Great Dane

Melissa Boldan, DVM
Written by:
Published: September 26, 2022
Great Dane

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The Great Dane is a gentle giant that was originally bred for hunting wild boar and guarding estates in Germany. It remains a mystery how they came to be named Great Danes, as the breed has no roots in Denmark.

Despite their impressive size and penchant for being wonderful guardians, Great Danes are kind and enjoy family life. Nicknamed the Apollo of dogs, Great Danes are the tallest of the working class of dog breeds.

Caring for a Great Dane

Great Dane Characteristics

Great Danes are the tallest of the working breeds, standing at 28-32” in height. When they stand on their hind legs, they can be taller than most people. They are also very heavy, weighing 120-160 pounds on average. They come in many colors, including black, blue, fawn, harlequin, and merle.

Because of their large size, they unfortunately have a shorter life expectancy. The average Great Dane lives only 7 to 10 years.

Great Danes have large floppy ears, a big blocky head, a deep chest, long limbs, and a long tail. These physical characteristics may make them prone to certain medical conditions like ear infections, wobbler syndrome, dilated cardiomyopathy, bloathip dysplasia, and happy tail syndrome.

Great Dane Health Issues

Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV)

The most serious medical condition that more commonly affects Great Danes is gastric dilatation volvulus, or GDV. This condition can be life-threatening in as little as 24 hours. A Great Dane is deep-chested, which allows the stomach more room to rotate on its axis. While it’s not known exactly what causes bloat, it often occurs after a deep-chested dog eats a large meal or drinks a lot of water before exercising.  The stomach fills with gas and can rotate, trapping the blood vessels and leading to a toxic shock-like syndrome.

Signs of GDV include:

  • Retching or attempts at vomiting with no success

  • Stomach distension and swollen abdomen

  • Restlessness

  • Pacing

  • Panting

If you have a Great Dane and you notice any of these signs, seek emergency veterinary care as soon as possible.

Fortunately, GDV risk can be significantly reduced with a prophylactic (or preventative) surgery called a gastropexy. In this procedure, the veterinarian tacks the stomach to the body wall so it can’t twist in the abdominal cavity. Many pet parents elect to do this procedure while their Great Dane is already under anesthesia for spay or neuter surgery. 

Hip Dysplasia

Like many other large breeds, Great Danes can be prone to hip dysplasia and should be screened. X-rays can be taken and sent off for analysis to determine if intervention is required. A PennHIP screening can be done at 16 weeks of age, allowing pet parents to lessen the severity of hip dysplasia or prevent it altogether in their puppy.

Wobbler Syndrome

Great Danes have a large head and a long neck. These characteristics increase their susceptibility to a neurologic condition called wobbler syndrome. This disease of the cervical spinal cord causes neck pain and an unsteady, wobbly gait. Since this disease is linked to nutrition, it is important to feed a growing Great Dane a quality large-breed puppy diet until they are 18 months of age. This diet will help moderate their growth and lessen the risk of both hip dysplasia and wobbler syndrome.

Degenerative Lumbosacral Stenosis

Additionally, Great Danes and other giant breeds are more likely to have degenerative lumbosacral stenosis, a spinal condition that causes lower back pain. This condition is sometimes called LS disease, and the pain may be so severe that the dog may not be able to stand on its own. The condition is more common in senior overweight dogs. First signs may include weakness in the back end or hind legs and reluctance to rise after laying down. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to reduce their risk of debilitating lower back pain. Obesity greatly increases a senior dog’s risk of developing back and joint issues.

Happy Tail Syndrome

Just like many of the other parts of the Great Dane, their tail is especially long. This length, combined with their enthusiasm and joy for life, makes Great Danes prone to a condition called “happy tail.” This refers to repeated injuries of the tail tip due to its repeatedly hitting solid objects. This repeat trauma results in non-healing wounds on the end of the tail. Treatment can range from medical management to surgically shortening the tail.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

With their large hearts, Great Danes are prone to a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. In this progressive disease, the heart muscle gradually stretches and becomes weak, slowly losing the ability to pump blood efficiently. While genetics predominantly determine a dog’s risk for developing DCM, nutrition can also play a big role.

What to Feed a Great Dane

Great Dane Special Nutritional Considerations

Great Danes are large-breed dogs and should eat large-breed quality dog food. Feeding a balanced commercial diet that is specially formulated for large-breed dogs is the easiest way to ensure that your Great Dane receives optimal nutrition.

Great Danes should eat large-breed puppy food until they are 18 months old. “Whole life” diets are not appropriate for this size of dog as they undergo long-bone development during their growing phase. Great Danes grow significantly more in height than smaller breeds and their bones grow for a longer time.

Many degenerative joint diseases have been linked to overfeeding and inappropriate nutrition in growing large-breed dogs. Overfeeding and encouraging growth too quickly increases a Great Dane’s risk for hip and elbow dysplasia, osteochondritis, growing pains, and many other orthopedic diseases. Large-breed puppy diets are formulated to minimize this risk by reducing phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D levels to rate growth appropriately. It is important that you follow the feeding guidelines on the bag and work with your veterinarian.

As large breeds, Great Danes may also require more joint support. Many diets are formulated with this in mind and have higher levels of glucosamine and chondroitin than would be necessary for a medium- or small-breed dog.

How to Feed a Great Dane

When feeding a Great Dane, it is important to reduce their risk of GDV, or bloat. Here are some ways you can protect your Great Dane during feeding:

  • A slow feeder is recommended to prevent your dog from eating too quickly. These come in many different patterns and colors and act like a maze for your dog’s tongue.

  • Avoid only feeding one meal a day, and instead feed two or more smaller meals.

  • Prevent your dog from vigorous exercise 1-2 hours after a meal.

How Much Should You Feed a Great Dane

The average Great Dane will eat 6 to 10 cups of food per day. Read the feeding guidelines on the back of the dog food bag to determine the amount that is appropriate. Your dog food bag will have the weight of your dog and the amount recommended. This amount changes in growing puppies as they age.

Your Great Dane should be fed two or more meals daily. It is important to keep your Great Dane at an ideal body condition score. You should be able to see the outline of their last rib (starting at head and working your way back), but the other ribs should not be as visible. Dogs that are too thin or have an anxious temperament have a greater risk of bloat. Dogs that are too heavy are more prone to have trouble with their hips and other joints.

The amount you feed may change over your dog's lifetime as their metabolism and activity level varies. If you are unsure that you are feeding an appropriate amount, visit with your veterinarian to discuss your dog’s optimal nutrition.

Nutritional Tips for Great Danes

Joint supplements can be beneficial for this breed. Glucosamine and chondroitin can protect the cartilage as your dog ages. Many pet parents start their Great Danes on a joint supplement, like Dasuquin, to slow degeneration of their hips, knees, and elbows. Always work with your veterinarian when selecting supplements for your dog. Not all supplements are created equal, and some products have more research and clinical trials to support their efficacy. Your veterinarian is the best person to discuss any supplement additions to your dog’s daily routine.

Behavior & Training Tips for Great Danes

Great Dane Personality and Temperament

Great Danes tend to be very gentle and quiet dogs. They can be moderately playful and do require enough space for some exercise. If you live in a small apartment, expect to take your Great Dane on long walks at least twice a day to provide adequate physical activity. Great Danes are typically good family dogs and do well with children. They can be protective and require training to ensure they are good canine citizens when they are fully grown.

Great Dane Behavior

While Great Danes of the past were known as fearless boar hunters and protectors of estates, the Great Dane of today can be timid and anxious without appropriate socialization. It is important that pet parents expose their Great Dane to lots of new stimuli, such as other people, vaccinated pets, or nail clippers, when they are 1-4 months of age. This window is the optimal socialization period to help your Great Dane have a fear-free life.

Great Danes that are not well-socialized may suffer from anxiety, be excessively fearful in new situations, or overprotective and dangerous to handle due to their size. These behavior traits can be avoided with early safe exposure to new things and positive experiences.

Great Dane Training

Puppy classes are a wonderful way for your Great Dane to have exposure to new stimuli in a safe and positive environment.

Classic obedience courses may also be very enjoyable to Great Danes and their pet parents. While the breed can be stubborn with training, they are very intelligent and can learn quickly.

Fun Activities for Great Danes

Great Danes enjoy going for walks with their pet parents. Due to their long stride, a slow jogging pace may allow them to walk out more and achieve some aerobic activity. While they have a low-moderate activity level compared to many other breeds, leash walks are great for physical health, mental stimulation, and socialization.

Some Great Danes enjoy dog parks where they can play with other dogs. Most Great Danes are sociable and get along well with other dogs. Like many other giant breeds, they can tire more quickly than smaller-breed dogs. It is important to watch your dog for signs of fatigue and minimize their activity level if they seem to be flagging.

Great Dane Grooming Guide

  • Great Danes have a single coat with short hair. They shed a moderate amount

  • They should be bathed periodically; every 6-8 weeks is a good rule of thumb

  • Weekly brushing can help keep your dog’s hair coat healthy

  • Their ears should be cleaned monthly with a quality dog-specific ear cleaner

Considerations for Pet Parents

It is important to note that owning a giant-breed dog can come with some unique challenges. Large dogs require more food and larger sizes of heartworm and flea/tick prevention. This can be more costly than owning a smaller breed dog. Additionally, many Great Danes can weigh as much or more than their owners, so it is important to teach good leash habits and socialization skills from an early age.

Great Dane FAQs

Is a Great Dane a good family dog?

A Great Dane is a good family dog. They are typically patient and get along well with children.

Are Great Danes smart dogs?

Great Danes are generally intelligent dogs and learn quickly. They can be stubborn, but they are an intelligent breed.

What are the drawbacks of a Great Dane?

Great Danes are very large. This can present challenges both in handling and in the cost of care. Additionally, they have a shorter life span than many of the other breeds. It is important to enjoy the time you have with your Great Dane. They are very susceptible to a life-threatening condition called GDV. This requires some extra due diligence and may be expensive to prevent and/or treat.

Are Great Danes good pets?

Great Danes make very good pets. They are kind and gentle and get along well with other dogs and families. With good socialization and proper care, a Great Dane is a wonderful pet.

Featured Image: iStock.com/gsagi


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