Nutritional Considerations for Large and Giant Breed Dogs

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Erico Ribeiro, MV, PhD, DVSc Candidate, ECVCN Resident

Why do large and giant breed dogs have specific diets?

Dogs are considered large/giant if they reach 70 lbs or more as adults. Their genetics, diet, and environment can predispose them to developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD) and chronic joint problems including hip or elbow dysplasia, osteochondrosis, and osteochondritis dissecans.

These conditions can be affected by the diet and by the amount fed per day. Overfeeding can lead to problems, even if large/giant puppies eat an appropriate diet.

Despite requiring more energy daily than smaller dogs, large/giant breed dogs need fewer calories per body weight (kcal/lb) per day. Large/giant breed dogs also have a more sensitive gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which requires more attention not only to their diet but also to how they are fed.

What is different in pet foods for large/giant adult dogs?

Because large/giant dogs need fewer calories per unit of body weight, a diet with fewer calories allows them to eat more and not be hungry. Diets for large/giant dogs are not high in fat, because fat provides more calories than the same amount of protein or carbohydrates. The lower fat results in fewer calories per cup, which can improve satiety.

Large/giant dogs are at risk for joint problems because of their size, so it is common to see ingredients that support joint health, such as glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids. Marine ingredients (e.g., algae or fish) are the best source of these fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Some vegetable products (e.g., flaxseed) are a good source of omega 3, but not specifically EPA+DHA.

"Large/giant breed diets usually include specific types and amounts of fibre to prevent GI issues."

Large/giant breed dogs are also more sensitive to high fermentation in their GI tract. Despite being beneficial for intestinal health, excessive fermentable fibre can lead to soft stools or diarrhea. Large/giant breed diets usually include specific types and amounts of fibre to prevent GI issues.

What is different in pet foods for large/giant breed puppies?

Large/giant breed dogs can grow quickly in just a few months. They may not get overweight if they are overfed during growth; instead, they will likely grow faster, but their skeleton may not grow at the same rate, which can lead to developmental orthopedic diseases.

Energy: A puppy diet with slightly less fat helps to prevent overfeeding by providing fewer calories. This diet also allows the puppy to eat appropriately and not be hungry.

Calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P): Calcium and phosphorus are essential nutrients and must be provided in the diet. However, deficiencies and excesses can lead to problems in puppies and adult dogs. Large and giant puppies have a stricter range for these nutrients than other dogs. Usually, a calcium:phosphorus ratio of 1.1:1 to 1.4:1 is safe as long as the puppy is not overeating.

Protein: Protein is essential in the diet, and puppies require a little more because of their growth. High protein increases phosphorus intake, which requires more calcium to maintain the calcium:phosphorus ratio, potentially leading to excessive calcium intake and developmental orthopedic diseases. A diet that provides a moderate amount of protein is ideal.

Other nutrients required for skeleton growth include vitamins A and D, copper, manganese, and zinc. Feeding a diet with an AAFCO statement (see below) can prevent nutrient excess or deficiency.

What are the best pet foods for large and giant breed puppies?

Pet food labels have limited information to compare different products. However, if the label includes a statement by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), specific to large/giant puppies, you know that it is safe. Specific AAFCO statements vary, depending on how the diet was developed. The AAFCO statement will be like one of these:

  1. "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (Pet food name) provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth, including the growth of large size dogs (70 lb or more as an adult)."
  2. "(Pet food name) is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth, including the growth of large size dogs (70 lb or more as an adult)."
  3. "(Pet food name) provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth, including the growth of large size dogs (70 lb or more as an adult), and is comparable in nutritional adequacy to a product which has been substantiated using AAFCO feeding tests."

A pet food that displays statement 1, above, has undergone a feeding trial in which puppies ate the food for several months, were examined by veterinarians, and showed no abnormalities related to nutrition.

A pet food that displays statement 2 or 3 has not undergone a feeding trial but has been formulated following AAFCO guidelines for nutrient levels for puppies. This food is also safe. Most pet foods do not undergo feeding trials, and many puppies eat these diets without issues.

How much should I feed my large/giant breed dog?

It is essential to adjust the amount of food fed to a dog, to maintain a healthy body condition, but it is critical for large and giant breed puppies. By providing ideal pet food, you can meet nutrient requirements for growth; however, the puppy may still develop orthopedic problems if you provide too much. By feeding an ideal large/giant puppy food in an adequate amount, the puppy will reach the adult weight while minimizing orthopedic issues.

There are many formulas to calculate daily energy intake requirements for your dog, but the requirements can differ significantly for each dog. Review what your pet eats, how much they eat, and their body condition score (BCS) with your veterinarian. Below are a few tips to avoid overfeeding your dog.

  • Use a growth chart if you have a large breed puppy (e.g., Note that this growth chart does not work for giant breeds because their growth rates differ. Check with your veterinarian for an appropriate growth curve for your giant-breed puppy.
  • Ensure your dog has an ideal body condition score (BCS). The target is between 4 and 5, using the 9-point scale. For more information, see the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Body Condition Score Chart for Dogs online, and the “Body Condition Scores” handout.
    • For puppies, it is safer to keep them with a BCS of 4/9 to prevent fast growth.
    • For adult dogs, adjust the amount of food if you notice weight gain or loss. That can happen when they are more active or less active, after neutering/spaying, or because of other factors.
  • Measure the amount to feed your pet, ideally using a digital kitchen scale. Once you get used to it, it takes only a few seconds each time. Using cups is not precise, even if the same person is feeding each time.
  • Note that pet food labels can be used as a reference for amount, but they often overestimate your pet's energy requirement.
  • To avoid unbalancing your puppy's diet, avoid using treats/other foods when they are growing. Once they are adults, up to 10% of the calories can come from treats/other foods that are not complete and balanced.

How long should I feed my large/giant breed puppy a growth diet?

Depending on the breed, large/giant breed puppies continue to grow until they are 18-24 months old. Thus, feeding a diet appropriate for the growth of large/giant puppies is recommended until they achieve adult weight.

By feeding an ideal large/giant puppy food in an adequate amount,
the puppy will reach the adult weight while minimizing orthopedic issues.

Should I give my large/giant breed puppy adult food or supplements?

The simple answer is no; they should only receive foods appropriate for the growth of large/giant breeds. Typical adult dog foods can have very different energy content and may not provide all the essential nutrients for growth. Also, they may not meet the specific ratio of calcium and phosphorus required for large/giant breed puppies.

Avoid nutritional supplements (with minerals and vitamins) unless recommended by your veterinarian. Any supplement can unbalance the diet and increase the risk of nutrient deficiency or excess.

How should I feed my large or giant dog?

Large and giant dogs are at risk for gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), a life-threatening condition. In the early stage, it may be a simple gastric dilatation or "bloat", but it can be associated with volvulus when the stomach twists upon itself. In that case, GDV requires urgent veterinary intervention. You can obtain more specific medical information from your veterinarian. Below are some tips for feeding large/giant dogs and assisting with GDV prevention.

  • Feed smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Provide at least 4 small meals for puppies, or at least 3 meals for adult dogs.
  • Do not moisten your pet's food before feeding.
  • Feed your pet from the ground using a puzzle feeder or "slow-down bowl".
  • Play with food: hide it around the house, toss pieces for your dog to chase, or use it for training.
  • Freeze wet or dry food mixed with water into kongs or lick mats.
  • Ensure your pet always has access to water but avoid excessive drinking. You can use a puzzle feeder if your dog drinks too much water.
  • Limit your dog's activity to avoid intense exercise right before or after meals.

What can cause gastric dilatation volvulus (bloat)?

The factors below have been associated with an increase in the risk of GDV:

  • Feeding one meal per day.
  • Eating very quickly is associated with aerophagia (swallowing air).
  • Using an elevated food bowl.
  • Restricting water before and after meals.
  • Moistening dry food before feeding.
  • Feeding a single food type (e.g., only dry kibble or only canned food).
  • Stress. To reduce your dog’s stress, ensure the feeding place is not stressful; discuss calming supplements or dog-appeasing pheromone diffuser with your veterinarian; and avoid competition for food in multi-dog households by feeding all dogs in separate rooms.
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