Lifespan & Longevity in Bernese Mountain Dogs

Over the years several claims have been made about the average age at death of our Bernese. It is certainly all too true that too many of our dogs die at too young an age. However, if you are unlucky enough for your Bernese to pass on at a tragically early age please realise he or she may not be entirely typical. The biggest problems we face are cancers particularly Malignant Histiocytosis, (aka systemic histiosarcoma or histiosytic sarcoma) and the only way we will improve is with the combined help of researchers, vets, other experts but most of all the positive support of owners and breeders who must get involved and contribute to breed health initiatives.

“I heard about Mrs so and so’s dog and Joe Bloggs said he knew about another one…”

Anecdote, hearsay and gossip cannot be relied on to give a true reflection especially as these sometimes have their roots in emotional circumstances. The only way to get a proper figure is through breed surveys but even these have to be viewed with a little care. For example, there was a feeling that people who have a precious family member die suddenly at just 3 or 4 years of age are understandably quite upset about this and much more motivated to report it and much more likely to do so. Contrast this with the owners whose dog dies in its sleep at 11 years of age, still sad but much less distressing and much less likely to be motivated to make the effort to report this in a voluntary survey. There have actually been three studies including, or solely concerned with age at death in Bernese Mountain Dogs in the UK, the second one outlined below attempted to nullify the effect of the “early more upsetting death”just described and the average age at death did come out higher.

One was the general BMD Deaths Survey run by Dr Willis over many, many years in the eighties and nineties. The average age at death in this quickly settled and remained fairly constant at around 7 years and I believe was ultimately taken from more than a thousand reported Bernese deaths whether reported directly or taken from reports and tributes. The average age of death reported from cancer was the same as the average age of deaths from other causes and from memory the percentage of deaths due to cancer remained fairly constant at around 40% or so.

The second specific breed survey was run by myself for the BMDC of GB namely the 1998 Breed Survey. Whilst much smaller in scale in terms of the numbers of deaths it was set up to be representative for the reasons outlined elsewhere on this web site. The average age of all deaths in this was around 8½ years and deaths from cancer averaged out at 7.64 years of age and formed 38.5% of the total, these cancer figures being in line with the other larger survey. Although constructed and undertaken by myself the survey was validated independently, scrutinised and praised by several experts from the veterinary universities and the AHT when presented at a “Health Survey review” day held at the Kennel Club in 1999.

The third survey of significant size was the KC/BSAVA Pedigree Dogs survey of all breeds some 4-5 years ago. In the Bernese section of this our average age at death came out at 7.8 years and the average age for cancer deaths was just slightly less at 7.5 years. The figure generated here for percentage of cancer deaths was a little higher at 45%, but again every fact generated was in the same ball park as the previous surveys. As in the other surveys the cancer deaths do include some younger dogs but also some much older dogs, in this case the oldest was around 14 years by which time most people accept that realistically we are into “they’re going to go from something” territory and would not consider this too upsetting in the greater scheme of things.

The three surveys quoted above were all concerned with British dogs but BMD surveys in other countries generally do not give markedly different results to ours and whilst no one is claiming these figures are something we should be satisfied with they may not be as bad as those put about by some quarters. A recent general canine magazine article claimed that “…. the typical Bernese succumbs to cancer by the age of 5…” When queried the assorted American research this was based on was talking mostly about one particular form of cancer, which does particularly affect Bernese and is our biggest problem and the the typical age of onset for this cancer was generally quoted as “……5 – 7 years…..”. I think most people would agree this is not quite the same as the original claim and the author conceded it was at least “ambiguous”.

Ask the Breeder

If you are looking to buy a BMD puppy then ask the breeder about longevity in the lines of the parents. What ages are the grand parents or how old did they live to? What did they die of? What about the uncles and aunties of your puppy, are they all still alive? Some (but not all) cancers are hereditary or at least have a familial element to them so it is surely common sense to ask about this aspect of the health background of your prospective puppy. It is common sense that dogs which have lots of long living dogs in their pedigrees are more likely not going have any predispositions to develop the serious conditions which can affect our breed than those with relatives which have died at early ages due to illness. No one can give any absolute guarantees about any aspect of your prospective puppy’s health but surely just a little caution can swing the odds a little in your favour and you are paying alot of money out for your puppy so surely you should try and ensure he or she has a reasonable chance of a healthy life. If the breeder doesn’t have any answers then it suggests they aren’t giving any thought to this important area themselves. Maybe it suggests they don’t keep in touch with their puppies and once they are sold they have no interest in their health. Surely asking about overall health and longevity is even more important than just asking about hip and elbow scores of parents and ancestors. If you don’t get answers you are satisfied with then walk away. Don’t encourage reckless breeding by buying puppies bred with little thought to general health.

Overall you can see that BMD longevity is not a straightforward issue as even the surveys need careful interpretation but responsible breeders should be taking this factor into account in some way. The figures produced by the surveys above are the most reliable information you have when assessing our breed and any scaremongering figures derived from elsewhere should not be given undue status but their origins questioned before being accepted.


Most people would agree that longevity in our breed is important and most people would also agree that it needs to improve. After all longevity is easily measured and is a good indicator of health, if a good proportion of our dogs are living to good ages then they are not developing serious diseases.

Whatever the success of any surveys good responsible British breeding will, for the foreseeable future at least, rely primarily on the consciences and voluntary good practise of the breeders to implement standards on themselves without having criteria imposed on them.

So how can we address longevity? Firstly it is important to accept that most people involved in Bernese would generally like longer living dogs. I don’t think many would argue against this and I would say that we shouldn’t sit back and just accept the mantra that Bernese die at 7, any that don’t are a bonus and there’s nothing we can do to improve this.

Of course there is but it will take the co-operation and the right mindset from lots of us to do it. If you are a breeder then try to breed from healthy and long living lines. If you are a purchaser then ask about longevity when looking at dogs. If you are just involved generally try to encourage these things into people’s consciousness.

When we imported a bitch a few years ago one of the attractions of her background was longevity, she had several long living relatives in her pedigree and was “doubled up” on a sire who was a prolific producer of long living dogs. When we started looking around for a British stud dog to use for her one of the questions we asked the owners was about Age at Death of dogs in the pedigree. Whilst some owners co-operated and found out what they could without really questioning others were seemingly amazed at this request. Surely it is a fact that by breeding with longer living dogs and their offspring when possible we will increase the longevity of our dogs. Whilst I accept there are many more factors involved in a long life than breeding, a good genetic start goes a long way towards helping.

Simply recording ages at death on pedigrees is an amazingly simple way to make some progress in the awareness stakes.

In many European countries looking at web sites of breeders you can see many mentions of dog’s ages at death given in pedigrees. For example, ongevity has been an issue in Holland for many people for many years. The club magazine has a regular list of the oldest dogs “on the books” as it were and there are usually lots of dogs well into double figures.

I know we do sometimes have dogs reaching these ages but I feel they are more numerous over there and we do not keep any records (as yet) to make meaningful comparisons. At their Championship show proceedings always start with a veterans parade and the oldest dog in the show is honoured with a presentation and looking around the ring there is much emotive support for this.

How many British breeders even routinely put ages at death on pedigrees? Do you think we should? I would suggest it would be a positive move. Do you think we should be recording ages at death more routinely and making this information more available? Would you be pleased if you had a line with so many such ages in its pedigree?

At the international Bernese seminar in 2002 a representative from the German club announced that members cannot renew their membership unless they give details of how and when any of their dogs passed away the previous year. Remember it is much more important for serious people to belong to “the” breed club than it is here. Wouldn’t the most likely effect of such a rule here be a drastic reduction in membership?

All these kinds of things contribute to a much better awareness that longevity matters and encourage people to at least be cognisant of it. Here we do nothing to put such thoughts into the public domain. However I do feel there would be a will to contribute to this.

Veterans parades and classes are always well received at our shows and fun days. Along with the rescue parade the veterans event is becoming a highlight of the Garden Party. At the most recent GB club Champ show there was a marvellous reception for the well populated Veteran Bitch class. In short at heart we ‘do care, we just need to harness this sentiment and use it to fuel the making of the first easy moves towards improving things.

Everyone you talk to is rightly proud of any of their older dogs and some do make the connection if there are elderly close relatives as well. Most people want to recognise longevity but maybe the time is coming to get in keeping with our neighbours and actually and actively encourage it. As well as launching the database the GB club will be taking a lead in this over the coming year and hopefully people will understand that no one is saying abandon everything else you consider in assessing your Bernese but simply add the longevity issue into the mix.

l would suggest it is too important a component to be totally ignored.