How to Keep Large Dogs Healthy at Every Life Stage

Katy Nelson, DVM
Sep 01, 2020
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If you have a large dog or are thinking of adopting a large-breed dog, you’ll need to take a few special considerations into account.

These include common health issues found in large dog breeds, their specific nutritional needs, and their physical activity requirements. You also need to know how these needs will vary as large dogs transition through different life stages.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about large dog breeds during every life stage.

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What’s the Weight Range for Large Dog Breeds?

Although there’s no generally accepted large dog weight range, most veterinarians consider any dog—regardless of breed or mix of breeds—that weighs between 50-100 pounds to be a large-breed dog.

Some also define a large dog as one that measures up to 24 inches in height (measured from the highest point of a dog’s shoulders down to their paws).

Examples of common large dog breeds include:

What Health Issues Do Large Dog Breeds Have?

Although this may vary by breed and life stage, large dogs tend to have a higher incidence of these issues:

Fast-growing, large-breed puppies can be predisposed to health issues like:

  • Panosteitis, a painful leg bone condition that’s often called “growing pains” (German Shepherd Dog)

  • Hypertrophic osteodystrophy, an auto-inflammatory bone disease (Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Irish Setter, Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Weimaraner)

  • Osteochondritis dissecans, a joint disease caused by abnormal cartilage development (Bernese Mountain Dog, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler)

How Long Do Large Dogs Live?

The average life span of large dog breeds typically ranges from 10-12 years. But this is dependent on a number of factors, including:

  • Breed

  • Genetics

  • Nutrition

  • Individual health status

How to Keep Large Dogs Healthy at Each Life Stage

The nutritional, medical, physical, and behavioral needs of large dogs will change as they transition through each life stage.

Here’s a breakdown of their needs at every life stage.

Large-Breed Puppy: 0-18 months

A large-breed puppy does not have the same needs of a small-breed puppy or medium-sized puppy. Follow this guide to set them up for success.

Nutritional Needs

Large dog breeds have a very rapid growth rate, which can predispose them to certain developmental orthopedic disorders, especially in those that are fed an improper diet.

Choosing a proper diet for your growing large puppy is crucial for their bone and joint development. Large-breed puppies require a very specific amount of protein, calcium, and phosphorus. However, it is a balancing act because too much protein can cause issues down the road.

Your large puppy’s food should have:

  • 1.5% calcium content

  • 30% high-quality protein

  • 9% fat (dry-matter basis)

  • Calcium to phosphorus ratio (Ca:P) of 1:1 to 1:3

Food labels will let you know how much to feed your large-breed puppy depending on their weight. Divide this amount into two or three meals per day and increase the amount per meal accordingly as your puppy grows.

It is also important to note that your puppy’s daily allotment of treats should not exceed 10% of their daily calorie intake.

AAFCO-Certified for Large-Breed Puppies

Most diets that are formulated for large-breed puppies and contain the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal of approval will meet these requirements. AAFCO publishes annual nutritional guidelines for animals of every life stage.

An appropriate diet for a growing large puppy will have a variation of the following statement printed on the bag/can of food: “This food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth of large-size dogs.”

Supplements

If your puppy is receiving an appropriate diet, they will not require any additional supplements, specifically those containing calcium, as this can alter their Ca:P ratio.

Medical Needs

Your large-breed puppy will also have specific medical needs as they grow.

Veterinary Care

Your large-breed puppy should be seen by their veterinarian every three to four weeks until the age of 16 weeks for routine exams and vaccinations.

Your vet will need to examine your puppy’s:

  • Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth

  • Heart

  • Lungs

  • Skin

  • Belly

  • Paws

  • Stool

By checking all these areas, they can monitor for abnormalities such as:

  • Heart murmurs

  • Congenital defects

  • Upper respiratory infections

  • Pneumonia

  • Hernias

  • Cleft palates

  • Orthopedic abnormalities

  • Intestinal parasites

Vaccines

Vaccines help keep your puppy healthy and protected. Veterinarians recommend these core vaccines for all puppies:

Vaccination against other diseases (Lyme disease, canine influenza, Bordetella, leptospirosis, etc.) should be discussed with your veterinarian at your puppy’s first visit.

If your puppy is at risk for any of these diseases and is healthy enough for vaccinations, please consider these important noncore vaccines, as well.

Dental Care

Most large-breed puppies will not require anesthetic dental cleanings/procedures yet.

Exceptions include puppies that have broken their puppy teeth, have retained puppy teeth or unemerged adult teeth, or have been exposed to viruses or medications that affect proper enamel development.

Since puppies are so adaptable, it’s best to start getting them used to at-home dental care (brushing their teeth at home) at an early age. Vetoquinol Enzadent and Virbac C.E.T. Oral Hygiene Kit for dogs are two products you can try at home.

Your veterinarian will examine your puppy’s teeth at every visit and let you know the right time for your dog’s first dental procedure. 

Spay/Neuter

After your puppy completes their vaccine and deworming schedule, they should be examined every six months, including an appointment to discuss the recommended timing of their spay/neuter.

There has been significant controversy over the best time to spay or neuter large dogs.

A recent study summarizes the relationship between disease prevalence in the most common large-breed dogs and spaying and neutering at different ages.

In general, there seems to be a smaller percentage of joint disorders (hip dysplasia, arthritis, cruciate tears) in male dogs that were neutered after reaching full maturity (>2 years).

There also appears to be a smaller percentage of hormone-responsive urinary incontinence in female dogs that were spayed after their first heat cycle.

Due to varying opinions on the topic, it’s recommended that you consult with your veterinarian regarding the best time to spay or neuter your large-breed puppy.

Parasite Prevention

Heartworm prevention should be started as early as possible in large-breed puppies (as early as 8 weeks of age, depending on your puppy’s weight).

Many areas can see year-round disease transmission due to the prevalence of mosquitos—the carriers of heartworm disease.

Consistent flea and tick prevention is also important due to the risk of tick-borne disease (ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, Lyme disease), flea allergies, and tapeworm (carried by fleas).

Please consult with your veterinarian about the best flea, tick, and heartworm prevention for your dog’s weight and age.

Behavioral Needs

Puppyhood is a crucial life stage for socialization, preventing phobias, and training.

Socialization

Your puppy’s most important period for socialization is between 2-12 weeks of age. This is also the time when your puppy is most susceptible to disease, so make sure you find controlled environments where you can provide safe socialization experiences.

Preventing Fears and Phobias From Developing

Your puppy is most susceptible to developing fears or phobias at 8-10 weeks of age. Only use positive reinforcement and gentle handling, and never punish your dog (yelling, confining as a result of a behavior, rubbing their nose in their accidents).

Avoid anxiety-inducing events during this time. Remember that events and situations that might not cause anxiety for you can cause anxiety for your dog.

Training

During this time, you will also want to start puppy training. Having large dog breeds comes with the responsibility of instilling good behaviors and habits while your dog is small and easy to manage.

Once large dogs are fully grown, behaviors like jumping, chewing, nipping, and pulling on the leash become a lot more destructive, dangerous, and difficult to handle.

Mental and Physical Stimulation

As your puppy grows, it is important to provide physical and mental stimulation. This can come in many forms:

  • Long walks

  • Puppy playdates

  • Training (at home or puppy training classes)

  • Fetch games

  • Puzzle toys, games, feeders

Here are some toys that are appropriate for puppies:

Adult Large-Breed Dogs: 18 months – 7 years

As your puppy transitions into an adult dog, their needs will change. Here are some tips to help you prepare.

Nutritional Needs

As your large-breed puppy reaches an adult age and stops growing (usually around 12-18 months), they should be gradually transitioned to an appropriate large-breed adult diet over the course of seven days to avoid gastrointestinal (GI) upset.

AAFCO-Certified for Adult Large-Breed Dogs

Make sure that some variation of the following statement is published on the label: “This food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for maintenance of large-size dogs.”

It’s very important to maintain a healthy weight in adult large-breed dogs. Obesity can lead to early arthritis and negatively impact your pet’s quality of life.

Supplements

You can also consider starting joint supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and omega-3 fatty acids in large dogs that have been diagnosed with any orthopedic abnormalities (hip/elbow dysplasia, arthritis, cruciate injuries, etc.). Ask your vet about options for supplements.

These supplements are commonly recommended:

Medical Needs

When they reach the adult stage, large dog breeds will have different medical needs from when they were puppies.

Veterinary Care

Your adult dog should receive veterinary exams every six months and be checked every six to 12 months for heartworms, tick-borne diseases, and intestinal parasites.

Your veterinarian may recommend annual or semi-annual bloodwork, urinalysis, and possibly even x-rays to monitor your pet’s general health and catch certain disease processes early.

Vaccines

Your veterinarian will ensure that your pet is up to date on their core vaccines (rabies, distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, parvovirus) and noncore vaccines, depending on exposure risk (Bordetella, Lyme disease, influenza, leptospirosis).

Vaccine manufacturers guarantee an immunity that lasts one to three years, depending on the vaccine.

If you have any questions about how often your pet should be vaccinated, please ask your veterinarian which vaccines your dog received and how long each vaccine is guaranteed to provide protection.

In an effort to avoid over-vaccination, you may also ask your veterinarian about distemper/parvovirus titers, which can show whether your dog is still protected against these diseases and discourage the need for additional vaccination at a given point in time.

Dental Care

Your vet will also examine your dog’s teeth at each visit to ensure appropriate oral health. They may recommend a dental cleaning if they see evidence of dental disease.

Some large dogs will need annual or even semi-annual dental cleanings depending upon their breed, health status, diet, and history.

Reproductive Health and Spay/Neuter

If your male dog has not been neutered by the time he has reached an adult age, do not let him roam, and keep him separated from female dogs in heat to prevent unwanted litters.

Your veterinarian will examine him at each visit to monitor for signs of prostatitis or testicular cancer.

If you have any behavioral concerns with your intact male dog (aggression, marking behavior, roaming), ask your veterinarian whether neutering might be a viable option.

If your female dog has not been spayed yet, please track her heat cycles, which should occur every six to eight months.

If you notice any of these signs, talk with your veterinarian:

Intact adult female dogs are at a higher risk for pyometra (uterine infection), roaming behavior, and mammary cancers.

Parasite Prevention

It’s important to continue flea, tick, and heartworm prevention in adult large dog breeds.

Mental and Physical Stimulation

It is also important to provide appropriate mental and physical stimulation for your pet. This can include:

  • Agility training

  • Obstacle courses

  • Puzzle toys or food-dispensing toys

  • Fetch games

  • Puppy playdates

  • Digging in a designated area

  • Nose-work games

  • Frozen dog treats

  • Long daily walks or runs

Here are some toy options for adult dogs:

Senior Large-Breed Dogs: 7 – 16 years

As your pet reaches a senior age, you may notice signs of slowing down, such as:

  • Not being able to walk as far

  • Having difficulty jumping or getting up

  • Sleeping more

  • Having to be walked more often

While these can be a normal part of the aging process, they can also be signs of disease. Talk to your vet if you have concerns, and take your senior dog for regular checkups.

Here are some other considerations for senior large dog breeds.

Nutritional Needs 

Once your dog begins to reach “senior” age (approximately 7 years), they can be gradually transitioned to an appropriate senior diet over the course of seven days to avoid GI upset.

Although most adult large breed dog foods will suffice, there are diets that are formulated specifically for senior large breed dogs.

They usually contain omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and vitamins and minerals to help maintain joint and cognitive health. Make sure that your pet’s food has the AAFCO seal of approval.

Supplements

At this age, it is more important than ever to maintain a healthy weight. This will alleviate the pressure on your dog’s joints and keep them feeling better for longer.

You may want to consider joint supplements (glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, essential fatty acids) for your senior dog if they are not already receiving them. Essential fatty acids can also be helpful for cognitive function.

Probiotics, like Purina Pro Plan Fortiflora or Nutramax Proviable DC have been shown to maintain gut health and boost your pet’s immunity as well.

Your veterinarian can help you find the most appropriate senior diet and supplements for your dog’s lifestyle and physical needs.

Medical Needs

As your large dog becomes a senior, trips to the vet will become more frequent, and they will have different health needs.

Veterinary Care

Your senior dog should be thoroughly examined every six months by their veterinarian.

It’s even more important at this stage to monitor your pet’s dental, cardiovascular, and joint health, as well as their blood work/urine. This is usually when you will start seeing signs of arthritis, endocrine disease, heart disease, liver and kidney disease, and cancer.

Your veterinarian will look for heart murmurs, masses or growths, dental disease, and arthritis, and will likely recommend blood work and a urinalysis to screen for underlying conditions that may not be apparent upon physical examination.

Vaccines

At your dog’s semi-annual visit, your veterinarian will ensure that your pet is up to date on their core vaccines and checked for heartworm (and tick-borne) disease and intestinal parasites.

Dental Care

It’s very important to keep up with your senior large dog’s dental care. Your veterinarian will check your dog’s teeth at each visit and monitor for signs of dental disease.

Parasite Prevention

Senior dogs should still be on regular heartworm and flea/tick prevention.

Mobility Issues

One of the most common issues we see with older large-breed dogs is problems with mobility.

It’s important to keep your dog’s nails trimmed and to address joint pain. There are a variety of treatments for joint pain, such as:

  • Anti-inflammatories

  • Pain medications

  • Laser therapy

  • Acupuncture

  • Physical therapy

  • Injectable joint medications (Adequan, platelet-rich plasma, stem cell therapy, etc.)

Ask your veterinarian which therapy they recommend for your dog’s mobility issues.

There are also ways that you can make your home more comfortable and easier to navigate for your senior dog. Here are a few options:

  • Ramps

  • Orthopedic beds

  • Yoga mats

  • Carpets/rugs

  • Memory foam mats

  • Adhesive paw pads

  • Booties

  • Slings

Mental and Physical Stimulation

Continue exercising your dog (physically and mentally) as much as they can tolerate. Your pet will let you know how much activity is too much. Consider short, frequent walks or swims, gentle games of fetch, puzzle toys and games, training, or obstacle courses.

While it’s important to monitor their physical health, you should also monitor your dog’s mental health as they age. Just because your dog is a senior doesn’t mean they don’t need mental stimulation. Try the KONG Senior dog toy or Outward Hound Hide a Squirrel Squeaky toy.

You can keep them mentally stimulated through play and games. These do not have to be high-energy games; there are lots of low-impact activities you can do with your senior dog.

As larger dogs age, you should also monitor them for signs of dog dementia (canine cognitive dysfunction).

Notify your vet if you notice behavioral changes, such as:

  • Altered sleep/wake cycles

  • Anxiety

  • Excessive barking

  • Pacing

  • Incontinence

  • Confusion

  • Disorientation

Your vet will rule out underlying health issues and discuss medications (e.g., selegiline), supplements, and diets that can help in cases of canine cognitive dysfunction.

End-of-Life Care

Unfortunately, there will likely come a time in your pet’s life where you will have to consider your pet’s quality of life and whether humane euthanasia is the best choice for your pet.

This is never an easy decision, and it can be incredibly difficult to separate your emotions from the process. However, there are tools like the “Quality of Life Scale” that can help you evaluate your pet’s life, and you can talk with your veterinarian about your options.

Don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian any questions you have regarding your pet’s quality of life or end-of-life care.

Resources for assessing your dog’s quality of life:

Quality of Life Scale

Lap of Love Quality of Life Scoring Tools

Lap of Love “How Will I Know It Is Time?”

Featured Image: iStock.com/kozorog

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