Nutrition for growing pups

It is essential to feed large breed puppies the correct diet to avoid orthopaedic disease during their rapid growth phase.

Large-breed puppies are prone to developmental orthopaedic disease throughout their extended period of growth and skeletal development. This is influenced by genetics, nutrition, and the environment - including exercise and trauma.

Common diseases include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, patella luxation (dislocated kneecap), osteochondrosis (skeletal disorders), panosteitis (growing pains), hypertrophic osteodystrophy (auto-inflammatory bone disease) and carpus hyperextension/ laxity syndrome (excessive motion in the wrist).

It can be difficult to spot problems with growth in large breed puppies, as they grow proportionally faster in the first 6 months and may not get ‘fat’ or appear overweight.

Nutritional factors

Some nutritional factors associated with developmental orthopaedic disease include an excess, or deficiency, of energy intake.

  • Calcium - A puppy's calcium absorption is partly regulated by vitamin D and the parathyroid hormone, but they can also passively absorb calcium through the intestinal tract. If you feed them too much calcium, they will have excess in their blood, which will result in bone changes.
  • Vitamin D - Dogs cannot produce this directly through the skin (like humans can) and must obtain it all from the diet. A lack of vitamin D can result in decreased calcification (rickets), while excess vitamin D may result in reduced bone remodelling, osteochondrosis (joint cartilage defects) and enlarged growth plates.
  • Vitamin A (liver, fish, cod liver oil) - Too much of this can cause significant bone development problems.

An appropriate diet

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have guidelines that set the nutritional specifications of large breed growth diets. AAFCO states that these diets should be fed to dogs that are expected to be >31.8 kg at their mature weight.

Most veterinarians, however, base it on a more conservative body weight of >26 kg.

We recommend feeding a large-breed puppy diet until they reach skeletal maturity, which may be up to 15 months of age.

As well as the required protein, energy and calcium content, it is important that this diet has:

  • The correct calcium to phosphorus ratio, for optimal absorption.
  • The right amounts of vitamin D, vitamin A, copper, zinc, iodine and manganese - all of which are important for bone development.

You also need to be careful not to supplement with additional calcium or vitamin C (which can increase calcium absorption). There is no dietary requirement for vitamin C in dogs as they can make their own in the liver.

Home-made diets can be dangerous

The nutritional requirements for large breed puppies are demanding. Don’t assume that home-made diets are adequately formulated to meet the specific requirements for large breed puppy growth.

Bones in the diet are not a reliable source of calcium due to their variable digestibility and absorption. It has been recorded that unbalanced, raw food diets may lead to osteopenia (decreased bone density) and deformities, especially of the spine.

Large breed puppy diets are moderate in their caloric density, with less energy content than the adult, heavy workload/performance working dog formulas.

Choosing to feed a lower energy adult maintenance diet is also unlikely to help. The puppy will usually just want to eat more, in an effort to get enough calories, and end up with an increased calcium intake.

The appropriate puppy diet should make up the majority, if not all, of what you feed your young dog. A 50-50 ratio of commercial to home-made diet is unlikely to accurately match their specific nutritional requirements.

Protein requirements for large breed puppies depend more on the quality, digestibility and amino acid content of the protein. Having a good quality protein at moderate levels (23- 25%) is adequate for growth and development of the skeleton. 

Large breed puppy diets will also have just medium levels of fat (14-16%) to support moderate growth through an extended period.

To ensure your large breed puppy develops properly, do not feed them very high protein, high fat, adult, working/performance diets until they have fully grown!

- Hugh Hasselman


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