What To Know About A Saint Bernard

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on May 12, 2022
6 min read

The St. Bernard is a large working dog from Switzerland. They are known for their loving, gentle, and tolerant personality. 

These dogs were once used to find and save lost and injured travelers. They are patient with children and make wonderful family friends thanks to their amazing ability to understand human emotions.

St. Bernards have very distinctive features. They are large, with wide skulls that give their heads a blocky shape. The skin on their forehead is fairly wrinkled. They have short muzzles located about an inch below their brown eyes. Their nose appears wide and open. St. Bernards have a pair of long, floppy ears that lie flat against their heads.

St. Bernards are a large breed. Males stand 28 to 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh 140 to 180 pounds. Females are slightly shorter at 26 to 28 inches and weigh 120 to 140 pounds. Like many big dogs, Saint Bernards have a short life span, usually only 8 to 10 years. 

Due to their breeding, St. Bernards do well in cold weather. They have a double coat, one coat short-haired and one long-haired. Both are dense and white with markings that can be red, black, and different shades of brown. 

These dogs do not mind being left alone for short periods. This will meet their daily physical needs.

St. Bernard dogs are generally high-maintenance pets that require lots of care and attention from their owners. Caring for Saint Bernards entails:

Feeding. Commercially available canine food or home-prepared rations should contain a balanced proportion of nutrients to help your dog grow strong and healthy. If you choose to feed your pet with homemade food, ask your veterinarian to help you choose which kinds are nutrient-appropriate. Adult Saint Bernard dogs can be fed twice a day. Clean and fresh water should also be available to them at all times. 

Clean their food and water bowls regularly to prevent bacteria and other harmful organisms from accumulating on them. Since some dogs naturally tend to become overweight, their shape and calorie consumption should be monitored. Brushing your dog’s teeth daily will not only promote your dog’s dental hygiene but also ensure you’re only getting fresh kisses from your pet.

Grooming. Saint Bernards need to be brushed frequently and bathed regularly to keep them neat and clean. Before bathing, use a brush to detangle and remove any mats from the coat. Check ears weekly for any debris and wax build-up. If you need to clean your dog’s ears, only use veterinary-approved ear cleaning tools. Trim your dog’s nails every three to four weeks using clippers or grinders to make it easy for them to walk comfortably. Don’t ignore fleas and ticks, as they can become a serious nuisance and potential health hazard for your dog. 

Exercise. Saint Bernard dogs are known to be laid-back animals. Thus, they do not need a lot of exercise. However, they do require physical activity in the form of play. It will help to keep them in good shape. During the summer months or other hot days, your dog can easily get heat exhaustion. Take care not to leave them outdoors without shade and water, and if it’s really hot, don’t leave them outside at all. 

Training. While training dogs, make sure that you and your household are consistent with your verbal and non-verbal cues so that your pets can figure out what you want them to do. For example, if you use English words to give commands to your dog, everyone in your home should avoid using other languages to avoid confusing the dog.

Fleas, ticks, and worms. Inspect your dog daily to check for ticks and fleas. Consult your veterinarian on what action to take in the case of an infestation and take year-long preventative measures for heartworms.

Saint Bernard dogs are prone to diseases such as canine hip dysplasia, heart problems, and GDV. Regular veterinary visits are vital since they involve screening for abnormalities and allow vets to administer a core set of vaccines to prevent fatal diseases. 

Like all pets, St. Bernards are prone to certain diseases and infections, some of which include:

Gastric dilation volvulus (GDV). A complication of another illness referred to as bloat, GDV is a condition that occurs when the stomach is filled with gas, food, or liquid, making it expand and then twist, cutting off circulation. GDV can be fatal if left untreated. Try feeding your dog two small meals a day rather than one large meal to avoid bloat. Also, not exercising after eating may be of benefit.

The first signs of bloat are:

  • Restlessness
  • A swollen abdomen
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Panting
  • Repeated attempts to vomit with no success

For dogs that are prone to GDV, your vet may recommend preventative surgery, also called stomach tracking.

Hip dysplasia. Canine hip dysplasia is mostly hereditary and common in the St. Bernard breed. It occurs when a dog’s hip joint does not develop properly. Treatment of hip dysplasia often involves surgery. Common symptoms of hip dysplasia include:

  • Limping
  • Unusual gait
  • Pain
  • Decreased thigh mass
  • Decreased movement

Heart problems.Dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM is a condition that occurs when the heart can no longer pump sufficient blood to the body. Saint Bernards are especially prone to this condition. Dogs with DCM do well with different types of treatment and may live a long and healthy life.

Cataracts. Most cases of cataracts are the result of inherited genetics. However, they can occur due to previous eye injuries, aging, or disease. A cataract blocks light from entering the eyes and can cause loss of sight if left untreated. However, surgery does help to preserve vision.

Heat stress. Heat stress is not as severe as other heat-related illnesses; however, it can progress to heat exhaustion and then later to potentially lethal heatstroke. Dogs will show an increase in thirst and panting, and you may need to move your dog to a shaded area and offer cool and fresh water.

Taking your dog for daily walks not only provides ample exercise but also allows them to socialize with other animals and humans. A well-trained and socialized St. Bernard is a friend and guardian for anyone they consider to be their family. Despite being large dogs, St. Bernards are kind and gentle with children. As with every breed, it is important to train dogs to handle children with gentle care and train children how to interact with the dog as well.

St. Bernards are natives of Switzerland. Their names were given by St. Bernard de Montjoux, the founder of the Great St. Bernard Hospice. They were used as guard dogs by people traveling through the mountains between Italy and Switzerland.

Due to their sense and enviable navigation skills, St. Bernard dogs were often used by the monks to track freezing and helpless travelers. They would also warn the hospice inhabitants of forthcoming snowstorms and avalanches. The dogs would dig and remove piles of ice to find travelers buried after an avalanche. One dog would keep the injured traveler warm while the other would return to the hospice to raise an alarm. 

History records that Saint Bernards rescued over 2000 people over the years they served in the hospice.

The St. Bernard was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885. They gained popularity among people in North America and have since become great companions for people all over the world.

While St. Bernard dogs are huge, they make well-behaved family pets. These dogs are very compassionate, having been bred to protect and care for vulnerable people.