Von Willebrand disease is an inherited bleeding disorder in the dog caused by a deficiency in production of a factor (called the von Willebrand factor) required to make blood clot.
Affected dogs don’t have the full toolkit when it comes to stopping any bleeding, so they may bleed excessively from minor cuts and scrapes.
Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to this deficiency, and at the top of the list is the Doberman Pinscher, hotly followed by German Shepherds, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Golden Retrievers, miniature schnauzers, rottweilers and Shetland sheepdogs (among 50 or so other breeds).
Symptoms of von Willebrand disease in dogs include continuous bleeding after an innocuous procedure such as toenail clipping.
These animals also bruise easily, and a simple knock can result in a large, purple bruise. One case of mine was a ridgeback who accidentally got kicked in the testicles (don’t ask how!) and his scrotum rapidly enlarged to the size of a football.
That poor dog spent a week in the hospital and had me worried for a while. He did recover and is still going strong today — helped by the fact that his family now knows to be gentle with him.
The von Willebrand factor is a protein that circulates in the bloodstream. It helps platelets stick to damaged blood vessels and protect that “baby” clot from being prematurely broken down.
However, if the body doesn’t produce enough von Willebrand factor, the body is less able to plug holes in blood vessels, which we recognize are persistent bleeding from a minor injury.
When an animal is going to have surgery, it is a great comfort for the surgeon to know the dog can clot his blood properly.
A simple test is the “buccal bleeding test” where the clinician makes a small nick in the dog’s gum and times how long it takes for the bleeding to stop. If bleeding continues beyond 4 minutes, this is a red flag that something is wrong and surgery should not go ahead.
Instead, the reason behind the poor clotting must be investigated. This involves sending a blood sample in special tubes to an outside lab for a coagulation profile. This specialist test checks out all multiple clotting factors and detects if any are low or deficient.
Treating Von Willebrand in a Dog
If a dog loses a lot of blood, a transfusion may be necessary.
If, however, the dog is not anemic but has a persistent bleed, giving a transfusion of plasma (which contains clotting factors) can help the dog recover. Unfortunately, no preventive treatments or supplements are available for the dog.
A large part of treatment is minimizing the risk of trauma and avoiding the old “rough and tumble” for dogs with a clotting disorder. This also applies to surgery, which should never be undertaken unless essential because of the high risk of hemorrhage.
Affected individuals should never be used for breeding. In an ideal world, all animals would be screened for von Willebrand and passed as normal before being used as stud animals — however, this rarely happens.
Some drugs (aspirin, for instance, and other NSAIDs) inhibit the stickiness of platelets and decrease clotting. It is therefore best to avoid these drugs in von Willebrand dogs since these dogs have enough problems already.
In the video below, Dr. Karen Becker, DVM, discusses more about this disease:
- The Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline. Tilley & Smith. Publisher: Williams & Wilkins. 1158–1159.
- “Epidemiological features of von Willebrand’s disease in Doberman pinchers, Scottish terriers and Shetland sheepdogs: 260 cases.” Brooks, Dodds & Raymond. (1992). J Am Vet Med Assoc, 200: 1123–1127.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Jan. 1, 2016.