Ask The Vet: What Makes Big Dog Care Unique?

Sara Williams, DVM, MPH from Northwest Animal Hospital, has been a veterinarian for 14 years and has owned Northwest Animal Hospital for the past three. We had a conversation with Dr. Williams to uncover what potential big pet parents need to think about when it comes to living with and caring for a big dog.

It’s a lifestyle choice.

“When you’re going to get a big dog, it’s not just a dog, it’s a lifestyle,” Dr. Williams explained. “You have to think about space – in your car, in your home.” Your car may be able to accommodate your large breed puppy when you bring him home, but will it be big enough when your Great Dane, for example, is full grown?

Another consideration that not all pet parents think about is how much food their big dog will eat and how much more expensive medications can be for a large or giant breed dog.

“When thinking about your lifestyle you need to know whether you want a dog who can run and exercise with you,” she said. “Not all big dogs are great for running and exercising. If you want a big dog for that reason you need to keep in mind that because of their size they are more prone to joint and pain issues.” This doesn’t mean that your big dog should be a couch potato. “These dogs need walks and exercise to keep them healthy but they may be better suited to a long brisk-paced walk than they would be a miles long jog or run.”

Dr. Williams has a 90-pound Boxer-Mastiff mix who she says is great for cuddling and companionship, but would not be the best running partner.

What Makes Big Dog Care Unique

If I get a large breed puppy, what can be done to make certain he or she will grow up healthy?

Look for a breeder that offers Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) certification for their puppies. “OFA Certification means that the risk of bone or joint health issues could be lower because the parents have been tested,” she said. “OFA Certification is not a 100% guarantee that your puppy won’t suffer hip or joint issues, but it is a great starting point.”

Spaying or neutering at an age older than six months, as is typical, could lead to better joint health. “The studies aren’t conclusive, but it appears that it might be better to wait to spay or neuter large breed dogs until they are closer to one-year-old,” she said. “In my practice I ask that people wait until the puppy is eight to ten months of age because the risk of orthopedic issues could be lowered if we allow more time for cartilage to grow.”

Nutrition plays a very important role in the health of your big dog.

“I recommend feeding a large breed puppy food that is suited for the breed. You also need to feed the correct amount of food,” she said. “Overfeeding can lead to myriad health issues later in life.”

Large breed puppies that are overfed will grow too fast and that puts stress on their joints and can lead to issues with their cartilage and bone. Additionally, overfeeding leads to your puppy being overweight and that brings with it a whole host of other issues, she said.

Calculating the amount of calories your pet is consuming is more important than feeding the amount of food that’s recommended on the back of the bag. “Measuring calories per cup is a much better way to feed your pet. Calorie counts will vary depending on the dog’s age and the brand of food, but it is a great place to start when determining how much to feed.” She feels that if you’re feeding your pet based on the instructions on the food bag, you are probably overfeeding.

Asking your vet if your pet is at the ideal weight when you’re at a wellness exam should be part of the process. “Your vet should do a body condition score as this subjectively gives the patient a score on whether he is underweight, overweight or at the ideal weight,” she explained. “When we do this we can look back and say, ‘his ideal weight is 75 pounds, but now he’s at 80, let’s see what we can do to calculate the calories he’s eating, keep track of his weight and get him back on track.”

What kind of treats can I use, especially when I’m training my puppy?

Offering treats is a pet parents’ way of saying, “I love you” to a pet, but if you’re feeding processed, high calorie snacks every time you are training your pet, you can be contributing t her weight gain. “Even a few extra pounds on a big dog can put additional strain on her hips and knees,” Dr. Williams said. “I estimate that most of the cruciate injuries I see are bec ause a dog is overweight.”

Not getting enough exercise is as detrimental to your pet’s health as is overfeeding, she said. “Don’t equate love with food,” she urges pet parents. “Your dog will be just as happy with a carrot or a piece of broccoli as he will with a piece of jerky. For your pet, it’s the act of receiving the treat as much as it is the treat itself.”

Dr. Sara Williams has been a veterinarian in the Minneapolis metropolitan area for more than 14 years. She now owns and practices at Northwest Animal Hospital in Plymouth, Minnesota. As a working mom, pet owner and veterinarian, she specializes in practical advice for busy pet owners.

Dr. Sara’s 92 pound mutt, Dirk, works full-time in the office greeting people at the front desk. When she’s not in the office, Dr. Sara is perfecting her yoga downward facing dog and chasing her husband and three young children around the yard.