Ask The Vet: Caring For Large Breed Dogs

Dr. Carol Osborne, DVM from the Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Ohio spoke with me about some of the health issues that face big and giant dog breeds. We discussed how to properly care for your giant breed dog from puppyhood through adulthood.

Dr. Osborne, who has been a vet for more than 20 years, practices integrative veterinarian medicine. Her practice offers traditional and holistic services. “We can individualize and optimize therapies for all of the pets we treat,” she explained. “We combine traditional therapies with holistic methods to provide pets the best of both worlds.” This is also a method of treatment that appeals to the pet parents as well, she said. Dr. Osborne said, “Whether we have two legs or four it’s impossible to separate an illness or a health concern from everything else that makes up our bodies.” To elaborate further, she equated it to, “Our pet’s bodies are like a car – if you have gas in it, but no oil, the car won’t run and vice versa.” She shared that you can’t “treat only the ‘sore back leg’ of your pet without understanding what’s going on the rest of the body.” She said, “You need to look at all facets of health that impact the animal – it’s lifestyle, its environment, the family situation – it’s a lot to deal with but all factors need to be considered.” It may take additional time to put together a “whole health” treatment plan but she says in her experience, and in that of the pets she treats, it’s worth it.

St. Bernard

What are the top three illnesses that impact large and giant breed dogs?

The top three she sees are:

  1. Arthritis
  2. Gastrointestinal disorders
  3. Heart disorders

“What pet owners need to understand is that these large and giant breed dogs, in general, enjoy a much shorter life span than does a small- or medium-sized dog,” she said. If you’re going to be the pet parent for a big dog you should be concerned with:

  1. His or her nutrition
  2. The rate at which your pet is growing
  3. The prevention of disease
  4. The promotion of good overall health

These factors play a role from the moment you bring your pet home. Dr. Osborne shared that many puppies are overfed from an early age because potential pet parents would be more likely to adopt a fat, roly-poly puppy than one who looks like it should for its age – gangly, ribby and generally thin.

Tell us about arthritis

“When we talk about arthritis in large breed dogs it could be hip dysplasia – think of German Shepherds where it’s a hereditary link. You need to think of that and look for a breeder that provides OFA certification as it relates to the hips,” Dr. Osborne shared. There are other breeds, that suffer other hereditary issues such as Labs with elbow dysplasia.

“Arthritis issues can arise in large breed puppies that are less than one-year-old and can manifest in shifting leg lameness,” Dr. Osborne said. “The exact cause for leg lameness isn’t known but professionals believe it’s due to overfeeding that leads to rapid growth rates.”

Wobbler’s syndrome is a malformation of the cervical vertebrae that leads to weakness and problems in the neck. “Think of a Doberman Pinscher who can’t pick up its neck,” Dr. Osborne explained. “This is a progressive disease that, without control, the dog will have trouble ambulating at all.” This is a disease that particularly impacts large breed dogs.

Another issue that big dogs contend with are gastrointestinal disorders: bloat and torsion of the intestines. “Deep-chested dogs suffer most frequently with this,” she said. With bloat, the stomach fills with air and while it isn’t a life or death situation in itself, a “tummy that is filled with air can flip. That’s called torsion and that is a life or death situation,” she explained.

Can bloat and torsion be prevented in the large breed dogs?

“The classic history for many pet parents is feed your dog one big meal a day, open the door and out they go to run around the backyard,” Dr. Osborne said. “If this happens it can lead to gas, bloat and then the potential of their stomach flipping.” She recommends:

  1. Feed small multiple meals throughout the day
  2. Let them run a few hours before they eat
  3. After they eat, let them stay in the house and relax

Heart disorders are also common in large and giant breed dogs like Mastiffs, Great Danes and Newfoundlands. “The large breeds are prone to cardio myopathy –the heart gets inflamed and doesn’t function properly. The heart also increases in size and the walls of the heart don’t have space to contract properly,” Dr. Osborne explained. “These dogs, all large and giant breeds, need to have careful medical attention throughout their lives as a way to ensure their health.”

What are the top questions you get from pet parents of large breed dogs?

“Is my dog overweight?” Dr. Osborne says that if that isn’t one of the first questions an owner of a new large breed puppy asks, it should be. “Many breeders fatten up the puppies and that can lend to health issues from the start.”

Regardless of the size of the puppy you’re bringing home, it should have a vet visit within 72 hours of your bringing it home. It doesn’t always happen, she says, but it should. “Typically the breeder will tell the new owner how much to feed the puppy and it’s typically too much,” she said. “I see puppies that weigh less than ten pounds and they’re being fed three cups of food a day and that’s too much.”

Overfeeding leads to inflamed joints and bones and weight issues. “If a puppy is growing up too fast, from being overfed, he will get abnormal bone growth because of the overfeeding.”

How can I keep my puppy healthy? Again, she says, it comes down to proper feeding, fitness and veterinarian care. Allow him to grow at a slow rate. Feed multiple small meals and don’t let him run around right after a meal.

What do you want to see in a puppy?

“We want to see puppies who are gangly and a bit ribby,” she said. “They should look like awkward, gangly kids – they need to grow into their bodies.”

We urge our pet parents to “slow down the growth” of their large breed dogs, she said. The best way to do that is by feeding a proper amount of food. The type of food you feed has a bearing on what the proper amount is. “You have to check calorie counts as much as serving sizes,” she said.

If you’re training your pet and he’s food motivated. Feed vegetables. “Frozen veggies like broccoli or carrots are great for training and also help soothe the pain of a teething puppy. Veggies also fill them up without adding to their weight.”

Fiber in the veggies also aids in digestion. “Avoid treats that are full of preservatives and chemicals. Introduce your pets to vegetables for treats.” The best vegetables, she says are:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash

Starting your large breed puppy off with a healthy diet and exercise will lead to him having a long, healthy life.

In part two we delve into ways to keep your big dog healthy as he ages.


Dr. Carol Osborne

Dr. Carol Osborne is an author and world-renowned integrative veterinarian of twenty plus years. A pioneer in anti-aging medicine and longevity research for pets. After graduating from the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Carol completed a prestigious internship at the Columbus Zoo. Shortly afterwards, she launched a very successful private practice and became founder and director of the non-profit organization, the American Pet Institute.

Dr. Carol offers traditional veterinary care for dogs and cats with a softer, natural touch. Her approach highlights the importance of nutrition and utilizing holistic avenues in combination with traditional treatments. Dr. Carol has appeared numerous times on Fox & Friends, The Today Show, Good Day L.A., and Discovery’s Animal Planet. She’s also been featured in USA Today, The L.A. Times, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s World, InStyle, and the New York Daily News. Today, Dr. Carol is the founder and medical director of the Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.She offers natural and traditional integrative therapies for dogs and cats.


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