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

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

Large-breed dogs need special food.
Large-breed dogs need special food, and it’s not a gimmick — these foods help prevent medical conditions like osteochondrosis dessicans. Photo: bearscar90

Have you had one of those moments when you think, “I haven’t seen 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.

Large-Breed Dogs Need Special Food

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

When I was a new graduate, I regularly X-rayed lame German Shepherd pups, finding the classic thumbprint changes of panosteitis on their long bones. But now I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw and diagnosed a case.

This set me wondering 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 50 pounds as adults has to be the difference. If you think large-breed puppy foods are just a gimmick, you’d be wrong.

Next, 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. Photo: StockSnap

Panosteitis: Growing Pains

By the time I was 14 years old, 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, but 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 dog 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. Photo: dennisflarsen

Symptoms of Panosteitis in Dogs

This condition affects only 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 or 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 require pain relief. Plus, it’s important to rest the dog during a flare-up or risk permanent bone injury.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions and assume all lame puppies have panosteitis. We mustn’t overlook plenty of other conditions that cause pain and that do have specific treatments.

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 in addition to the breeds listed above, add:

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 the flap, or they risk developing early arthritis.

This dog is suffering from panosteitis:

YouTube player

Where Large-Breed Puppy Foods Fit In

So, yes, large-breed dogs need special food. And when it comes to food, one size does not fit all.

The nutrition required by the bones of a quick-growing Yorkshire Terrier 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 puppy 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 of large-breed growth dog food 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.

Final Thoughts on Why Large-Breed Dogs Need Special Food

All of 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 puppy isn’t in pain, but it also 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 in the comments below … and it doesn’t have to be a medical condition. Childhood candy is just fine!

vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Sept. 14, 2018.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.