Large-Breed Dogs Really Do Need Special Food. Here’s Why.

Some foods meant especially for large- or giant-breed puppies can help prevent painful bone diseases.

Large-breed puppy foods are not a gimmick — they help prevent medical conditions like osteochondrosis dessicans. By: bearscar90

Have you had one of those moments when you think, “I haven’t seen those/that for a while”?

Perhaps it’s a favorite candy from your childhood or the type of car your parents drove … but something triggers that bout of nostalgia.

Well, I had a moment like that last week. But the echo of memory was for a medical condition called panosteitis.

Limping Puppies

Panosteitis came up in a conversation with a colleague, and I suddenly thought, “I haven’t seen a case for ages.”

As a new graduate, I vividly remember regularly X-raying lame German Shepherd pups and finding the classic thumb-print changes of panosteitis on their long bones. But I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw and diagnosed a case.

This set me wondering about why. Then it came to me: Large-breed growth puppy foods.

The availability of diets specifically designed for the needs of growing dogs who weigh above 25 kilos as adults has to be the difference. If you think large-breed puppy foods are just a gimmick, you’d be wrong.

Let’s take a look at a couple of the conditions that they help prevent.

Smaller-breed puppies generally don’t need special foods to help protect their growing bones. By: StockSnap

Panosteitis: Growing Pains

By the age of 14, I was 6 feet tall. I suspect I had panosteitis as a child.

At night, I lay awake making running movements with my legs. The friction of the sheets against my skin distracted me from the gnawing pain in my shins. This was what my mother called “growing pains.”

Well, dogs get a similar thing.

Dogs from large or giant breeds have a lot of growing to do. If the long bones of their legs grow too quickly, this causes problems that result in pain and lameness.

No one is exactly sure of the pathology and, indeed, there are several theories. One is that the bone grows faster than the non-stretchy outer covering (the periosteum). This stretching sensation causes nerves within the periosteum to fire off, causing pain.

Another theory is there’s a mismatch between the rate of growth of bone and blood vessels, which again triggers pain receptors.

What seems established is that certain breeds have a genetic predisposition to developing paneosteitis. These dogs include:

Long story short: If the bones grow too quickly and the dog is from a large breed, there’s a risk of panosteitis.

Panosteitis may be more common in breeds like Labrador Retrievers and Newfoundlands. By: dennisflarsen

The Symptoms

This condition only affects growing dogs. The signs include lameness due to bone pain, but the discomfort can be so severe that the dog goes off their food or is restless and lethargic.

Most often, the symptoms wax and wane. The pup may be sore for a few days and then recover, only to have another flare-up days/weeks/months down the line.

Panosteitis Pain

This isn’t a serious problem in the great scheme of things. Dogs do outgrow panosteitis, because once they reach their adult size, the bones stop growing.

But those flare-ups are painful and do require pain relief. Plus, it’s important to rest the dog during a flare-up or risk permanent bone injury.

Also, it’s important not to jump to conclusions and assume all lame pups have panosteitis. There are plenty of other conditions that cause pain and that do have specific treatments that must not be overlooked.

Osteochondrosis Dessicans (OCD)

OCD is a condition of the joints that also affects growing pups, and it’s one of the components of elbow dysplasia.

There’s a strong hereditary element to OCD so as well as the breeds listed above, add on:

In simple terms, OCD is caused by a mismatch between the rate of growth of bone and the cartilage lining the joints. This can cause the cartilage to crack and fissure, forming flaps that flake off inside the joint. This causes great discomfort, pain and lameness.

Some cases require surgery to debride away the flap … or they risk developing early arthritis.

This pup is suffering from panosteitis:

Where Large-Breed Puppy Foods Fit In

When it comes to food, one size does not fit all.

The nutrition required by the bones of a quick-growing Yorkie are very different from the slow, sustained growth of a Saint Bernard.

If you feed to a Saint Bernard the high-protein, high-calcium diet that’s right for a Yorkie, this will force the giant dog’s bones to grow too quickly — which is why panosteitis happens.

For the gardeners among you, think of this like forcing vegetables to grow quickly. This can often lead to tall, spindly plants that are easily damaged if a high wind whips up. It’s much better to let them grow at the correct pace into strong upright mature plants.

A large- or giant-breed pup needs well-balanced food that meets all their nutritional needs for high-quality protein and minerals … but in controlled amounts.

This is why large-breed growth foods are so good. There’s a whole lot of research about the optimum levels of essential minerals such as calcium, plus the proteins for growing muscle and soft tissue.

The best examples all contain just the right amount so the growing bones have all the building blocks they need — but aren’t forced to grow faster than what’s good for them.

This is how I explain to myself why I don’t see cases of panosteitis anymore. Wind the clock back and they were common. In the present day — nada!

Not only is it good that your pup isn’t in pain, but also it saves you the cost of sedation and X-rays to confirm what the problem is.

Have you had a “You don’t see those often nowadays” moment? Do share it with us … and it doesn’t have to be a medical condition. Childhood candy is just fine!


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Sept. 14, 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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