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Please note that these diets are specifically formulated to nutritionally manage serious ailments and recoveries, and should only be used on the advice of a veterinary professional.

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Nutrition for large breed puppies: Slowing large breed puppies’ growth rate reduces the risk of developmental joint problems

Scientific studies now show that slow growth, not protein restriction as per the popular myth, is the key dietary factor to reduce the risk of puppies developing hip dysplasia, ostechondrosis and other orthopaedic problems. Given this, there is no benefit to lowering dietary protein for the growing puppy, e.g. by switching to an adult food at 6 months of age; and therefore, to avoid nutritional deficiencies, it is critical that puppies eat a puppy diet until their bones and joints are mature at 12-18 months.

Read on to learn more about the 3 key nutritional factors that have been proven to increase the risk of Developmental Orthopaedic Diseases in large breed puppies, and how these diseases can be prevented.

If you’ve ever had a large breed dog (greater than 25 kg at maturity), you probably know that they are predisposed to orthopaedic problems. This is often due to developmental orthopaedic diseases (DOD) which are common in large- and giant-breed dogs and include hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis, and potentially a variety of other bone and joint disorders. These diseases typically occur in dogs with genetic risk factors.

While we can’t change a dog’s genetics, it is now known that what we feed susceptible dogs can alter the likelihood that they’ll develop joint problems throughout their lifespan.

In other words, careful attention to nutrition can reduce the severity or postpone the expression of these diseases.

There are 3 key nutritional factors that have been proven to increase the risk of DOD:

1: Excessive calories and rapid growth
Puppies will put excess calories into faster growth before they add fat, so even a slightly overweight puppy is growing at an unsafe rate. Multiple studies have shown that restriction of calories in growing large- and giant breed puppies reduces the risk for hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis, and osteoarthritis as adults. The puppy’s ultimate adult size will not be affected as long as an appropriate, nutritionally balanced puppy food is fed.

2: Excessive calcium
Puppies in the first 6 months of life are not able to regulate their intestinal calcium absorption. Therefore, excess dietary calcium is very readily absorbed and can result in abnormal growth of the bones and joints. The amount of calcium in most large-breed puppy foods is adjusted to be more moderate than in most regular puppy foods — in good quality foods from reputable manufacturers, the amount of calcium is enough to prevent deficiency but not so much to contribute to abnormal growth in a large-breed puppy.

3: Unbalanced diets
Some examples include: diets designed for “intermittent and supplemental feeding only,” most home-cooked diets, raw diets, and the inclusion of large amounts of human foods or dietary supplements. All over-the-counter foods should be complete and balanced. If food is labelled as ‘complementary dog food’ this means it is not complete and balanced and should be avoided.

Unless home-cooked diets are formulated by a board certified veterinary nutritionist or PhD animal nutritionist, studies have shown that nearly all home-cooked diet recipes from online sources, magazines, or books are deficient in essential nutrients, and often the deficient nutrients (e.g. calcium) are the ones most essential for growth. Growing animals are acutely susceptible to nutritional imbalances, and the results of seemingly small errors in formulation can be serious and lifelong. It is, therefore, extremely important that growing puppies not be fed home-prepared diets.

Pet owners should wait until their puppy has reached at least a year of age (small breed to large breeds) or 18 months (giant breeds) before starting a home-cooked diet, if this is their preference. Pet owners who wish to feed a home-cooked diet should consult a PhD animal nutritionist or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to ensure that an appropriate, nutritionally balanced, home-cooked diet is fed, rather than just selecting a recipe from a book or website.

Likewise, raw diets, whether home prepared or commercial, should not be fed to growing puppies. Not only are many of these diets (even commercial products) deficient or excessive in essential nutrients, but the risk of serious food-borne illness secondary to contamination is greater in young animals with developing immune systems.

In addition:

  • Treats and table food should make up no more than 10% of the dog’s total calorie intake, or you run the risk of unbalancing an otherwise balanced diet. This is important to be aware of in puppies which may be getting a large number of treats in training.
  • Dietary supplements should be avoided in puppies unless your veterinarian prescribes them for a specific medical issue – as you could be unknowingly adding unwanted nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D.

Feeding Your Puppy Right

In order to achieve slow, steady growth, it is important that large- and giant-breed puppies are fed a good quality commercial large breed puppy food. In general, these diets are lower in calcium and energy density than “regular” puppy diets. These diets may also be supplemented with compounds such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids for potential orthopaedic benefits (although these compounds can’t hurt, evidence for preventing DOD or arthritis is not strong).

Feeding directions are required on puppy food labels, but the quality of this information varies greatly. Therefore, you should start at the amount on the lower end of the range listed on the label and keep in mind that these recommendations are only a starting point.

In addition, puppies will go through growth spurts and plateaus in growth so the amount of food will need to be adjusted frequently to maintain this optimal body condition.

Puppies should be fed 2–3 times per day and the amount of food should be measured at each meal so that the quantity can be adjusted to maintain ideal body condition.

What about small- and medium-sized dogs? If your puppy is expected to mature below 25 kg, don’t feel left out. Most of the same principles hold to keep your special puppy in top shape to reduce the risk of excessively fast growth, nutritional deficiencies and excesses, and early obesity. Smaller puppies are much more tolerant of dietary calcium levels than large breeds, so you only need to worry about providing a puppy diet with appropriate calories to keep your puppy lean.

When growing is done.

Once your dog had reached maturity of his skeleton and joints (approximately 12-18 months of age, depending on breed), no matter what his ultimate size, you don’t want to let things go in terms of body weight and body condition. Keeping a dog trim throughout his or her lifespan has been proven to have many health benefits, such as longer lifespan, reduced pain from arthritis, and reduced risk for a variety of serious health problems.

In conclusion: Take-Home Points

  • The three dietary factors that can increase the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases in growing dogs are:
    o Excessive calories and rapid growth
    o Excessive calcium intake
    o Unbalanced diets
  • All puppies should be fed a good quality commercial food that meets the requirements for growth until they are at least 12-18 months of age (12 months for most dogs, 18 months for giant breeds).
  • Don’t switch to an adult food before the puppy is fully grown! If the dog will mature >25kg, he or she should be fed a large-breed puppy food made by a reputable manufacturer.
  • Evaluate feeding quantities every 2 weeks and adjust food accordingly to keep the puppy trim throughout the growth phase.
  • Reduce calories by about 15-20% at the time of neutering to prevent obesity (but keep the puppy on food that meets growth requirements until at least 12-18 months of age, depending on breed).
  • Keep treats and table food at less than 10% of the puppy’s total calories to avoid unbalancing the diet and to reduce the risk of fast growth and obesity.
  • Avoid dietary supplements unless it is specifically indicated for a medical issue by your veterinarian.

Additional reading:
Hazewinkel H. Nutritional management of orthopedic diseases. In: Fascetti AJ, Delaney SJ (eds). Applied Veterinary Clinical Nutrition. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012: 125-155.

Kealy RD, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, et al. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002;220:1315-1320.

Smith GK, Paster ER, Powers MY, et al. Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis of the hip joint in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2006; 229:690-693.

Smith GK, Lawler DF, Biery DN, et al. Chronology of hip dysplasia in a cohort of 48 labrador retrievers followed for life. Vet Surg 2012; 41: 20-33.

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