Are you a “big dog person” who scoffs at the yips of a chihuahua and the yaps of a terrier? If so, you likely know that big dogs also require more care and attention as they grow from cuddly puppies into the full-size for their breed.
You also probably know that large breed dogs have a shorter life span (eight years) compared to medium-sized dogs (10.8 years).
Why? Because their size and the rate at which they grow make them susceptible to health conditions that shorten their life spans.
Knowing about these potential health issues can help you catch early signs of disease. It also demonstrates how you can use your big pup’s diet and supplements to slow or prevent disease.
What diseases do large breed dogs deal with? Let’s take a look at the most common conditions.
1. Canine Hip Dysplasia
Canine hip dysplasia occurs in large dogs, and it begins as they leave their puppy stage and grow into the massive dog you know and love.
Hip dysplasia, which also occurs in humans, occurs when there is a lack of stability or a loose fit in your dog’s hip joints.
The disease is largely believed to be primarily genetic, and dogs who come from parents with the disease are more likely to experience it. Your dog is also more susceptible to it if it is a:
- Great Dane
- German Shepherd
- Saint Bernard
- Labrador Retriever
Why these breeds? Their excessive growth rates can amplify any genetic problems.
Although canine hip dysplasia is common, careful management of your dog’s diet and exercise can reduce the likelihood of a diagnosis. Your large breed dog needs food formulated for large dogs. Their food prevents excessive growth, which brings on or speeds up hip and elbow dysplasia. They also include supplements that help protect your dog’s joints (usually glucosamine).
They also need plenty of exercise. Your goal is to prevent obesity, which puts stress on your pup’s joints and exacerbates a hint of hip dysplasia. Obesity can even help create the problem.
Hip dysplasia can show up as early as four months old. But it can also come on with age, particularly if the dog also develops osteoarthritis. Some signs of potential hip dysplasia include:
- Decreased range of motion
- Narrow stance
- Swaying gait
- Loss of leg muscle mass
- Larger shoulder muscles
- Reluctance to get up, run, jump, or climb
It is possible to treat hip dysplasia, but when possible, preventing it is the better option to avoid the onset of pain.
In addition to hip dysplasia, dogs can also experience elbow dysplasia. Elbow dysplasia occurs as a result of the same causes: rapid growth and genetics. Preventing hip dysplasia can also help you avoid the same condition in the elbow.
Any dog can come down with arthritis as they age. It doesn’t discriminate between big and small. However, massive dogs do have a higher risk of early-onset arthritis and senior arthritis thanks to their size and weight. Breeds predisposed to the condition include:
- German Shepherds
- Golden Retrievers
Arthritis or osteoarthritis is a progressive disease characterized by inflammation in your dog’s joint. The inflammation is a result of the destruction of the cartilage in their joints, which otherwise provides cushion and enables full, free range of motion.
Their risk of arthritis is similar to risks of hip dysplasia: both genetics and their growth patterns are the most significant contributors. But if you have medium or small-sized dogs, you should also watch out for arthritis if your dog suffered injuries or infections like Lyme disease.
Large dogs need to be watched for arthritis before they become seniors, and it is often difficult to detect right away. A healthy weight and active (but not over-active) lifestyle help your dog’s body stay healthy. Generally, good health also makes the earliest signs of arthritis clear, particularly as their attitudes towards play and exercise change due to pain.
3. Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Unlike hip dysplasia and arthritis, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is an acquired disease. It is almost unique to large and giant breeds, and onset begins around middle- to senior-age.
There is some evidence that DCM is genetic, but there is still a lack of data illuminating the direct causes. It is most common in breeds like:
- Great Danes
- Doberman Pinschers
When a dog has DCM, their heart muscle is no longer able to contract the way it should. It can impact both sides of the heart, but it is most likely to cause failure in the left side of the heart.
As with the human heart, when the heart muscle has to work harder to pump blood, it takes a toll on the muscle itself. In the case of DCM in dogs, the walls of the ventricle begin to thin.
Unfortunately, DCM isn’t reversible, but it can be managed to an extent. Your initial response and diagnosis make a difference in the long-term prognosis, but survival is variable depending on your dog’s specific case. A dog’s prognosis tends to be one to three years on average before heart failure sets in; Doberman Pinschers seem to have a shorter prognosis than all other breeds.
The symptoms of DCM in dogs include:
- Tiring quickly
- Reduced exercise stamina
- Excess panting and coughing
- Abdominal enlargement (from fluid)
As the disease progresses, dogs may experience:
- Labored breathing
- Inability to sleep or rest
- Loss of appetite
- Reluctance to lie down
- Collapse and fainting
The latter signs are of heart failure or severe heart failure, and you need to take your dog to the vet immediately.
4. Gastric Dilation and Volvulus Syndrome
Gastric Dilation and Volvulus (GDV) syndrome is a progressive condition that is also life-threatening. It occurs when a dog eats a large meal, and the stomach begins to dilate as a result of a build-up of food and gas. When their stomach organ expands, the pressure starts to increase, which can lead to:
- Reduced blood flow to stomach lining
- Prevention of blood return from the heart to the abdomen
- Pressure on the diaphragm and lungs
- Rupture of the stomach wall
Although it begins in their stomach, it impacts their entire body and can kill cells and subsequently tissues.
GDV is poorly understood, but what we do know is that it impacts big dogs, especially those with a deep chest. It is also more likely to affect big dogs who receive one large meal a day rather than food over several smaller meals.
Although any dog breed can theoretically come down with GDV, it is most commonly found in large dogs like:
- Great Danes
- Saint Bernards
- Gordon Setters
- Irish Setters
Their food can also play a significant role. Dry dog foods that add too much oil or fat may increase the risk of GDV in dogs already predisposed to it.
5. Wobbler Syndrome
Wobbler syndrome is a neurological disease primarily impacting large and giant breeds. The scientific name is cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), and it occurs when your dog’s spinal cord or nerve roots become compressed, which leads to neck pain. “Wobbler” refers to the unstable gait that dogs with CSM have as a result of the neurological distress.
Breeds most affected by the disease include:
- Doberman Pinschers
- Great Danes
- Irish Wolfhounds
- German Shepherds
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
Doberman Pinschers seem to have an even greater predisposition for the disease as 5.5 percent of all Dobermans receive a diagnosis. The rate is 4.2 percent for Great Danes.
In most cases, the signs begin to show up in younger dogs (under three). The most common symptoms are a strange gait (or walk), neck pain, weakness, and signs of muscle loss and paralysis near their shoulders. Dogs with Wobbler syndrome also struggle to get up.
Like other diseases on our list, it seems that a combination of nutrition and fast-growth seem to be the most likely causes of the disease. In Great Danes in particular, it appears that diets with excess calcium and protein are the most significant contributors. Failing to manage a dog’s growth (by using the wrong food, etc.) also exacerbates the problem.
Although the disease is painful, it can be managed. Treatments may include anti-inflammatory drugs or surgeries combined with the use of chest harnesses over neck leashes. Around 50 percent of dogs that receive treatment improve over time, and surgery offers a success rate of 80 percent.
Diet Plays a Huge Role in Your Large Breed Dog’s Health
Large breed dogs may be genetically predisposed to some conditions as a result of their size, but their diets play a crucial role, too. Correctly feeding your large or giant breed manages their growth, which lowers their risk of disease later in life.
Supplements like glucosamine can also improve your pet’s chances of avoiding painful diseases like arthritis and hip dysplasia.
Be sure to talk to your vet about your pet’s unique medical history and needs so that you make the most of every year with your pet!
Are you looking for more great content about big dogs? Check out our article on the benefits of co-sleeping with your pet.