7 Health Concerns About Giant-Breed Dogs

If you’re considering a large dog for your next pet, make some room in your heart and your household.

Giant-breed dogs are labeled “seniors” after 5 years of age. By: peggycadigan

What size are the paw prints on your heart?

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and we gladly make room for them — and all their needs — in our households. But what about those larger-than-my-sedan’s-interior dog breeds?

Keeping a giant-breed dog is a big commitment — in every sense of the word. If you apply the motto “bigger is better” to dogs, then you need to be prepared for what having an oversized pet in your family means.

The Gentle Giants

Many giant breeds have a reputation for being smart, dignified, courageous and loyal. Typical examples include:

Many of these are known as canine “heroes,” such as the St. Bernard and Newfie, who show courage and endurance in extreme weather conditions to rescue people in distress.

But if you are tempted to save a place by the hearth for a giant-breed dog, best be aware of what you’re getting into.

1. Shorter Lifespan

Your giant-breed dog may make a big impact on your life, but brace yourself for the encounter to be short but sweet. The saddest downside of that big size is their average lifespan is much shorter than that of their pint-sized canine cousins.

The average life expectancy for a Great Dane or Irish wolfhound is just 7 years, Bernese Mountain Dog 8 years and Pyrenean mountain dog 9 years. Of course, these are only averages, so some dogs live longer…and others shorter.

2. Hereditary Conditions

Any purebred dog has an increased chance of suffering from hereditary conditions passed down from parent to puppy. This is the result of using a selective gene pool to breed dogs for a certain “pedigree” appearance.

This is as true for a pug as it is for a Pyrenean, so it’s not a problem solely of the giant dog. You should do your homework first to see if you could cope should your pet be affected. The cost of meds for a giant dog is much more than for a toy breed.

Some examples of hereditary diseases in giant-breed dogs include:

  • St. Bernard: Dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart leading to heart failure), hip and elbow dysplasia (poor joint anatomy leading to lameness), bone cancer, entropion and ectropion (turned in and droopy eyelids).
  • Irish wolfhound: Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), portosystemic shunt (a blood vessel that bypasses the liver), Von Willebrand’s disease (a blood clotting disorder) and cancer of the bone or blood vessels.
  • Dogue de Bordeaux: Aortic stenosis (narrowing of the aorta) and dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart).
Giant dogs experience a much longer growth period than most other dogs, but they also have a shorter lifespan. By: lostinfog

3. Longer Growth Period

Giant breeds have a lot of growing to do, and it takes up to 18 months for them to reach their adult size. During this time, their bones need careful nurturing to protect them from damage. This means:

  • Feeding a diet suitable for “large-breed growth.” These diets supply the correct proportions of vital minerals for strong healthy bones.
  • Careful exercise. Growing bones and joints are more liable to damage, so it’s best to avoid extreme exercise until the dog is over 18 months of age.

4. Shorter Adult Phase

A giant-breed dog is considered adult between the age of 18 months and 5 years, after which he becomes “senior.”

5. Senior Giant Dogs

Giant dogs age more quickly than other breeds, and their organ function starts deteriorating after the age of 5, marking them as “senior.” Switching to a diet designed for older dogs reduces the strain on older organs and prolongs their active life.

Managing a giant dog with limited mobility because of stiff, sore joints can be challenging. Whereas you can carry a chihuahua who tires on a walk, this isn’t possible for a Bernese Mountain Dog. Consider using ramps to help the dog in and out of the car, and consider walking around the block several times rather than going for a long there-and-back walk.

Check out these humongous — and sweet — Irish wolfhounds:

6. Large-Scale Costs

From the size of their meals and food costs to needing a large vehicle to transport them in comfort, everything about giant dogs is big. Unfortunately, this extends to the cost of routine treatments for fleas and worms — and should your giant dog require prescription medications, the cost can rapidly spiral.

With this in mind, insurance is essential.

7. Space Factors

A Great Dane with a wagging tail can cause havoc in a confined space. Make sure your giant dog has space to move around, and make plenty of space in your heart for a gentle giant.


  • Breed Predispositions to Disease in Dog and Cats. Gough & Thomas. Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell. Second edition.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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