What to Know About von Willebrand Disease in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on March 11, 2024
5 min read

Von Willebrand disease is a bleeding disorder that affects some purebred dogs. It causes problems with how your dog’s blood clots, putting them at risk for unusually heavy bleeding. It's common in Doberman pinschers, but other breeds are at risk for the condition as well. 

Von Willebrand disease is a bleeding disorder that affects some dogs. It can affect humans as well, but you can't catch it from a dog — and your dog can't get it from you. The syndrome is genetic, so any dog who has it was born with it.

The condition has been diagnosed in more than 30 breeds of dogs. Doberman pinschers are the most likely to have von Willebrand disease. Some studies estimate that more than half of Dobermans are carriers of the disease.

The main characteristic of canine von Willebrand disease is an abnormally low amount of a protein called von Willebrand factor. A dog with the condition may have von Willebrand factor in their bloodstream, but it is malformed and ineffective. This protein is crucial to the process of blood clotting. Without it, your dog’s injuries can lead to excessive bleeding. Von Willebrand disease is similar to hemophilia, another type of bleeding disorder, though it is a different condition.

In a typical injury with a tear in a blood vessel, your dog’s body deploys cells called platelets to the area. The platelets clump up and block the opening in the blood vessel to prevent more blood from leaking out. Von Willebrand factor acts like glue, holding the platelets together. If the von Willebrand factor doesn't bind the platelets, a wound will not stop bleeding.

If your dog loses too much blood after an injury or surgery, they can die.

There are different types of von Willebrand disease, which have different implications for dogs: 

  • Type 1: With Type 1, the most common form, there is an abnormally low amount of von Willebrand factor, but it is formed normally. This type is most common in Dobermans, Shetland sheepdogs, German shepherds, and standard poodles.
  • Type 2: With Type 2, the cells of the von Willebrand factor are malformed and don't function properly. It’s a more severe form of the condition than Type 1. This type is most common in German shorthaired and German wirehaired pointers.
  • Type 3: Type 3 is characterized by your dog having practically no von Willebrand factor at all. This is the most severe form of the disease. This type is most common in Scottish terriers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, and Shetland sheepdogs.

If your dog has a milder form of the condition, they may not have significant complications from it. Many dogs show symptoms only after a serious injury or routine surgery. The bleeding may take longer than usual to stop, and your dog might have excessive bruising at an incision or injury site.

For dogs with severe forms of von Willebrand disease, they may have episodes of spontaneous bleeding. They might hemorrhage from the mouth, nose, or genitals. Any kind of injury or surgery is a risk for life-threatening bleeding. If your dog gives birth to puppies, there could also be significant postpartum bleeding.

Dogs don't always show signs of this disorder from puppyhood. Some dogs don't start to have symptoms until later in life. The average age for diagnosis in Dobermans — the dog breed most commonly affected by this condition — is 4 years old.

There is no treatment for von Willebrand disease. If your dog has the condition, you can manage the symptoms, but the condition itself will be lifelong.

If you know your dog has clotting problems from von Willebrand disease, you should tell your vet prior to any surgery. Your vet may suggest a transfusion of blood products to add von Willebrand factor to your dog's bloodstream before the operation.

A hormone called DDAVP (or desmopressin acetate) can be helpful as its use seems to cause a sudden release of von Willebrand's factor into the bloodstream. After a 30-minute activation period, the use of DDAVP shortens the bleeding time for approximately 2 hours after the DDAVP injection. This is very helpful in preparing for surgery but not something useful on a day-to-day basis.

Your dog may need stitches to heal minor injuries that don't usually require treatment. They should avoid any medication that can lead to increased bleeding, including some blood thinners, pain relievers, and antibiotics. Your vet can tell you how to care for a wound if your dog has von Willebrand disease.

There is genetic testing and even a blood test for von Willebrand disease in dogs. The testing is helpful if your dog will need surgery. You may need to find a veterinary practice with experience managing this condition. Your dog may also need special medications prior to surgery to keep them safe and testing clotting ability prior to surgery is also recommended.  Your vet will minimize the risk of bleeding during and after the operation.

Testing is also useful if you are considering breeding your dog. Bleeding can be a complication of giving birth, so your dog's safety could be an issue. In addition, the condition is genetic, so there is a good chance of passing it along to offspring. Many experts recommend not breeding dogs who carry the gene for von Willebrand disease. 

Certain breeds of dogs are more susceptible to this condition. Along with Doberman pinschers, other breeds are also vulnerable. Talk to your vet about testing if you have any of the following breeds:

  • Bernese mountain dogs
  • Chesapeake Bay retrievers
  • German pinschers
  • German shepherds 
  • German shorthaired pointers
  • German wirehaired pointers
  • Kerry blue terriers 
  • Manchester terriers 
  • Papillons
  • Pembroke Welsh corgis
  • Pointers
  • Poodles (all sizes)
  • Shetland sheepdogs
  • Scottish terriers

If you have a breed with a high risk of von Willebrand disease, talk to your vet about genetic testing. You can also discuss what to look for so you'll be prepared if your pet gets injured.