Picking the Right Dog Food for your Large Dog: What to Look for in Large Breed Dog Food

June 21, 2019

Picking the Right Dog Food for Your  Large Dog: What to Look for in Large Breed Dog Food

As a dog owner, we always want what’s best for our furry friends. Choosing the right food for your dog is no exception. But with the wide range of options that are out there, all touting different benefits and diet-types, how are we supposed to know what’s really best?

What should I look for in a large breed dog food?

When it comes to nutrition for large breed dogs, it’s important to focus on foods that contain just the right amount of protein, a good balance of calcium and phosphorus, and state that they meet the AAFCO nutrient profile for large breed dogs.

In addition to these basics, let’s take a look at which protein sources might be better for large breed dogs, the benefits of a grain-free or limited ingredient diet for your large breed dog, and the special attention we need to pay when it comes to feeding large breed puppies.

After this article, you’ll feel more confident as you peruse the aisles of your local pet store, and can rest assured your pup is getting the best food possible.

What to feed your large breed puppy?

Large and giant breed puppies are dog breeds where the dog will grow to weigh 70 or more pounds once they reach their full size. Some sources even recommend erring on the side of caution when it comes to dog nutrition and consider a 50+ pound dog to fall in the “large-breed category”.

Naturally, large breed puppies grow quickly and seem to have insatiable appetites. It’s our job as large breed puppy owners to make sure they aren’t getting too much or growing too quickly because it can lead to health problems later on.

Don’t feed them a puppy formula for too long!

Because large breed puppies grow so fast, we need to be careful that we aren’t unintentionally speeding the process up even more. Growing too rapidly and gaining weight too fast can cause long-term development issues in your pup’s bones, joints, and organs.

For this reason, large breed puppies shouldn’t receive puppy food as long as their smaller breed counterparts. Puppy formula dog foods are different because they contain higher fat content than adult formulas. This can cause excessive growth and weight gain in your already rapidly growing dog.

For this reason, it’s recommended to switch your large breed puppy to an adult formula at some point around 6-8 months. Whenever you make a change to your dog’s diet, and particularly for your puppy, don’t make an abrupt switch. You want to slowly start cutting their existing food with the new food to let their stomach and digestive system adjust.

Look for a puppy food that’s formulated for large-breed puppies

Now, there are a lot of unregulated marketing gimmicks on dog food labels today. Things like “all-natural” and “human-grade” carry little to no weight in what’s actually in the bag. One thing you should pay attention to is choosing a puppy food specific to large breed puppies.

In 2017, the AAFCO changed their guidelines on puppy formula dog foods. Prior to then, all puppy formulas contained the same amount of calcium. Now, large breed puppy formulas are required to have a lower amount of calcium in them.

This is because absorbing too much calcium during the rapid-growth period (3-5 months) can significantly increase your dog’s likelihood of suffering joint and bone issues later in life.

Additionally, dogs that are under 6 months old cannot control the amount of calcium being absorbed from their intestines which can also lead to calcium overload and predisposition to joint and bone issues. (source)

So, when you are looking at food choices for your large or giant breed puppy, look for a food that is formulated just for them.

Related reading: Steps to Help Your Dog Live a Longer Life

What is the AAFCO and why do I need a dog food that’s got their seal of approval?

The AAFCO, Association of American Feed Control Officials, publishes annual nutritional profiles based on the latest research to regulate animal food formulas. Every dog food sold in the US is required to print on the back of the bag whether:

  • It meets AAFCO minimum nutritional standards
  • What life stage it is intended for
  • Whether it took part in animal feeding tests based on AAFCO standards
  • If it didn’t, you will see a phrase that says “This product is intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only” (source) Which means, you probably want to avoid this food 😉

Unfortunately, we cannot rely on this printed statement on our dog food alone. This is because dog foods only have to meet the minimum nutritional requirement to print this statement. Having just enough isn’t the same as the optimal amount for your large breed dog.

Also, without strict quality control, some dog food companies get away with printing an AAFCO statement but their final product doesn’t actually meet the required nutritional profile.

For this reason, experts recommend researching dog food manufacturers to ensure that they have a high standard of quality control.

Related reading: Choosing the Healthiest Dog Treats

Should I feed my large breed dog a high protein diet?

With the rise in popularity of high protein diets for humans, it’s no surprise we are seeing the same types of diets advertised for our dogs. Many people are under the impression that dogs are primarily carnivores, but this actually isn’t the case! Dogs are omnivores and need a diet with a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

Too much protein can cause health issues for your dog including disrupted bone growth, liver and kidney disease. Additionally, high protein diets are very calorie-dense which can lead to excess weight gain in our dogs. If your dog is already overweight or not getting adequate exercise a high-calorie diet is definitely not what they need. (source)

The good news is, that if you choose a dog food that meets the AAFCO nutritional standards, you probably don’t need to worry about too much protein. Choosing a dog food formulated for your dog’s lifestyle, life stage and size will mean they are getting the right amount of protein. This is generally a food that contains 18%-30% protein.

What dogs benefit from high-protein formulas?

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule where you would want one of those high-protein dog foods. For example, if you are putting weight on a malnourished or severely underweight dog, high protein diets are often recommended.

When we started fostering (and eventually keeping) our German Shepherd, he was emaciated by no exaggeration of the word. A high-protein formula was key to his necessary 20+ pound weight gain.

Another exception would be for an extremely active dog like a working sled-dog or working herding dog. These dogs burn far more calories in a day than the average house dog and can benefit from higher protein formulas.

Pay attention to the quality of the protein in your dog's food

While you can trust that dog foods regulated by the AAFCO have the appropriate amount of protein, what CAN vary is where that protein is coming from. Remember, the AAFCO does not regulate quality.

Not all protein sources are equal and this is mainly because the amount of protein your dog can absorb from a given protein source varies. This is known as the “biological value” of a food source.

What are the best quality proteins for my large breed dog?

  • Eggs are one of the best sources of proteins out there for your dog. This is because their biological value is higher than any meat source of protein, meaning your dog can absorb all of the protein it has to offer. I learned this when we were putting weight on our German Shepherd!
  • Chicken or Turkey also have a high biological value making them an excellent protein source for your dog. The problem is that many dogs are allergic to these protein sources. In fact, none of my three dogs are able to tolerate chicken or turkey based dog foods for this reason.
  • Fish is a great protein source due to its high biological value and because it contains healthy oils and fatty acids. This can be a particularly good protein source for dogs with skin issues.
  • Other named meats such as beef, venison, bison, and duck are all good protein sources with high biological values. More unusual meats like venison and bison can be especially good for dog’s prone to food allergies or with skin issues because they are usually better tolerated.

What protein sources are inadequate but are found in commercial dog foods?

You want to avoid choosing dog foods that contain these protein sources because of their low biological-value or because they are known to be difficult on digestion:

  • Chicken by-products
  • Meat by-products
  • Soy
  • Plant protein

(source 1, source 2)

Benefits of a limited ingredient, grain-free or gluten-free diet for my large breed dog

Much like high protein diets, gluten and grain free dog foods are also on the rise in the pet food market. Grain-free formulas rely entirely on vegetables as a carbohydrate source. On the other hand, gluten-free formulas do still contain grains, but only grains that do not contain gluten (such as rice or oats).

Limited ingredient dog foods are not a term that is regulated by the AAFCO, but generally means a dog food formula with only one protein source, or only 3-6 ingredients total.

In short, dogs with a gluten-specific allergy are extremely rare, so a gluten-free formula is rarely necessary. However, dogs that do have food allergies or general digestive issues often respond very well to grain-free or limited ingredient formulas.

Signs that you may want to try a grain-free or limited ingredient formula for your dog:

  • Chronic itchiness, skin irritation, or rashes
  • Regular ear infections
  • Loose stools
  • Excessive flatulence
  • General coat or skin issues

You are ready to make a more informed choice of dog food for your large dog

With this knowledge in mind, you are ready to make an educated decision when it comes to your dog’s food. Don’t fall into marketing traps and choose a dog food just because it sounds as delicious as your own.

Instead, look for high-quality proteins, the AAFCO stamp of approval, and consider a grain-free or limited ingredient diet if your dog isn’t responding well to more typical blends. If you have a large breed puppy, be sure to get a dog food specially formulated for them!

Remember to always discuss a significant diet change with your veterinarian, and to make a slow transition to a new food. You want to cut your dog’s current food with the new food and slowly increase the amount of new food.



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