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The Very Best Large Breed Dog Food

Does your heart belong to a Newfie, Mastiff, Great Dane, or St. Bernard? These gentle giants have special nutritional needs. Here's how to feed them right.

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Different breeds, different needs

Large dog breeds are among the most loving and loyal in the canine kingdom, and they can be particularly wonderful family pets. But in addition to giving them a bit more room in your home, you need to keep special feeding considerations in mind. It might surprise you to learn that large dogs thrive on a diet that is somewhat different than one for more diminutive breeds. Here’s what you need to know to make sure your big ol’ best bud stays healthy and happy.

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All dog food is not the same

Making sure your Great Pyrenees is well fed isn’t just a matter of feeding him a lot more dog food than your Yorkie, says Amy Learn, VMD, a resident of clinical behavioral medicine at the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Dog food made for smaller dogs is calorically more dense because their metabolism is higher,” she explains. “Large dogs, of course, eat more due to their size, and if their food was as calorically dense, they would easily become obese.” This is especially important if your giant dog is a senior—a designation that starts at age 6, according to Rachel Barrack, DVM, founder of the concierge practice Animal Acupuncture in New York City.

You might consider American Journey Large Breed Grain Free Dry Dog Food, Holistic Select Large & Giant Breed Adult Health Dog Food, or Now Fresh Grain-Free Large Breed Dog Food, which treats your dog to duck. Plus, says, Dr. Barrack, “your veterinarian can help you select an adult dog food based on your pet’s specific needs.” Here’s which dog food brands veterinarians feed their own pets.

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Don’t hand over people food

No matter how hefty the dog, people food is not nutritionally appropriate for your pet—and some of it can be downright dangerous. So while it may seem like no big deal to hand over a cheeseburger to an Irish Wolfhound who stands nearly shoulder to shoulder with you, don’t. “Although sometimes sharing whatever you’re eating with your dog is tempting, it isn’t really in their best interests,” says Dr. Barrack. “People food is often too rich and seasoned and can wreak havoc on canine digestive tracts. Unfamiliar foods can cause vomiting, diarrhea, or even an inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, which can be life-threatening.” Quality food for large breed dogs, on the other hand, will have the appropriate balance of nutrients to protect their bones, joints, and muscles, which these dogs tend to have more problems with than smaller canines, she adds.

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The best food for a large breed puppy

Large breed puppies have lots of growing to do, and that puts stress on bones, joints, and muscles. “When choosing a food for a large breed puppy, the goal is to provide all the nutrients needed to grow properly while controlling the rate of growth so as not to stress the skeleton,” says Dr. Learn. Otherwise, hip or elbow dysplasia is possible. Here’s more about the types of health problems common in different breeds of dogs.

Large breed puppy food should have low-fat levels, a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio between 1:1 and 1:3, and high-quality protein, notes Dr. Learn. Look for this statement on the package: “[Pet Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth/all life stages including growth of large-size dogs.”

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Steer clear of added calcium for puppies

Large breed puppies may not be done growing for two years or even longer, and that makes them especially sensitive to levels of calcium. A quality puppy food designed for large breeds will account for that. While this may seem counterintuitive since calcium builds strong bones, “high levels of calcium and phosphorus have been shown to increase the likelihood of developmental orthopedic disease in giant breed dogs,” explains Dr. Barrack. These are 10 of the most expensive health problems your pet can face.

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The best food for a large breed adult dog

Once your puppy is fully grown, it’s time to switch to an adult formula. (Big dogs are generally fully grown by their second birthday, but it never hurts to ask your vet for an opinion.) A good-quality dog food will be labeled “Complete and Balanced.” Plus, says Dr. Learn, “many large breed dog food formulas also have joint-support ingredients, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, to support cartilage health.”

One widely available food that fits that criteria is Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula for Large Breeds. It contains deboned chicken, glucosamine, and chondroitin to help support the special needs of bigger dogs. Another is Diamond Naturals Large Breed, since its proprietary K9 Strain probiotic blend includes beneficial bacteria for digestive health, along with glucosamine and chondroitin for joint and cartilage support. Don’t forget to stock up on the best shampoo for your dog that’ll keep them clean and healthy.

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Watch your dog’s weight

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 56 percent of dogs in the U.S. in 2018 were overweight or obese. Obesity is even more harmful to a large dog than an average-size one, since extra weight further stresses joints and bones, warns Dr. Barrack. And, in a double whammy of sorts, “large breed dogs are more predisposed to obesity,” she adds. “They have lower metabolic rates than small dogs—another reason to rely on food specifically for an adult large breed dog. Aside from supporting your dog’s joints properly, it will be calorically balanced to help prevent obesity.” Here are the warning signs your pet may be overweight.

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Beware of bloat

Bloat, a medical emergency, is when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and twists. It predominantly affects large breed dogs. While it’s not fully understood what exactly triggers bloat, these feeding recommendations from Dr. Barrack and the American Kennel Club (AKC) can help to prevent it:

  • Feed your dog several small meals throughout the day, instead of one big meal, and avoid free feeding.

  • Put your dog’s food in a bowl on the floor, not in a raised feeder.

  • Choose large-kibble food.

  • While exercise is essential for large dogs, do not engage your dog in strenuous activity for at least an hour after he eats.

Whether you’re the pet parent of a large breed or a small one, this is how much exercise your dog really needs.

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Rethink treats

“The most commonly seen cause of obesity in pets is overfeeding—particularly overfeeding treats,” cautions Dr. Barrack. That’s why she doesn’t advocate giving any treats. Yes, you read that right. While treats are a way for owners to show praise and affection, Dr. Barrack maintains this can be easily be accomplished through petting, playing, or taking your pup out for a long walk. “If one still feels it is important to give edible rewards, try setting aside some of your dog’s food to allocate as a ‘treat’ throughout the day. This will eliminate excess calories,” she says. Make sure that all members of the household understand your dog’s feeding plan. Don’t miss these other things you’re probably doing that veterinarians wouldn’t.

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Keep your vet in the loop

So, what is the best dog food for your big dog? At the end of the day, given the special needs of giant breeds, it’s best to ask your vet for advice. It’s also wise to consult with your vet regularly on topics beyond feeding, such as monitoring your puppy’s growth and, later in life, his weight and the condition of his joints. Here are another 9 trusted tips to help your pet live longer.

Christina Vercelletto
Christina Vercelletto covers pets for Reader’s Digest and Chewy’s Pet Central channel. She has 15 years’ experience on staff at national publications, including Parenting, FamilyFun, Scholastic Parent & Child, and Woman's Day and has appeared as a guest on Today, Good Morning America, and The View. Aside from Reader's Digest, Christina regularly crafts content for EatingWell, CNN Underscored, Livestrong, The Knot, Trip Advisor, and other prominent brands. She holds a summa cum laude degree in journalism from Long Island University. Her areas of expertise are lifestyle, beauty, travel, product reviews, and pets.

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