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The Daily Vet by petMD

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Veterinarians and pet owners have long been concerned about the various joint disorders that are so common in the giant breeds like Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, Bernese Mountain dogs, Saint Bernards and the Newfies. The larger breeds like Rotties, Labs, Goldens, and German Sheperds are also over-represented with conditions like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) of the shoulders, knee, carpi (wrists) and tarsi (ankles), hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD), and panosteitis.

Although genetic factors are the largest, unavoidable contributor to these problems, nutritional interventions during puppyhood can influence and help decrease the incidences of these conditions in predisposed breeds.

Conditions That Affect Large Breed Dogs

Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia occur due to growth speed and structure between the bones of the joint.

In hip dysplasia the head of the femur (long bone of the leg) forms incorrectly. The acetabulum, or cup of the pelvis, also forms abnormally or forms abnormally due to the poor fit of the head of the femur.

hip dysplasia, large breed puppy, large breed dog

The same dynamics cause elbow dysplasia. The cup shaped end of the ulna (one of the bones of the forearm) and the spool shape at the end of the humerus (large bone of the upper arm) that fits in the ulnar cup may be malformed or grow differently so the joint does not work smoothly. Often the anconeal process and the coronoid process, which are the points of the cup, will fracture, creating floating pieces that irritate the already malformed joint.

canine elbow dysplasia, large breed dogs, large breed puppy

2 – Aconeal Process 3 – Coronoid Process

The end result of both dysplasias is osteoarthritis that worsens with age.

Osteochondrosis dissecans, or OCD, is a growth defect of the bone end-plates under the slippery, articular surface cartilage of a joint. Improper growth and blood supply under this tissue results in dysfunctional articular bone development. The tissue dies and breaks off causing rough divots in the joint that cause pain and lameness. Without surgical intervention osteoarthritis can develop.

ostechondrosis canine, large breed dog, large breed puppy

OCD of shoulder joint

Hypertrophic osteodystrophy, or HOD, affects the long bones of rapidly growing large and giant breed puppies. Inflammation and swelling of the bone beneath the growth plates in these puppies causes severe joint swelling, pain, lameness, reluctance to move, anorexia, and fever.

large breed dog, canine hod

Panosteitis is also an inflammatory condition that affects the interior of long bones of the same group of puppies. Improper bone remodeling during the growth period affects bone blood vessels and the resulting inflammation. Joint swelling is uncommon but the symptoms include those similar to puppies affected with HOD.

canine panosteitis, large breed dog, large breed puppy

HOD Radiographic image of panosteitis

The Role of Nutrition

Genetics aside, scientific studies have led to the present conclusion that rapid growth of the long bones in puppies is a risk factor for developing these joint and bone conditions. Rapid bone growth can be caused by two methods; overfeeding and calcium supplementation. Puppies allowed to free-feed or those fed liberal meal portions that exceed their daily caloric needs risk rapid bone growth.

Puppies of these breeds should constantly have their caloric intake adjusted during the growth period, which can be a long as 8-12 months in the large breeds and 15-18 months in the giant breeds. Because calorie information is not required for pet food labeling, veterinarians and owners will need to consult company websites for this information in order to calculate proper ration amount. The key is to keep these puppies growing at a slow, steady rate. Maintaining a body condition score of 4-5 during the growth period will also aid proper growth.

Unlike older dogs, puppies under 6 months of age cannot regulate the amount of calcium that is absorbed from the intestines. Passive absorption of calcium is directly proportional to the amount of calcium in the food or supplements. Studies have demonstrated that excessive calcium promotes rapid bone growth and increases the risk of joint disease and HOD. Elevated blood calcium levels also triggers hormonal changes that decrease re-modeling activity of growing bones and compromises blood supply in bone that promotes panosteitis.

Feeding puppies adult-maintenance food too early is the same as calcium supplementation. Commercial food formulation for calcium is based on the caloric density of food. Adult food is less caloric dense so more of the food is required to meet the caloric needs of puppies. This can result in the consumption of two times the amount of calcium than would be ingested with puppy formulations.

Despite common belief, experiments have failed to support any positive impact supplementation with vitamin C has on these joint conditions.

The bottom line is that large and giant breed puppies should be carefully fed a quality puppy formula until the end of their growth period before being switched to adult formulas. Calcium supplementation should be avoided during this same time period.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Eric Gavaert / via Shutterstock

Additional Images:

Canine Osteochondrosis — Veterinary Medical Clinic

Canine Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy — Carrboro Plaza Veterinary Clinic

Canine Panosteitis — Animal Central

Elbow Dysplasia Manifestations — Wikimedia Commons

Hip Dysplasia — Minnesota Malamute Club

Comments  4

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  • Fascinating!
    05/09/2013 06:34pm

    What great information!

    If one were over-zealous, though, what might be the problems encountered if a large/giant breed puppy didn't get enough calcium? I would assume this would also cause bone problems.

  • TheOldBroad
    05/09/2013 07:45pm

    You are absolutely right. Inadequate calcium would result in overall bone modeling problems during growth causing deformities and also promoting osteoporosis. Proper calcium levels in growing animals are even greater problem for those of us that formulate homemade diets. Homemade diets are more caloric dense than commercial food and require greater amounts of nutrients because animals meet their energy requirements with less food. But the calcium levels needed to achieve this violate every %calcium/dry matter ratio established for commercial foods and confuses owners and veterinarians. Calcium and phosphorus levels are probably the most important and most difficult consideration in puppy formulas, especially for the breeds mentioned in the blog.
    Dr. T

  • Strange timing
    05/10/2013 01:45pm

    I'm in vet school and we had this exact lecture yesterday to wrap up our nutrition course. Glad to see the information is consistent!!

  • Thanks
    09/24/2013 08:31pm

    Thank for the information. I have been looking into different breeds and had heard that some are more prone to tmj. Dartmouth has some vets but I couldn't figure out exactly what it was. Thanks again.

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