Breed and size specific dog nutrition

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There are over 200 breeds of dogs recognised by the Kennel Club. These breeds vary substantially in size, purpose, conformation and genetics. While all dogs are somewhat similar from a physiological standpoint (they all have a heart, kidneys, a digestive system, two eyes, and so on), there are many differences from breed to breed.

Breed differentiation can be traced back to early domestication. From wild dogs and wolves, man noted certain characteristics in early-domesticated canids that were useful to human survival. From sight hunting to tracking by scent, from pointing game to guarding camps, dogs began to be bred for specific purposes. Now, centuries later, the breeds have become distinct entities that reflect these early uses even if societal progress has made their original function of less importance.

This diversity of breeds, specifically the variation in breed size, has created challenges for veterinarians, nutritionists, kennel managers, and breeders. Breed size often reflects different metabolic rates, different growth rates, and different longevity. For example, a 5 lb. Chihuahua and a 150 lb. Newfoundland both achieve complete development and growth within relatively similar periods of time. But the 30-fold difference in mature size between these two dogs means that the Newfoundland's rate of growth (pounds of body weight per month) and amount of tissue far exceeds the tiny Chihuahua. Veterinarians and nutritionists must consider these disparities from a health care and nutritional standpoint.

Nutritional needs

The Small Breeds

Small and toy breeds have a higher energy requirement per unit of body weight than do the large and giant breeds. This occurs because metabolic rate is related to total body surface area. Since the smaller breeds have a higher ratio of surface area to body weight than large breeds, they require more energy per unit of weight (pound or kilogram). In addition, the small breeds have relatively small stomachs so their ability to consume food is somewhat limited.

Diets formulated for small breeds should have higher energy content and a more nutrient-dense nutritional matrix than diets designed for larger breeds. High digestibility is also an important factor, so that optimal nutrition can be provided in small meals. Kibble size and shape should also be designed specifically for small mouths to aid in chewing and consumption.

The Medium Breeds

Small and large breeds have specific nutritional and health needs that are well documented. But, the medium breeds like Beagles, Spaniels, and the herding dogs fall "in-between". Some of the nutrition-related problems of large breeds, like the developmental bone problems, do occur occasionally in medium breeds. Medium breeds have a moderately high energy need, depending on their lifestyle. As nutritionists and veterinarians determine the health and nutritional needs of these intermediate-sized breeds and develop diets that offer optimal nutrition for them, some of the needs of small breeds should be considered, as well as some of the needs of large breeds.

Management of Blood Sugar Response in Small and Medium Breeds

Since starch is the primary dietary component responsible for a rise in blood sugar after a meal, this nutrient class deserves close attention in the diets of small and medium breeds. Certainly, the management of healthy blood sugar levels is desirable in large breeds, but the smaller breeds benefit from this control as well.

Control of blood sugar may be impaired in several life stages or conditions. Diabetes, obesity, pregnancy, and aging can alter the ability of dogs to regulate their blood sugar. The ingestion of food results in a post-meal rise in blood sugar followed by a rise in insulin in the blood. Animals that have an abnormal ability to control blood sugar often have difficulty storing glucose; as a result, their blood sugar may remain high for longer periods of time than in those with normal blood sugar control. It is advantageous to reestablish a state of normalcy in blood sugar more quickly in these impaired animals, and diets that help minimize that rise in blood sugar after a meal are of benefit.

It is well documented that different starch sources affect the after-meal blood sugar rise and insulin response in different magnitudes. Scientists have assigned a "glycemic index" to many starches for humans as a way to rank foods comparatively based on the blood sugar levels they produce.4Since most carbohydrates in food are directly broken down to provide blood sugar (glucose), their influence on glucose metabolism can be substantial.

Research conducted by The Iams Company documented the influence of starch source on post-meal blood sugar levels in dogs. In this experiment, the test diets fed varied only in their starch source. Results indicated that the source of starch influenced both the blood sugar response to a meal and the insulin response of the pancreas. Minimizing this response is desirable because it helps stabilize blood sugar levels for sustained energy. Both glucose and insulin were greatest when rice was used as the starch source. The glucose response was minimized when sorghum was consumed as the starch source while barley minimized the insulin response. Thus, diets with sorghum and barley as the carbohydrate sources appear to be most effective in reducing the blood sugar response to a meal in the dog.

It is important to manage blood sugar levels in the dog after meals because there is a common relationship between poor glucose metabolism and obesity in pets. In addition, the other conditions mentioned earlier (diabetes, pregnancy, and aging) are associated with impaired blood sugar responses to a meal. The challenge for dog owners is to provide a diet that promotes a more level blood sugar and insulin response. Dog owners can help meet this challenge by feeding diets with a carbohydrate blend of sorghum and barley.

Large breed nutritional needs

Large and giant breed dogs are some of the most popular of the modern breeds. However, breeds that reach a mature body weight of over 50 pounds have a propensity for a number of developmental bone problems that can be responsive to nutrition. The association between nutrition and skeletal problems has been the focus of extensive nutritional research in recent years, and in particular, the large breed puppy.

Research has documented that improper feeding during growth is associated with several skeletal disorders in large and gian breed dogs. About 22% of dogs less than one year of age are affected by developmental skeletal disorders and more than 90% of these cases are influenced by nutrition.6Two nutritional scenarios that can contribute to these disorders are 1) free choice feeding of a diet with excess calories, and 2) supplementation with calcium during the growth phase of the puppy. The onset of developmental disorders of the bones is usually associated with the rapid growth of the long bones. The most common of these disorders are canine hip dysplasia (CHD), osteochondrosis, and hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD).

The Developmental Disorders

Canine hip dysplasia is a complex biomechanical disease of the hip joint. Typically, the surfaces of the hip joint socket and the surface of the head of the femur are not congruent. This results in varying degrees of laxity, or looseness in the joint which, in turn, determines the severity of the condition. The laxity of the joint can lead to remodeling of the joint with resultant arthritis. Clinical signs vary from severe, crippling lameness at a young age to no signs throughout life. Canine hip dysplasia is caused by many factors. Genetics are very important, as are trauma to the joints and other environmental factors. Of these environmental factors, diet and growth rate are very important, especially between the age of 3 and 8 months. Puppies with excessive weight gain during this period have a higher frequency of serious changes in the hip joint and resultant degenerative changes in that joint than pups that grew at a slower rate.

The osteochondroses, one of which is osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), are characterized by minute disruptions in the maturation of cartilage. While these conditions can occur at multiple points in the skeleton, the most important locations are the shoulder, stifle, hock, and elbow. Osteochondrosis can lead to an acutely inflamed joint or degenerative joint disease involving the cartilage surface. Osteochondritis dissecans occurs when a tiny divot-like flap of cartilage separates from the underlying bone, exposing the bone to joint fluid. While many factors, such as age, gender, and breed are incriminated in OCD, excess weight gain and supplementation with calcium have received the most attention from a nutritional standpoint. Breeds that commonly exhibit OCD include Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, and Rottweilers.

Hypertrophic osteodystrophy also occurs primarily in large and giant breeds and is characterized by excessive bone deposits and retarded bone resorption near the distal radius, ulna, and tibia. As the disease progresses, soft tissue damage occurs around the large bony deposits. Pain and swelling with concurrent lameness and fluctuating fever is common. Some of these puppies then fail to eat.

Genetics is an important factor in most developmental diseases of the bone. But, if heredity were the only factor, these conditions would have been eradicated long ago through selective breeding. A heritability coefficient of 40% has been suggested for CHD. This means that about 60% of the influencing factors for CHD are environmental. Of these environmental factors, nutrition is recognized as an important one. While many nutrient classes have been investigated, data indicate, again, that excess calories and excess calcium are the two most important nutritional factors.

Inexperienced owners of large breeds sometimes think, "bigger is better". This can lead to feeding excess calories during the crucial growth phase of the puppy's life. Over supplying calories to a puppy can lead to a rapid, but unhealthy rate of growth. Not only does over-feeding lead to increase in body mass, which can stress growing bones, rapidly growing long bones can be inherently weaker than bones growing at normal rates. The mechanism for the effect of excess calcium is more complex. High dietary calcium leads to high calcium levels in the blood, which stimulates the body's natural mechanism to maintain a normal state. Through the hormone, calcitonin, the normal maturing of cartilage is slowed and the rate at which bone resorbs calcium is retarded. Chronic suppression of these functions by excess calcium results in increased thickening of developing bone. This may lead, in turn, to developmental bone and joint problems. In an extensive study conducted in growing Great Danes, over-nutrition was found to be a contributing factor in the development of orthopedic problems.

In this study, puppies fed a calorie-restricted diet had fewer developmental orthopedic problems than did puppies fed unlimited calories. Typical problems observed included enlargement of the rib-cartilage junctions, hyperextension of the carpal joints, enlargement of the growing areas of the long bones, and sinking of the "wrist" joint on front legs and hock on rear legs. This work has be corroborated in other large breeds as well as other Great Danes since this original study.16-18From a practical standpoint, the adult size of a large breed puppy is determined primarily by genetics, i.e., the size of its parents. Increasing the caloric intake of a puppy merely increases the rate at which the puppy attains this weight. The puppy that grows at a slower, more appropriate rate will eventually weigh the same as its faster growing littermates, but it will be less likely to develop joint and bone problems.

Another misconception about nutrition and developmental bone problems concerns the role of protein in the diet. The level of this nutrient class in puppy diets has also been implicated as influencing the incidence of these conditions in large breed puppies; however, research has not supported this theory. Studies conducted by Nap and colleagues documented that Great Dane puppies fed diets with a range of protein levels (31.6%, 23.1%, and 14.6%) from weaning to 18 weeks had no differences in either calcium absorption or developmental bone diseases.20Protein is not considered an important factor in the cause of developmental bone diseases in the growing large breed puppy.

Calcium supplementation is another common feeding practice used by inexperienced owners of large breed puppies. Research has documented that excess dietary calcium can negatively influence skeletal development in large and giant breeds. In an 18-month study conducted by The Iams Company and Auburn University, Great Dane puppies were fed one of three diets with levels of dietary calcium of 0.48%, 0.8%, and 2.7%. The pups fed the high-calcium diet accounted for 86% of the lameness found in the study.

Other studies documented that Great Dane puppies were not able to slow down the absorption of excess calcium until they were about seven months of age. Large breed puppies, therefore, should receive adequate but not excessive dietary calcium. From a practical standpoint, a level of 0.8% dietary calcium is beneficial for large and giant breed puppies.

Some breeders and owners attempt to utilize an adult maintenance diet to control calcium and energy intake in rapidly growing puppies. If the adult diet has a typical (1.1%) calcium level, the puppy will still consume excess calcium when fed this type of food. A diet with normal energy levels coupled with lower calcium levels is the ideal for large breed puppy nutrition. This type diet is available commercially as a "large breed puppy" food.


The diversity of dog breeds developed by man has led to interesting idiosyncrasies in conformation, personality, and nutritional needs. Breeders and owners can help their breed maintain a healthy lifestyle by utilizing well-researched nutritional findings specific to certain breeds and breed sizes. Small and medium breeds often need a higher calorie level to support higher metabolic rates. All breeds can benefit from a diet that helps manage healthy blood sugar and insulin responses to meal by using barley and sorghum as the primary starch sources. Large and giant breeds need moderate calories and calcium levels during their growing months. Owners and breeders who are familiar with the special health and nutritional needs of their breeds are more likely to supply optimal nutrition to their dogs.


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