Optimal feeding of large breed puppies
Jennifer Larsen DVM, MS Resident, Small Animal Clinical Nutrition
Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital School of Veterinary Medicine,
University of California, Davis
The feeding of young growing puppies is not as
simple as once believed. A number of researchers have been studying the effects
of feeding and diet on the growth of puppies, particularly the effects on
skeletal development. Although genetics, exercise, trauma, and other aspects of
the environment also impact the skeletal development of puppies, the diet is one
factor that every owner can control. Several orthopedic diseases of dogs can be
precipitated by improper feeding practices during growth. Large breeds of dogs
are predisposed to these problems because they have the genetic potential for
excessively rapid growth. In rapidly growing, large breed puppies, maximal
growth, and therefore increased body weight, can cause stress on the immature
developing skeleton. Large breed dogs have decreased bone density compared to
smaller breed dogs at this stage (Dammrich, 1991). Additionally, fast bone
growth results in structural defects of bones that are in turn unable to
accommodate an increased body weight (Dammrich, 1991). Many nutrients have been
studied to determine which components of these diets cause problems.
Over 30 years ago a significant amount of data was
published that established a connection between improper nutrition and a variety
of skeletal abnormalities in Great Danes, including hypertrophic osteodystrophy,
osteochondrosis dissecans and 'wobbler' syndrome. The experimental diets varied
in protein, energy density, and minerals, and it was unclear which factor or
combination thereof contributed to the developmental bone diseases observed in
the initial studies (Hedhammar, et. al. 1974). The same group went on to
investigate the individual dietary components and demonstrated that dietary
protein level had no effect on the development of osteochondrosis (Nap, et. al,
1991). For some reason, dietary protein level continues to be incriminated by
some owners, breeders, and veterinarians, despite the lack of supportive
In contrast to protein, excessive calories and
inappropriate amounts of calcium have both been shown to negatively influence
optimal skeletal development in puppies. While overnutrition in adult dogs leads
to obesity and can lead to serious health problems such as cardiorespiratory
disease, we recognize other problems in puppies that result from the same
practice of overfeeding. It is necessary to feed the puppy enough to allow for
controlled growth, but it is equally important to avoid overfeeding. Many people
believe that a round puppy is a happy healthy puppy. However, maximal growth is
not optimal growth. Adult size is principally influenced by genetics; however,
the time to reach adult size can and should be controlled by proper nutrition.
Excess calories can predispose large breed puppies to developmental bone
disease, including hypertrophic osteodystrophy (Dammrich, 1991).
While any food has the potential to cause problems
with skeletal development if overfed or supplemented, maximal growth in puppies
is commonly occurs with feeding a highly palatable, high energy density growth
diet. These types of diets are often overeaten if fed on a free choice basis, or
simply too much is fed on a meal basis. There is currently no perfect formula to
guarantee an optimal rate of growth for an individual puppy. It is especially
important to avoid overnutrition during periods of the most rapid growth, which
will vary with breed and between individuals. Breed and individual differences,
environmental factors such as climate, and activity level will all affect the
amount of food required. Obviously, palpable body fat is not specific enough to
be a guideline for optimal nutrition. Provide an amount of food that will
maintain lean body condition throughout growth. This will allow for a slow
growth rate, but won’t affect the final adult size. The goal is to keep
growing puppies lean at about a body condition score of around 4 on a scale of
1-9 (a score of 1 is emaciated and 9 is grossly obese). You should be able to
easily feel the ribs. Study drawings and complete descriptions of the desired
body condition. A common body condition scoring system is provided at the
following site: http://www.purina.com/dogs/health/BodyCondition.aspx. One very
general suggestion is to provide an amount of food that the puppy can eat in 10
minutes three times a day. Using this as a starting point when the puppy is
weaned at seven to nine weeks old, it is recommended to continually assess the
puppy’s body condition and activity level and adjust the amount of food being
In addition to excessive energy intake,
inappropriate amounts of calcium have also been shown to cause developmental
bone disease (Hazewinkel, 1989). Many breeders and dog fanciers advocate calcium
supplementation for growing pups. Calcium supplements should never be
recommended for dogs eating commercially available diets designed for growth.
Excess calcium is potentially very detrimental to the development of a healthy
skeleton. Unlike adult animals, puppies appear to have inefficient mechanisms
for regulating how much dietary calcium they absorb from the food. This can
result in absorption and retention of more calcium, especially when the dietary
calcium is high (Hazewinkel et. al., 1991, Tryfonidou, 2002). The excessive
calcium may result in skeletal malformation (Hazewinkel et. al. 1985). Excess
calcium can also cause deficiencies in other nutrients, especially zinc (Wedekind,
et. al. 1998). Feeding a diet with too little calcium is equally problematic.
Many home prepared diets for pets are lacking in calcium. In this case, the
skeletal system must provide the calcium for the rest of the body, and brittle,
malformed bones are the result.
Current recommendations for feeding any healthy dog
include choosing a nutritionally complete and balanced dog food that has
undergone feeding tests. The guidelines for these tests are established by the
Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). When such a diet is fed,
vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary and potentially harmful.
The common practice of feeding commercially
available adult dog foods to puppies can also be detrimental. The broad category
of adult canine maintenance foods contains diets with a wide range of nutrient
profiles, caloric densities, and mineral contents. Some foods marketed for adult
maintenance have passed AAFCO feeding tests for growth, but some have not.
Regardless, in some instances, these diets provide more calcium per calorie
and/or have more calories per cup than growth diets designed for large breed
puppies. A large breed growth diet that has passed AAFCO animal feeding tests
should be fed at least until the puppy reaches about 80% of the expected adult
weight, and it will not be detrimental to keep a healthy, lean puppy on growth
formula until full adult size is achieved. Above all, remember to feed a large
breed growth formula in sufficient quantities to maintain a lean body condition,
and avoid additional supplements.
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