Nutrition in Large Breed Puppies

It is widely known by veterinarians, pet owners, and dog breeders that large breed puppies are at greater risk than other breeds for developmental disorders of the bones and joints, including hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD), and hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD).[1,2] The breed predisposition for such disorders indicates a strong genetic component, however environmental factors can also influence the frequency of these disorders.[2,3] Nutrition during the growing period (birth until 10-12 months) is one of the most important factors influencing the development of these skeletal disorders. [2] Unfortunately, there are many myths about large breed puppy nutrition, so this article is an attempt to separate these from the real facts about developmental nutrition in large breed puppies.


By far the most important influence on the skeletal development of large breed puppies is total calories. Excess calories leads to more rapid growth and excess body weight, and these are associated with increased incidence of hip dysplasia, OCD, and elbow dysplasia.[4-8] Lower calorie diets do not reduce the ultimate stature a dog will achieve, but they reduce the rate of growth so that this size is achieved smoothly over the growth period rather than in a rapid burst.[9] This slower, more steady growth leads to fewer developmental orthopedic problems. he appropriate number of calories needed for optimal growth is different for every individual and depends on many factors. The best guideline for how much to feed is body condition. Several scoring systems are available (e.g. from Purina below), and puppies should be fed to an ideal condition (4/9 or 3/5).


As with most nutrients, there is an optimal range of calcium levels for growing dogs. Both too much and not enough calcium can lead to developmental bone problems. For large breed dogs, this optimal range is narrower than for other breeds, and excessive levels of calcium cause OCD and other bone disorders earlier and with more severe consequences. While not all studies agree, the majority show a strong link between high calcium levels in the diet and bone problems, even when the levels of calories and other nutrients are the same. Though the level of calcium which increases the risk of skeletal problems varies with age, a calcium level of 210-540mg calcium per kilogram of body weight per day appears safe for large breed puppies of all ages. It is also important not to add vitamin and mineral supplements containing calcium to properly balanced puppy diets as this is very likely to increase calcium intake beyond safe levels. [2,5,10-12]


Many breeders and pet owners, as well as some veterinarians believe too much protein can contribute to developmental skeletal disorders in large breed puppies, but this is incorrect. An early study [5] observed orthopedic problems in dogs fed diets high in calories, protein, and calcium, but subsequent studies clarified that protein is not a risk factor for any of these problems.[13]

Diet Recommendations

The best way to meet the optimal dietary requirements for large breed puppies is with a commercial diet specifically designed for this purpose. Though many people recommend feeding an adult food, with the idea that it is lower in calories than regular puppy food, adult diets vary widely in calorie content, so this is not automatically true. Additionally, adult diets are not usually appropriately restricted in calcium content. It is also important not to add vitamin and mineral supplements containing calcium to properly balanced puppy diets as this is very likely to increase calcium intake beyond safe levels.

If you choose to feed a homemade diet or to supplement a commercial diet with table food or other additional ingredients, it is important to consult a nutritionist to ensure that the resulting diet has appropriate levels of calories and calcium to reduce the risk f developmental orthopedic disease.


1. Lauten SD. Nutritional risks to large-breed dogs: from weaning to the geriatric years. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2006 Nov;36(6):1345-59.

2. Hazewinkel H, Mott J. Main nutritional imbalances in osteoarticular diseases. In: Pibot P, Biourge V, Elliott D, editors. Encyclopedia of canine clinical nutrition. Aniwa SAS; 2006. p. 348-83.

3. LaFond E, Breur GJ, Austin CC. Breed susceptibility for developmental orthopedic diseases in dogs. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2002 Sep-Oct;38(5):467-77.

4. Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, et al. Five-year longitudinal study on limited food consumption and development of osteoarthritis in coxofemoral joints of dogs. JAVMA. 1997;210:222-25.

5. Hedhamer A, Wu F, Krook L, et al. Overnutrition and skeletal disease: an experimental study in growing Great Dane dogs. Cornell Vet. 1974;64(1; Suppl 5):59.

6. Kastrom H. Nutrition, weight gain, and development of hip dysplasia. Acta Radiol. 1975;344(suppl):135.

7. Lavelle RB. The effect of overfeeding of a balanced complete commercial diet to a young group of Great Danes. In: Burger IH, Rivers JPW, editors. Nutrition of the dog and cat. Cambridge (MA), USA. Cambridge University Press; 1989. p. 303-15.

8. Grondalen J, Hedhammer A. Nutrition of the rapidly growing dog with special reference to skeletal disease. In: Anderson RS, editor. Nutrition and behavior in dogs and cats. Oxford, UK. 1982. 81-8.

9. Dammrich K. Relationship between nutrition and bone growth in large and giant dogs. J Nutr. 1991 Nov;121(11 Suppl):S114-21.

10. Hazelwinkel HAW, Goedegeburre SA, Poulos PW, et a;. Influence of chronic calcium excess on the skeletal development of growing Great Danes. J Amer Anim Hosp Assoc. 1985;21:337-91.

11. Schoenmakers I, Hazelwinkel HAW, Voorhout G, et al. Effects of diets with different calcium and phosphorus contents on the skeletal development and blood chemistry of growing Great Danes. Vet Rec. 2000;147:652-60.

12. Weber M, Martin L, Dumon H, et al. Growth and skeletal development in two large breeds fed 2 calciu levels. J Vet Int Med. 2000;388.

13. Nap RC, Hazelwinkel HAW, Voorhout G, et al. Growth and skeletal development in Great Dane pups fed different levels of protein intake. J Nutr. 1991;121:S107-113.

Too Thin

1  Ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all bony prominences evident from a distance. No discernible body fat. Obvious loss of muscle mass.

2  Ribs, lumbar vertebrae and pelvic bones easily visible. No palpable fat. Some evidence of other bony prominence. Minimal loss of muscle mass.

3  Ribs easily palpated and may be visible with no palpable fat. Tops of lumbar vertebrae visible. Pelvic bones becoming prominent. Obvious waist.


4  Ribs easily palpable, with minimal fat covering. Waist easily noted, viewed from above. Abdominal tuck evident.

5  Ribs palpable without excess fat covering. Waist observed behind ribs when viewed from above. Abdomen tucked up when viewed.

Too Heavy

6  Ribs palpable with slight excess fat covering. Waist is discernible viewed from above but is not prominent. Abdominal tuck apparent. 

7  Ribs palpable with difficulty; heavy fat cover. Noticeable fat deposits over lumbar area and base of tail. Waist absent or barely visible. Abdominal tuck may be present.

8  Ribs not palpable under very heavy fat cover, or palpable only with significant pressure. Heavy fat deposits over lumbar area and base of tail. Waist absent. No abdominal tuck. Obvious abdominal distension may be present.

9  Massive fat deposits over thorax, spine and base of tail. Waist and abdominal tuck absent. Fat deposits on neck and limbs. Obvious abdominal distention.

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13 Responses to Nutrition in Large Breed Puppies

  1. Pingback: Caring for your Senior Dog: Top 10 Tips to Help your Arthritic Dog | Foot Health Information

  2. Cosequin® does not work.

  3. skeptvet says:


    I agree, but I’m not sure what that has to do with this article. *?*

  4. Helpful – almost. I can see the studies have progressed a great deal, since protein is not such an issue.
    Since pet food bags break up nutrition like human food is on boxes, percentages would be more helpful. The portion sizes should come close to making adjustments. I had read somewhere that 9-12% fat, 21-25% protein, and 1-1.7% calcium was ideal for lg breed pups. (I only found 2 of 50 in the stores containing those ratios, and the one I got my puppy HATES to eat).
    There was something about moisture content being a factor, and oddly, a ‘low grade’ food my adult dog eats has all the right percentages, but also 18% moisture. I read that affects everything else (plus it has some grains that may not be ideal). The calicum is in that is 1%. How do I calculate the impact the moisture content has on everything else?
    The info you gave to avoid supplements very helpful.

  5. skeptvet says:


    It can be tricky to identify the nutrient content of specific diets because there are many different ways to measure and report them. If your particular diet reports them on a “dry matter basis,” then the moisture content does have an impact. If the nutrient levels are reported on an “as fed” basis, then it has already been accounted for. Unfortunately, there is no reliable, consistent conversion factor you can use to translate from one to another. There are formulae out there, but they are not always reliable from food to food or measuring method to measuring method. For something like calcium, recommended levels are usually stated inmilligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg/day), so ideally you should be able to calculate how many mg of calcium per cup or can you are feeding.

    What I suggest is calling the manufactuers of the foods you are interested in and trying to get the numbers you need. It shouldn’t be this difficult, but iunfortunately it is.

  6. Priscilla Hensel says:

    Did Purina publish a way to calculate kcal needed by a giant puppy based on his weight? While the body condition system is fine, I would like to be able to calculate how many kcal to feed a growing Newfoundland puppy based on his weight (assuming it is ideal). I can’t find the information any more. Purina did a study with matched controls and the experimental puppy was fed 75% of whatever his control puppy ate. Since I won’t have a control puppy, of course, do you know how to calculate roughly what 75% of what a control puppy eats (given that he eats all that he wants) would be? Thanks.

  7. skeptvet says:

    The various calorie restriction studies on large breed puppies used free choice feeding levels as the control and restricted the test group puppies to 60-75% of what they or the control puppies would eat if fed as much as they wanted. Theoretically, you could let your puppy free choice feed for a short period, say a week, and then restrict him to 75% of the amount he eats, but of course that’s going to change as he grows, so you would have to periodicallly repeat the experiment, which isn’t really practical.

    The reason body condition is emphasized is that calculated calorie requirements are based on population averages, and they aren’t going to fit perfectly any individual dog. Age, breed, weight, neuter status, activity level, diet, and many other factors make such calculations no better than a rough guess. However, if you feed to achieve an optimal body condition, you are automatically feeding the appropriate amount to minimize the risk of developmental orthopedic problems because you only achieve that optimal body condition if you are feeding the right number of calories.

    So the bottom line is to feed to an optimal (lean) body condition. As a very rough starting point, I usually tell owners to begin with about 25% less than the recommended quantity suggested by the manufacturer of the food they are feeding, but that is purely a guestimate with no scientific basis. Ultimately, the best results will come from closely monitoring the puppy’s body condition and adjusting the amount fed to maintain this.

    Hope that helps!

  8. Pingback: RE: Nutritional Requirement of pups to prevent DJD - Page 16 - My German Shepherd Forum

  9. Kristie says:

    Is there a calcium guideline for adult dogs on a per kg basis?

  10. skeptvet says:

    The NRC has a guideline for dog and cat nutritional requirements, however, it’s a pretty expensive book, so mostly only nutrition specialists and institutions have access to it. Other sources will often state requirements, but they don’t always say where these come from, so it’s hard to know if they are reliable sources.

    The other issue to be aware of is that the amount of a specific nutrient required varies with life stage, with individual variables such as genetics, age, health conditions, and so on, and with the presence of other ingredients in the diet, so guidelines are only that, rough guidelines. And how nutrient requirements are expressed varies. The calcium requirements are sometimes listed as 1g per 1000kcal of metabolizable energy (how much should be in the diet) or 130mcg/kg x (body weight raised to 0.75 power), which expresses recommended allowance in terms of the size of the individual animal. Sometimes ballpark ranges are given based on these kinds of calculations, but they are quite variable. I have seen recommendations from nutritionists for between 65 and 120mg/kg of calcium per day. Finally, the form of a utrient can matter, since they vary in terms of bioavailability and so on.

    These considerations are part of why homemade diets should generally be used only with the advice of a veterinary nutritionist who is familiar with these hinds of details.

    Hope this helps!

  11. Kristie says:

    Very helpful! Thank you!

  12. Sarah says:

    You need to calculate the ” dry matter basis” instead of “as fed” which the bags show. This removes moisture from the equation so you can compare foods on a level basis. So percent calcium \ (100-percent moisture). So a 1.2% calcium food with 12% moisture. 1.2/(100-12) = 1.36% calcium.
    The article does not mention phosphorous, which is critical when discussing calcium since both are related in bone growth. A Ca:P ratio of 1.2:1 dry matter basis is ideal.

  13. skeptvet says:

    Good points, thanks.

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