This article first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of AKC Family Dog and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to AKC Family Dog, please go to:, or read the digital edition on our Facebook page at

First-Year Feeding

The special dietary needs of large-breed puppies

By Caroline Coile, Ph.D.

A newborn Dachshund weighs well under a pound. A newborn Great Dane weighs a pound or two. A year from now the Dachshund will have multiplied its weight by 15-fold; the Dane by more than 50-fold. But growing a Great Dane is not simply a matter of providing a bigger bowl of food. Here’s why large-breed puppies need special nutrition, and how to ensure they get it.

Although it makes intuitive sense to heap a growing dog’s bowl full of protein, calories, and calcium to feed its growing body and skeleton, too much of these nutrients can cause skeletal problems in dogs expected to weigh 50 pounds or more in adulthood.

Excessive nutrition of these puppies has been linked to later development of disorders such as hip dysplasia (improper development of the head of the hip joint, causing arthritis and lameness), osteochondrosis (a developmental bone disorder that can result in a thickened area of cartilage that, because it’s only loosely attached to the underlying bone, can shear off and cause joint lameness), and panosteitis (bone proliferation and remodeling that can cause lameness). It’s now believed that over 90 percent of such disorders are nutritionally influenced.

Which Nutrients to Watch For

Researchers have found that calories and calcium are the two nutrients to blame for these problems in large-breed dogs. Too much of either has been shown to result in skeletal problems.
Calories are probably the main culprit. Puppy bones are not as dense as adult bones; putting excess weight on them during their development may be one reason for increased skeletal problems in overfed puppies.

In one study, Great Dane puppies fed as much as they wanted up to 6 months of age had weaker bones and poorer condition of joint cartilage. In another, Great Dane puppies allowed to eat as much as they wanted to up to age 15 months had a significantly greater incidence of skeletal abnormalities than those restricted to two-thirds of what the free-feeders ate.

That doesn’t mean your large-breed puppy needs to start out life on a starvation diet. Very young puppies require at least twice the calories per pound that an adult dog does, and they have a limited ability to eat a lot. So except for gluttons, it’s usually safe to feed a calorie-dense food to puppies under about 4 months of age. But as puppies age, they require fewer calories per pound and are able to eat more food in proportion to their weight. That’s when you want to gradually go from an all-you-eat buffet to portions more appropriate to a fashion model than a sumo wrestler.

A diet with about 15 percent fat provides enough calories for growth but not enough for the rapid growth that can encourage skeletal disease. As for how much to feed, there are no exact guidelines because every dog and environment is different. But avoid round bellies and round puppies!  You should be able to feel, but not see, your puppy’s ribs.

I know what you’re thinking: You got a big breed because you wanted a big dog. Shouldn’t you feed him enough to reach his full potential? Don’t worry. Ultimate size at maturity is genetically programmed; puppies that grow slower will still reach the same size, just a little later—and a lot healthier.

Watch the Calcium

Just as too many calories can cause problem, so can too much calcium. Yet calcium supplements are still advocated by some owners with the idea that big bones need more calcium. And while it’s true a calcium-deficient diet can result in weak bones, any puppy diet that meets Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards will have sufficient calcium in it. Adding a supplement can create a situation where the dog absorbs too much calcium and the excess is deposited on bone tissue, whether the bone needs it or not. As this continues, the bone is reshaped in several ways that can lead to skeletal abnormalities.

Large-breed puppies seem especially sensitive to calcium levels, whether too high or too low. In one study, Great Dane puppies had spontaneous fractures when fed very low calcium levels (250 mg per kilogram of body weight a day), whereas miniature Poodles fed even less calcium had no problems. Great Dane puppies fed excessive levels of calcium (1100 mg per kilogram a day) had clinical signs of osteochondrosis, whereas miniature Poodles fed the same showed minimal evidence.

Don’t Skimp on the Protein

Protein used to be suspected in causing skeletal problems, but studies didn’t back that up. In fact, because protein is so important for building muscle, and muscle is so important for developing sound conformation, lack of protein may make things worse. Yet many large-breed puppy owners still believe that reducing protein is desirable. Researchers now agree that large-breed puppies should be fed a food containing about 26 percent protein.

You can’t just feed your large-breed puppy less of a regular puppy food or more of an adult diet food because the calcium (as well as the important calcium-phosphorus ratio) will likely be wrong. Large-breed puppy diets are calibrated so that a puppy eating the proper number of calories is also eating the proper amount of calcium. In a study by the Iams Company, Great Dane puppies fed a food containing 0.8 percent calcium and 0.67 percent phosphorus produced the lowest incidence of developmental bone disease and lameness. A Royal Canin study found different optimal calcium levels according to age, such that 2-month-old large-breed puppies did best on a diet containing 260 to 830 mg per kilogram a day, whereas 5-month-olds did best on a diet 210 to 540 mg per kilogram a day.

If you’re scratching your head trying to figure out how you will cook up a meal that meets your growing puppy’s needs, join the crowd. Wherever you stand in the home-prepared versus commercial dog food debate, this is a time the gavel comes down on the side of commercial foods. A variety of commercial foods specifically formulated to meet the needs of large-breed puppies exist. They’re not a marketing ploy, but the product of extensive research. Take advantage of them.

Caroline Coile is the author of more than 30 books about dogs, and is a two-time AKC Canine Health Foundation Award winner.

Feeding Large-Breed Puppies

  • Large-breed puppies need reduced levels of calories and calcium—but not less protein.
  • Don’t feed a large-breed puppy adult food, or regular puppy food.
  • Large-breed puppies should be fed a puppy food formulated for large-breed growth.
  • Feeding fewer calories will slow the rate at which a dog reaches adult size, but the dog will eventually reach that same size.
  • Do not give supplemental minerals, especially calcium, to puppies.
  • A healthy puppy is not a round puppy. Puppies should be lean.