cost of keeping a Berner well fed, groomed, boarded, mentally and physically healthy far outstrip the initial purchase price of the dog. Both routine and unanticipated expenses are a part of the package and should be honestly considered before committing to a lifetime of care for a Bernese Mountain Dog.
The time from puppyhood through to about 14 months is critical to the future soundness of your dog. Don’t let them negotiate steps by themselves as babies, don’t let them jump in and out of vehicles or off ledges or balconies, and be careful when they are playing with other dogs. We do not recommend letting them play with larger or heavier dogs while they are still growing.
If it is a condition of your contract with your breeder to have the pup spayed/neutered at 6 months or as recommended by a registered vet, then it is your responsibility to see that this procedure is done before your dog has a chance to “get into trouble”. This is critically important for the breed and beneficial for your dog as well, definitely a win-win item.
Benefits for the girls: If spayed before her first heat, a bitch’s risk of developing mammary cancer is reduced by 98%. The ‘risk savings’ decreases with each heat so that after 3-4 cycles her chances are the same as an unspayed female. Also, intact females are always susceptible to pyometra – a life threatening and frequently “silent” infection of the uterus.
Benefits for the boys: A number of the benefits of neutering a male are enjoyed by the people in his life as well as the dog himself. Neutering before sexual maturity tends to prevent some unwelcome behaviour patterns from developing such as dog aggressive, scent marking, and the total obsession that goes along with one whiff of a bitch in heat (from as much as 3 miles away!) Health problems such a prostate trouble and testicular tumors which may be faced by older intact males are also avoided.