health issues in giant breeds

Giant breeds are prone to several common health issues. Here’s how to help keep you big guy or gal well and happy.

Giant breeds can have some giant health problems. These issues affect not only purebreds, but also very big dogs of mixed parentage. In my experience, “very big dogs” are those that weigh 95 pounds or more. Although some mixed breeds are healthier than purebreds, others inherit the health problems of both parents. This article will cover some of the conditions most frequently seen in giant dogs.


This is an issue in large, deep-chested dogs, especially males, and you will also see it listed as a problem in most giant breeds. In addition, nervous dogs are more likely to bloat than laidback dogs, and those with a close relative that bloated are more likely to develop bloat themselves. There are a few things you can do to decrease the chances of bloat.

• Always divide your dog’s food into two or more feedings. Single large meals are more likely to cause bloat than multiple small meals.

• Feed your dog from the floor – an elevated dish is more likely to cause problems.

• Dogs who gulp their meals are more likely to bloat. Besides feeding smaller meals, anything that will slow your dog down when he’s eating will help. For example, bowls that have protrusions in them make it harder to get the food out.

• Exercise or drinking large quantities of water right after eating are more likely to bring on bloat.

Bloat is an emergency, requiring surgery. Do not wait – take your dog directly to a veterinarian. A gastropexy should be done (tacking down the stomach). This will not only prevent bloat, but it also prevents torsion (a situation in which the stomach twists, shutting off blood supply and killing tissue).

Growth-related problems

Decades ago, when pet food was worse than it is now, and dogs were not looked upon as family members, giant breed puppies were fed less, both in terms of quantity and calories. This slowed their growth – but it also meant that growth-related problems were not seen as often as they are now.

In the 1970s, people started feeding for maximum growth. This might seem a good idea, but puppy skeletons have a lot of cartilage and multiple growth plates (a growth plate is the area of bone growth, commonly found at the ends of long bones but also in a few other bony areas). These plates are rich in blood vessels and cartilage, and are much more prone to damage than bone is. While it is soft, cartilage can’t support as much weight as regular bone.

If a puppy is heavy, damage to the cartilage occurs easily. This can result in temporary injury, with inflammation and swelling of the affected area, accompanied by lameness. It can also cause permanent injury, which can slow or stop growth at these areas. The best way to prevent this problem is to slow down the puppy’s growth. Giant breed pups should stay on the thin side.

Calcium imbalance

Because giant breed pups grow so rapidly, too much calcium is as bad as not enough, and can lead to skeletal problems such as hip dyplasia, mineralization and others. If you are feeding your pup a diet that already has an adequate amount of calcium in it, it is important that you don’t add any extra in the form of supplementation.

Hip and elbow dysplasia

As a group, giant breeds are more prone to hip dysplasia. Growth that is too rapid can contribute to this problem, but so does the indiscriminate breeding of dogs with bad hips. It is often impossible to determine the parentage of a shelter or rescue dog, but if you are buying a giant breed puppy, choose a reputable breeder and make sure you see the health records and OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) grades of the parents and grandparents. While a good OFA score for a parent is no guarantee against hip dysplasia, it does mean the puppies are less likely to have bad scores.

Dogs with hip dysplasia who exhibit pain can be helped with acupuncture, glucosamine, fish oil, and some herbal formulas. It’s important to work with a holistic or integrative veterinarian to properly manage this condition.

Elbow dysplasia is common in some giant breeds and not others, which means it has a hereditary component. Dogs with elbow dysplasia can be helped by the same means as dogs with hip dysplasia, but if the condition is too severe, surgery may be necessary.


All giant dogs are prone to some problems with arthritis, but if they’re overweight, this only makes the situation worse. Large dogs often have large appetites, so you may have to add extra vegetables and decrease the fat content in your dog’s diet in order to fill him up without overdoing the calories.

Canned pumpkin can help, and most dogs like the slightly sweet taste. Carrots can be a good snack as long as they are not swallowed whole, so shred them before feeding. Acupuncture, trigger point therapy, cold laser therapy, glucosamine, fish oil, herbs such as boswellia, and heat on the affected areas can all help the dog with arthritis.

Bone cancer

Large dogs have a higher incidence of bone cancer (osteosarcoma), and this is certainly true of giant breeds. Any bone that has been injured is more likely to develop cancer, so a proper diet when the dog is a puppy is crucial for preventing growth plate inflammation. A diet high in antioxidants can help decrease the incidence of bone cancer.

Osteosarcoma is very painful, and the tumor tissue is much weaker than regular bone, so amputation of the affected limb is usually recommended. A proper diet is essential, and fish oil, some supplements and herbs may also be beneficial.

Unfortunately, by the time you know bone cancer exists, it has almost always spread to the lungs. In cases of osteosarcoma, therefore, cure is rare, so we focus on prolonging life.

Giant dogs may have special health considerations, and as a group, they have a shorter lifespan than smaller dogs. But by arming yourself with some knowledge about your own dog’s risks, and working with a veterinarian who can create an individualized prevention and/or treatment plan for him, you can minimize the problems and enjoy his companionship for years to come.

Genetic factors

Some of the health issues seen in giant dogs have arisen from past inbreeding, which brought out hidden problems lurking in the genes, including inherited illnesses.

• Von Willebrand disease (a type of bleeding disorder), can be protected against simply by checking for it before subjecting your dog to surgery, rather than having it discovered during the procedure.

• Inherited cardiomyopathy can be temporarily helped with supplements such as CoQ10, and treatments such as acupuncture.

• PRA (a degeneration of the retina), cannot currently be treated.

Editor’s Note: Hemangiosarcoma in giant breeds

Hemangiosarcoma is a type of cancer that commonly affects larger breeds, although any dog can be affected. Blood cells multiply uncontrollably and develop into huge, cavernous, blood-filled tumors. HSA can spread rapidly to the lungs, liver and local tissues.

Symptoms of HSA include reduced activity, pale lips and tongue, and an enlarged spleen and abdomen. Although there’s no cure, there are ways to help your dog. For example, I’m-Yunity® for Dogs has been clinically proven to effectively extend the lives of canines with cancer, and improve immune health and quality of life.

Previous articleHow being a pet parent improves your health
Next articleCan dogs donate blood?
A graduate of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Nancy Scanlan has used nutraceuticals since 1969. She became certified in acupuncture by IVAS in 1987 and followed up with education in chiropractic, Chinese herbs, Western herbs, and homotoxicology. This led to 16 years as the only holistic practitioner in a 7-person practice. After retiring from practice, Dr. Scanlan served as executive director of the AHVMA for 3 years before stepping into her current role as executive director of the AHVM Foundation. Dr. Scanlan is a consultant, author of a text on complementary medicine for veterinary technicians, and writer and lecturer about complementary and alternative veterinary medicine. She is currently enrolled in a masters degree program on integrative cancer treatment at the University of South Florida’s medical school.