As scientific research has progressed, feeding growing puppies has proven to be a complex task, especially for large breed puppies.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), “large breed” refers to dog breeds that typically grow to an adult weight of 70 lbs. or more.1
Unlike smaller dogs that remain relatively similar in size throughout their life, an average large breed puppy undergoes a 70-fold increase in size during their first year.2 This rapid growth must be met by adequate nutrition to ensure a healthy transition to their adult size. There are several key nutritional factors that must be considered when formulating a recipe suitable for the growth of large breed puppies.
Considerations when feeding a large breed puppy
Bones and joints are particularly vulnerable to improper development when rapid growth occurs. Several diseases of the skeleton of dogs can be influenced by improper feeding practices. Large breed puppies are predisposed to some of these diseases, as they are genetically programmed to grow much faster than their small breed cousins.3 For large breed dogs, ensuring a puppy grows at the right pace is crucial to promoting skeletal health and longevity.
Overnutrition, or feeding too many calories, can contribute to fast growth and excessive body weight, causing stress on the developing skeleton.4 This is especially an issue in large breed puppies which have an inherently lower bone density compared to growing small breeds.5 Therefore, it is key to remember that although a chubby puppy might look happy, excess body weight may result in serious health issues later in life. To help address this issue, diets specific for large breed puppies are often formulated to a recommended moderate caloric density of approximately 3.5-4.0 kcal/g, with the goal of discouraging both overnutrition and rapid growth.6 It’s important to follow the feeding guidelines included on the pet food label and adjust the amount as needed to maintain an ideal body weight throughout the life of your dog.
Calcium and Phosphorus
Research has shown that increased levels of calcium can have detrimental effects in growing large breed puppies. Unlike adult dogs, puppies do not have the ability to regulate or limit the absorption of dietary calcium from the food they consume.4 Because of this, excess calcium fed to large breed puppies can increase the risk of abnormal joint growth and skeletal malformations.7 In addition, the amount of phosphorus in a diet can have effects on bone metabolism in growing puppies.8 Too much phosphorus in the diet can lead to decreased calcium absorption and the development of soft bones, while too little phosphorus can lead to poor weight gain.6 Therefore, diets for large breed puppies are carefully formulated to target adequate levels and an optimal balance of calcium to phosphorus.
In 2016, the AAFCO Canine Nutrition Expert Subcommittee (CNES) published an upper limit for calcium specific to large breed growth formulations that restricts the calcium level in these products to 1.8% on a dry matter basis (DMB).1 This change in regulations has altered how the nutritional adequacy statement is declared on a bag of dog food formulated for puppies (growth) or all life stages. These statements now indicate whether a recipe is appropriate for the growth of large breed puppies by stating either “this food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for All Life stages including the growth of large size dogs (70 lb. or more as an adult)” or “except for the growth of large size dogs (70 lb. or more as an adult)”.1 For a recipe to be considered appropriate for the growth of large size dogs, the calcium level must be below 1.8% DMB. Therefore, it is important for consumers to read the nutritional adequacy statement on pet food labels to ensure they are feeding their growing puppy a food that meets these unique calcium requirements.
Because of their unique nutritional needs, diets formulated for large breed puppies often include supplemental ingredients to support optimal health. For example, to cope with stress on the joints from carrying around their larger bodies, some large breed puppy diets are supplemented with New Zealand green mussels which are a source of chondroitin sulfate and essential fatty acids.9 When incorporated into kibble diets, green mussels have been found to significantly improve joint pain and swelling.9 Ingredients that contain glucosamine, or glucosamine as a supplement, are also sometimes added to diets for their joint health benefits. However, there is a lack of evidence of the safety and efficacy of glucosamine for growing puppies, so the addition of glucosamine or glucosamine containing ingredients to puppy diets is often recommended to be done so only under veterinary supervision.
L-carnitine, a molecule that helps the body use fat as an energy source, is another ingredient that may be found in large breed puppy foods to help promote a healthy body weight.10 Since some large breeds are also genetically predisposed to certain heart diseases, L-carnitine is often used in combination with taurine to support optimal heart health.11
It is clear that large breed puppies have very specific requirements that need to be met with tailored nutrition. To ensure that your large breed pup is getting the proper nutrition they need to safely grow to their adult weight, it is imperative to choose a diet specifically formulated for the growth of large breeds. Next time you are walking down the aisle in a pet food store, don’t hesitate to ask what large breed puppy recipes they have available!
1. AAFCO, Association of American Feed Control Officials: Official Publication. 2018, Atlanta, GA: Association of American Feed Control Officials.
2. Wynn, S. Feeding Large Breed Puppies. 2013 [cited 2018; Available from: https://ivcjournal.com/feeding-large-breed-puppies/].
3. Toll, P.W. and D.C. Richardson, Relationship of nutrition to developmental skeletal disease in young dogs. Vet. Clin. Nutr., 1997. 4: p. 6-13.
4. Larsen, J., Feeding large-breed puppies. Compend. Contin. Educ. Vet., 2010. 32(5): p. E1-4.
5. Dammrich, K., Relationship between nutrition and bone growth in large and giant dogs. J. Nutr., 1991. 121(11 Suppl): p. S114-21.
6. Lauten, S.D., Nutritional risks to large-breed dogs: from weaning to the geriatric years. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pract., 2006. 36(6): p. 1345-59.
7. Fascetti, A.J., Food for Thought on Canine Developmental Orthopedic Disease. Vet. Surg., 2006. 35(3): p. 211-213.
8. Hazewinkel, H.A., et al., Calcium metabolism in Great Dane dogs fed diets with various calcium and phosphorus levels. J. Nutr., 1991. 121(11 Suppl): p. S99-106.
9. Bui, L.M. and R.L. Bierer, Influence of green lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus) in alleviating signs of arthritis in dogs. Vet. Ther., 2001. 2(2): p. 101-11.
10. Carey, D. and A.J. Lepine, Maximising Mobility With Nutrition. in Iams Clinical Nutrition Symposium 2006.
11. Sanderson, S.L., Taurine and carnitine in canine cardiomyopathy. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pract., 2006. 36(6): p. 1325-43.
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