Size Matters: Tips to Keep Your Big Dog Healthy

Large breed dogs are prone to certain problems; here's how to give them the best life possible.


Every dog has an inherent set of traits that can affect life span, vulnerability to disease, and other health related issues. Today we focus on some particular issues of large breed dogs. (For purposes of this post, “large breed” dogs are those weighing 50 pounds or more.)

Hip dysplasia

This is one of the most common issues affecting large breed dogs. If you see your dog limping, having difficulty getting up or walking, or the leg seems sensitive to the touch, have it checked out by your vet.

Unfortunately, hip dysplasia is not always preventable since it is a genetic malformation of the joint. However, you may be able to head it off or delay the onset with a few simple steps.

Ensure your dog maintains a healthy body weight. The less extra weight stressing vulnerable joints, the better.

Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. Not only does this keep the weight off, it strengthens and conditions muscles, joints, and tendons.

Get your dog screened regularly. The sooner a problem is detected, the more time you have to make adjustments.

If your dog does develop dysplasia, you and your vet can come up with a treatment plan involving medications, supplements, or even surgery, if appropriate. To make your dog more comfortable at home, provide him with an orthopedic bed; a dry, warm place to sleep; and keep him out of chilly and damp weather which can aggravate stiff joints. Make sure walking surfaces have adequate traction; the last thing you need is your afflicted dog slipping and falling due to tiled or hardwood floors. Other things to consider for his comfort: warm compresses, hot water bottles, or heating pads; massage therapy; and even acupuncture.


Another issue that affects large dogs at a disproportionate rate is gastric dilation volvulus aka gastric torsion aka bloat. Bloat occurs when the dog’s stomach becomes filled with air, causing it to twist or flip over in the abdominal cavity. This is an extremely painful and dangerous condition for the dog. If your dog shows signs that you suspect may be bloat, such as a distended abdomen, vomiting, rapid breathing, or excessive salivation, take him to the vet on an emergency basis.

Eating too fast and gulping air and water contribute to this condition. To prevent it happening to your dog, supervise his feeding time and make sure he is not “wolfing” down his food followed by large drinks of water. Some people like to use “slow feeding” bowls for just this reason. If your dog likes a big chaser of water after eating, you may find it helpful to remove the water bowl after letting him drink a little bit and then putting it down again after some time has passed.

Another way you can prevent your dog from getting bloat is to restrict his exercise 30 minutes to one hour before and after eating or drinking a large amount of water. In other words, don’t feed your dog just before taking them to the park or doing other strenuous activities. And after completing the activity, wait to feed him. If he’s hot, let him have a supervised drink of water, but no food yet. My rule of thumb: if he’s panting, he’s not ready to eat.

Heart problems

Aortic stenosis (AS) is a condition that occurs when a blockage causes the aorta to narrow. Cardiomyopathy occurs when chambers of the heart enlarge. Both conditions cause irregular heartbeat and lethargy. Both conditions also have varying degrees of seriousness and survivability. If you suspect your dog is suffering from a heart condition, he should be thoroughly checked out by your vet and remain under close supervision.

Large breed dogs can also suffer from hormonal and glandular issues. Hypothyroidism, just like in humans, occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones to regulate the metabolism. This can cause weight gain, hair loss, skin conditions, and lethargy. Hypothyroidism is diagnosed by a blood test and is manageable with medication.

Kidney problems

Addison’s Disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the adrenal glands to stop producing aldosterone and cortisol, which affect the body’s ability to utilize nutrients, water and salt, and regulate blood sugar. Symptoms of Addison’s Disease include loss of appetite, digestive ailments and lethargy. Addison’s is a manageable disease but will require expensive medication for the rest of the dog’s life.


Lastly, I want to give a mention to a killer which affects dogs of all sizes, but is more prevalent in certain large breed dogs: cancer. Cancer is the leading non-accidental cause of death in dogs. One out of three dogs will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and if they make it to age 10, they have a 50% chance of dying of the disease (in one way or another).

As with humans, the types that frequently afflict dogs are: lymph node, bone, breast, bladder, and skin cancer. Unlike humans, dogs cannot self-screen. It is up to us as their caretakers to educate ourselves and make sure our dogs receive the appropriate quality preventative care.

Despite the problems mentioned above, with proper care and attention to any changes, you and your big dog can enjoy many happy years together.

About the Author: Aimee Gilbreath is the executive director of the Found Animals Foundation.

Read more about dogs’ health on Dogster:

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