Updated: Mar 21
Hi! For those not familiar with my work, I'm Sacha and this is my current Dane Gavin, he's my 5th Dane and I've foster cared more than I can count being the past President of Great Dane Rescue NSW. A Great Dane was my very first dog as an adult and she was a beauty, she lived until nearly 14 years of age - I've been hooked ever since! I am trained in canine nutrition and run a company called The Balanced Canine in Sydney which helps pet parents keep their dogs balanced physically and mentally through nutrition, fitness and body work.
The topic I am about to dive into is quite taboo and if you choose to have this on a pet page on social media, you better have some thick skin. Let me give you some background and why my position changed... Once a upon a time, I would say to Dane puppy parents "don't raw feed a giant puppy, just give it kibble for the first year of its life, its safer". Gah! I'm so embarrassed.
Why did I say this? Probably the same reason other people say it...it's simply a conditioned response, we've had the fear of God put into us and this originates from kibble companies who tell us their Large-Giant breed kibble formula's are the safest thing to feed our giants and then we have some Vets giving us a hard time as well - their education is partially sponsored at University by these kibble companies - it's no wonder that giant breed pet parents see a natural diet as potentially dangerous. As you go on with this article, you're likely to see the logic in what I'm saying but your previous conditioning will keep that wall up so I will offer you some options to fresh food feeding your dog that should have you feel more comfortable. The options I offer are Australian based but I'm sure most countries will have similar.
So, what horrible things are meant to happen to our giant breeds if they're fed a natural diet? Apparently, our dogs are going to end up with all kinds of growth deformities from HOD to OCD to HD and the likes. So why are giants who are fed a natural diet more prone to these disorders than kibble fed dogs? Well who said they were?! Kibble fed giants also experience all of these conditions. I've raised 3 giant babies on kibble and two ended up with orthopedic issues. To date, none of the puppies I've raised through rescue have developed orthopedic issues, in-fact, fresh food feeding is what got them through the orthopedic conditions they arrived with as puppies BUT this doesn't mean it doesn't happen because simply being a giant predisposes these dogs to orthopedic conditions and that may very well be the case for large dogs too.
Photo: Great Dane puppy was fed what is considered a high quality giant breed puppy kibble - he still had abnormal growth and growth challenges. These rectified when the diet was changed however, as a young adult he was diagnosed with wide spread osteo-arthritis that caused him a lot of pain - what is genetic and what is nutrition and what is a combination of both? Million dollar questions, right?!
The other Dane puppy I raised on kibble, again with all the right %'s and ratios, knuckled over mildly from puppyhood when he was in an alert posture until he was around 18 months of age and had a very small healed OCD lesion on his shoulder. He is now 7.5 years of age and has been diagnosed with compressive disc disease. Genetics? Nutrition? A combination of both? (Update 29.11.20 - a DNA test shows this dog has inherited one copy of the variant to increased risk for developing Type I IVDD which is what what the MRI diagnosed.) Due to my involvement with the breed, I have ended up with a fair bit of experience with Danes both in my care and in the general Dane community - I have yet to come across the terrible outcomes that people are led to believe happen when you feed a natural diet to a giant - that's not to say they don't happen because as discussed before, a giant is simply predisposed and also because if someone thinks meat, veg and rice is a balanced natural diet, then that is a problem! What I have seen plenty of sadly, is poorly/irresponsibly bred giants who fall apart (early or late) on any diet even the most expensive "ultra premium" diets. What the giant breed communities often accept is that orthopedic conditions are more simply more prevalent in their dogs.
So to be clear, our giant breeds are simply more prone to orthopedic conditions regardless of if they're fed kibble or a natural diet. Giants are likely more prone because they are giant, it's a great burden to the body just like human giants and they are rapidly growing. In dogs of large breeds, longitudinal bone growth is rapid during the first six months of life, and exponential during the first three months of life.
So, am I saying that natural diets are totally safe for giant breed dogs? I'm saying that a balanced natural diet doesn't automatically place our giant puppies at a higher risk orthopedically than kibble fed dogs - there is not one study to prove otherwise.
Nutritional studies by large are funded by kibble companies to help develop their products and in addition to this, the AAFCO minimum nutritional guidelines for dogs are based on a heat processed diets aka kibble where nutrients are degraded - there are NO guidelines for natural only diets, although many fresh food feeders follow the NRC guidelines but these are problematic too as they are based on highly purified ingredients which is not how we feed our dogs.
We have to remember that kibble has only been around since the late 1800's and giants have been around for a lot longer than that! One of my dogs breeders has been in the game so long that they started out breeding when there was no suitable kibbles for giants so they fresh fed their giant litters with calcium supplements and learned through experience what grew their giants well and what did not. Kibble was a convenience and breeders trusted these kibble companies to deliver the highest quality nutrition to their precious dogs, we know now by looking back on their formulas and breeder outcomes that they simply were not in the best interests of the dogs and they certainly did not safe guard them from developing orthopedic conditions.
Even the kibble companies cannot agree what is best for giant babies by looking at the 5 most commonly fed kibbles in Australia for giant babies.
Royal Canin Giant Puppy
Protein: 34% Fat: 14% Calc:Phos ratio: 1:3
Holistic Select Large & Giant Breed Puppy Protein: 25%
Calc:Phos ratio: 1:1.3
Advance Large+ Puppy Protein: 28%
Calc:Phos ratio: 1:1.4
Blackhawk Large Puppy Protein: 26%
Calc:Phos ratio: 1:0.7
Stay Loyal Large Breed Puppy Protein: 25%
Calc:Phos ratio: 1:1.4 - 1:1.6
It wasn't that long ago that the dietary matrix guidelines for Giants was under 26% protein, 14% fat and a calc:phos ratio of 1:1.2 (calcium at or below 1.2%, and phosphorus at or below 0.9%) - clearly things have changed and each company will have their own reasons for going with the figures they have - are they right or wrong? Well, there are limited studies, let's have a look - keep in mind these only relate to kibble: Protein - different protein %'s were fed to Great Dane puppies, there was no difference in calcium metabolism and skeletal development.(2) You will often hear that high protein diets are inappropriate for giants, this isn't true.
calc:phos ratio: A study fed Great Dane puppies 3 different diets A) Matched the NRC guidelines B) Excess Calcium C) Higher Calcium and Phosphorus.
We can see the (B) group were give THREE times the amount of calcium to the (A) group - this would be likened to a pet parent giving a calcium supplement to their puppy. Could a pet parent provide this much calcium as part of a normal diet without supplementation? I think that would be a big reach.
Only the dogs with an excessive intake of calcium, but no proportionally high intake of phosphorus (group B), developed severe hypercalcaemia (high calcium level in the blood) and hypophosphataemia (low levels of phosphate in the blood) together with severe disturbances in skeletal development, growth and mineralisation. After their calcium intake was normalised the lesions of rickets resolved but osteochondrotic (OCD) lesions became apparent. (3) (Osteochondrosis (OCD) is a term used to describe a group of disorders that affect the growing skeleton. These disorders can result from various causes, not just nutritional such as abnormal growth (typically nutritional), genetic causes, repetitive trauma, vascular abnormalities, mechanical factors, and hormonal imbalances. OCD is painful and may cause limping and abnormal gait - surgery is often required to rectify the problem).
The dogs fed the high calcium and phosphorus diet became slightly hypophosphataemic (low levels of phosphate in the blood), their growth was retarded, and they had disturbances in skeletal development resembling osteochondrosis (OCD), which had only partly resolved after 10 weeks on the normal calcium and phosphorus diet. (3) It is important to understand that as outlined earlier, the study provided 3 times as much calcium to group B which were the mostly affected group because the average pet parent often hears 3rd hand information about such studies and then believes that simply feeding bones or yoghurt will give the dog too much calcium and result in horrible growth deformities.
Before we move onto fat/energy, I feel that this topic needs a bit more unpacking... The meat component of the fresh food diet high in phosphorus and low in calcium. Phosphorous' job is to form bones and teeth. Now, bone is high in calcium and in phosphorus - calcium has many roles but for this discussion let's just say that calcium forms the skeletal structure. In fresh food feeding, we generally aim for a calcium:phosphorous ratio of around 1:1-1:2. Raw meaty bones is where we achieve this. Let's look to the God Father of raw Feeding 'Dr Ian Billinghurst" and see what he says: “Approximate biological balance is achieved so long as meat alone is not the principal dietary component. That job must be left to the raw meaty bones (RMBs). When a young and growing dog eats RMBs, if the bone to meat ratio of those RMBs is around 1:1, then the balance of calcium to phosphorus is appropriate for bone mineralization and formation.”
Feeding anywhere between 10-25% bone (the actual bone content, not including the meat) is generally considered the way to go. In our fresh food feeding calculator, we help you work this out, it has a default of 10% but you can change it. Before you start using this calculator, watch the video otherwise you're likely to get lost. So the short of it, feed raw meaty bones :) Anywhere from 4-7 times per week and rotate through different bone types as they all have different bone percentages and calc:phos ratios. If your dogs poos become hard, constipated or quickly turn white then you'll want to back off your dogs bone content. Alrightly, let's move on...
We don't have a study for the fat % but we do have a study for energy intake and this is in relation to how many calories a Great Dane puppy consumes: Growth disturbances of the skeleton were seen when puppies were fed ad libitum feeding(eating as much as they wanted). Fast growth led to the valgus syndrome (toes pointing out like a seal) in forelimbs and hindlimbs, while hyperextensions of the carpal joint were seen, independently of the growth intensity. (4) What this tells us, echo's the advice of breeders and Vets which is to grow your giant breed puppy lean and never let them be overweight.
Toes point out on the forelimbs is referred to as "East West"
Toes pointing out on the hindlimbs is referred to as "cow hocked"
It is important to note that dogs can become east west and cow hocked because that is simply the genetic structure of the dog and nothing to do with nutrition. A dog with its shoulders placed too far forward on the body or a dog whose depth of chest does not reach its elbows may be east west because there is nothing for the elbows to rest against. Valgus in the forelimbs is where the pointing out occurs from the wrist not the elbow - the average pet parent is unlikely to know the difference but their Vet will.
Let me Segway briefly into one of the reasons given that giant babies should not be fed a natural diet before we head into how to balance a diet. The reason given is that they cannot store vitamins and minerals as babies. To start with there are two different types of vitamins, those that are needed continually in the diet as they are not stored - these are water soluble vitamins and then there are fat soluble vitamins that are stored in the body such as in the liver and this is the same in both puppies and adults. Royal Canin, a kibble manufacturer state that a puppy is less able to store water soluble vitamins such as vitamin B, in particular in its body and therefore it is critical that these vitamins are part of their regular daily diet. I wasn't able to find a study to back up this claim, so I contacted Royal Canin and it turns out it's just a general statement relevant to both puppies and adults about water soluble vitamins that we already knew about. There are plenty of food sources for these vitamins and they would be consumed on a daily basis in a balanced fresh food diet.
Some pet parents may like to use supplements as a safety net, let's explore those now.
Using supplements or base mixes as a safety net
When making a D.I.Y diet, there are products called balancing supplements that can cover the calc:phos portion without you stressing about it, they also cover other nutrients and this is why they're referred to as balancing supplements. In Australia these would be the likes of Wellbeing Essentials, My Bestie & Roar - not all products may have a puppy guideline so you should contact the company before purchasing. Balancing supplements are a great safety net for any pet parents feeding a natural diet who don't quite feel like they've got quite enough experience to go fully D.I.Y.
Balancing supplements that are whole foods (not synthetic) can be pretty expensive for giant dogs so many giant puppy pet parents instead use a product called a 'base mix'. Vets All Natural Complete Mix Puppy is the most known one and many giant breed litters have been raised on it. Another base mix is called Inner Winner baby Bark. With both balancing supplements and base mixes, the manufactures are generally fine with you adding bones, offal and a range of different veggies/extras on rotation - have a chat to the manufacturer if you're worrying about "unbalancing" their formula.
Another option for giant puppy parents wanting to feed fresh but are still feeling a bit stressy is to feed a commercial diet, these are found in pet shops that have fridge and freezers. They are typically formulated for all life stages which means puppies-seniors, however some do have puppy formulas and my recommendation would be to grab those over all life stage formulas where possible - but don't get hung up on it. Here are some commercial formula's that are also known as "pre-mades":
When you are ready to learn how to put together a D.I.Y fresh food diet, join us at our fresh food feeding group, you're also welcome to use our web app that is mentioned earlier.
The key to fresh food feeding giants (or any breed) is support. If your Vet does not support fresh food feeding then I would recommend you find one who is. Bentons Road Vet Clinic in Melbourne do online/phone consults and are reasonably priced, you might like to touch base with them to settle your nerves. You'll find any Holistic Vet will be able to help guide you with natural feeding your dog of any breed. So, what do you think? Is it dangerous to fresh food feed a giant baby?