How To Choose the Best Puppy Food for Large Breeds

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 19, 2023
Puppy eating

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Puppies are not just smaller versions of adult dogs. Their rapid growth and development put special demands on their bodies, and those demands must be met by the food they eat. While this is true for all puppies, the changes that large-breed puppies go through are especially dramatic—just think of how much more growing a young Mastiff has to do in comparison to a young Shih Tzu!

This is why we need to pay extra attention to a large-breed puppy’s diet. Thankfully, finding a good puppy food for large breeds is easier than it used to be. Manufacturers now have to say right on the label whether or not a puppy food is designed to meet the unique nutritional needs of large breeds—you just need to know where to look.

Let’s discuss why large-breed puppies need special diets, what makes their puppy foods different from other puppy food and adult dog food, and how to pick out and feed the best large-breed puppy food.

Why Do Large-Breed Puppies Need Special Diets?

What sets large-breed puppies apart from smaller dogs? The obvious answer is their size, but there’s more to it than a measurement. When dogs are left to breed on their own, adults tend to max out in the range of 40 to 45 pounds. However, people have emphasized specific dog traits, including size, through selective breeding, which has led to all the different large breeds that are recognized today.

In order to reach their adult size, large-breed puppies have to grow unnaturally fast. While large breeds do keep growing longer than small breeds—18 to 24 months versus 10 to 12 months, respectively—they still must grow at a faster rate. This rapid growth rate increases a large breed puppy’s risk of having serious developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD) like hip dysplasiaelbow dysplasia, and osteochondritis dissecans.

Rapid growth isn’t the only risk factor for DOD—genetics plays a big role too—but it’s something you can help manage at home. By making small changes to what we feed large-breed puppies, we can slow down their rate of growth and lower their risk of DOD. Large-breed puppies will still get as big as they would otherwise; it will just take them a little longer to do so.

How Are Large-Breed Puppy Foods Different From Other Puppy Food?

Several characteristics make large-breed puppy foods different from “regular” puppy foods. The most important nutrient to consider is calcium.


The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) revised its guidelines for large-breed puppy foods in 2018. For a large-breed puppy food to be called “complete and balanced,” it now has to have a lower maximum calcium level in comparison to foods for all other life stages, including “regular” puppy foods. The minimum levels are the same, so this change creates a smaller acceptable calcium range for large-breed puppy foods.

AAFCO focused on calcium because it plays such an important role in bone growth. By ensuring that large-breed puppies aren’t overfed calcium, we can moderate their growth rate.


Manufacturers of quality large-breed puppy foods also pay close attention to dietary phosphorous levels. Calcium and phosphorus work together to build bone, so large-breed puppy foods usually have a little less phosphorus and a more tightly controlled calcium-to-phosphorous ratio than do “regular” puppy foods.

Fat and Calories

It's also very important for large-breed puppies to stay on the slim side as they grow. Overfeeding will negate the effects of feeding a large-breed puppy food, and extra body weight puts unneeded stress on a growing puppy’s bones and joints. Therefore, large-breed puppy foods tend to contain a little less fat and be less calorie-dense than foods designed for smaller puppies.

Can I Just Give My Large-Breed Puppy an Adult Dog Food?

The short answer is no. Remember that large-breed puppies are still puppies. Regardless of their size, all puppies have an increased need for protein, certain amino acids, fat, certain fatty acids, electrolytes, and several minerals. Large-breed puppy foods continue to meet these needs while making slight adjustments to slow growth. Feeding an adult dog food to a puppy puts that puppy at risk for nutritional deficiencies.

Choosing a Puppy Food for Large Breeds

No single food is right for every dog, so it’s always best to consult with your veterinarian when you’re trying to pick the best food for your large-breed pup.

You should also look for the following on the label:

  • One of these two AAFCO statements of nutritional adequacy:

    • [Dog Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth, including growth of large-size dogs (70 pounds or more as an adult)

    • [Dog Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages, including growth of large-size dogs (70 pounds or more as an adult)

  • A minimum protein level of at least 25% on a dry matter basis listed on the Guaranteed Analysis

  • High-quality protein sources such as chicken, chicken meal, salmon meal, lamb, turkey, and egg at the top of the ingredient list

  • Added docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to promote healthy brain and eye development

Large-breed puppy foods that meet these standards include:

How Long Should You Feed Puppy Food to Large Breeds?

Eventually, a large-breed puppy’s bones do stop growing, and this is the right time to switch them over to adult dog food. However, puppies reach their final adult heights at different ages.

As a general rule of thumb, large breeds can make the switch between 12-18 months. Giant breeds (those that weigh 90 pounds or more when fully grown) may benefit from continuing to eat a large-breed puppy food until they are around 24 months old. Your veterinarian can help you determine the right time for your pup to make the transition to adult dog food.

Featured Image: iStock/ChristopherBernard

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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