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Joint Health In Large Breed Dogs: Natural Solutions

Alison Frost, Canine Nutritionist at ProDog Raw, is an advocate for natural canine care. In this article, she shares valuable advice for helping keep large dogs’ joints healthy through raw feeding, appropriate exercise, and nutritional support supplements.

Alison Frost

Author: Alison Frost

Edited By: Anna Bain

Joint Health In Large Breed Dogs: Natural Solutions

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, with some being more vulnerable to certain health concerns depending on genetics, size, breed, and other factors. For example, joint issues such as hip dysplasia and arthritis in dogs are more common in large/giant breeds, and can arise for a variety of reasons. 

My work as a canine nutritionist has shown me how powerful nutrition can be in preventing and alleviating various health concerns. However, a proactive approach is always best when possible, especially when dealing with breeds that are genetically predisposed to certain health conditions.

This article explains why large breeds are more vulnerable to joint issues, signs to watch for, and how you can take a proactive approach to their joint health.

In this article, we feature one of our nutritional supplements from our range:

FLEXX for joint care & mobility

Understanding mobility issues in large breed dogs

Joint health risks specific to large/giant breeds 

Large breed dogs have an extra heavy load to carry around, which puts additional pressure on their joints throughout their lives. This constant pressure can create friction within the joints, leading to inflammation, pain, and stiffness over time; especially if preventative measures aren’t utilised. 

Aside from this extra load, the joints of large breed dogs are also more susceptible to trauma. This is because their growth plates, or areas of bone around their joints, take longer to close, than other breeds. Whilst small/medium dogs’ growth plates will fully develop and close around 12 months of age, this doesn’t happen for larger breeds until around 18 months, leaving them more vulnerable to injury in these areas [1]. 

Large dogs are also large as puppies and, like all puppies, they grow and develop at a rapid rate during their first year of life. However, they may not “grow into their bodies” as fast as they develop physically, which leads to accidents and clumsiness, further exacerbating their vulnerability. Injuries and trauma that occur before the growth plates are closed can take longer to heal, and potentially leave joints malformed or out of place permanently.

A note about neutering

Delaying neutering or spaying until after the age of 2 years is strongly recommended for large or giant breeds due to the crucial role of growth plate development. Performing these procedures too early can heighten the likelihood of joint complications later in life, as it disrupts the hormonal surge necessary for growth plate closure.

During puberty, dogs experience an increase in estrogen/progesterone and testosterone levels, which prompts the closure of growth plates in their long bones, halting further growth. 

Dogs that are neutered before reaching puberty miss out on this hormonal surge, leading to prolonged growth of their long bones and ultimately resulting in greater height when growth eventually halts compared to their unneutered counterparts. A study conducted in 2020 by the University of California found that early neutering could triple the risk of joint disease. [2]

Common mobility issues in large breed dogs

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia in dogs is more common in large/giant breeds, but can occur in medium-sized breeds as well. This condition is often genetic, with certain breeds being more vulnerable than others. It’s essentially a result of the ball and socket of the hip joint not fitting together properly, causing them to grind and rub against each other instead of the smooth, gliding motion they’re supposed to create.

For example, “bunny hopping” when moving is a visual tell tale sign. Over time, this creates a degenerative effect, and can even lead to complete loss of hip function, with hip replacements being the only option.

Arthritis

Arthritis in dogs causes joint pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility. It’s a common condition in both ageing dogs and large breeds, and can be detrimental to a dog’s quality of life. In its basic form, arthritis is inflammation of the joints; though there are several types of dog arthritis, with each being characterised slightly differently. 

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in dogs. This involves progressive degeneration of the joints and is most commonly found in older dogs, though large breeds carry a higher risk than other breeds might [3].

To discover more about arthritis in dogs check out our video, Canine Arthritis and Inflammation recorded by Dr Nick Thompson consultant vet to ProDog.

Luxating patella

Luxating patella is a condition in which a small bone in the knee (the patella) dislocates and moves freely within the knee cap. Though genetically speaking this most often occurs in smaller breeds, over the last decade there have been more incidences of luxating patella in large breeds as well. 

Luxating patella in dogs can also happen as a result of trauma, which is more common in large breeds; especially during their puppy/young adult years when the growth plates aren’t fully closed. Dog patella luxation can be a secondary condition to other joint abnormalities, such as hip dysplasia and malformation of other bones/joints [4].

How early detection/intervention can help

Managing joint health proactively

As joint health issues are generally progressive, a proactive approach is key. This sets your dog up for success in the long run, and is more helpful than reacting once a joint issue has become obvious down the road. Making sure large breed puppies have a healthy start to life is a crucial step in allowing them to develop strong bones and joints, and greatly reduces their risk of mobility issues as they mature.

Nutrition

A natural, species-appropriate raw diet including lean animal protein, healthy omega  fats, bone, offal (organ meats), and plant fibre will provide them with the essential nutrients they require to develop healthily throughout their younger years. This goes for older dogs, too: introducing a species-appropriate raw diet contributes towards their overall health, as well as promoting joint health at any age.

Discover more about The Benefits of Raw Dog Food in our comprehensive guide. 

Exercise

Age-appropriate exercise is important for puppies, as too much stress on growing bones can contribute to malformed joints and increases the risk of trauma. This is just as important in adult dogs, as those with sedentary lifestyles can gain excess weight, which over-taxes the joints. 

The same can be said for overactivity as well; large breed dogs benefit from lower impact exercise, and over exertion, such as constant ball throwing, can also contribute towards joint problems.

Early signs and symptoms to be aware of

Symptoms of joint issues will likely be subtle at first, as dogs are hardwired to hide their pain. This is an instinctive trait to avoid appearing vulnerable, though it can be frustrating for humans to decode these subtle signals. However, there are clues your dog will give you to alert you that something’s not quite right, if you pay close attention. Here are some early warning signs of joint issues to be aware of:

  • Slowing down physically — Running less, walking more slowly, having trouble jumping up or down, avoiding stairs, sleeping more than usual
  • Licking the joints — An attempt to clean/heal wounds or painful areas
  • Behavioural changes — Becoming irritable, withdrawn, or not wanting to be touched
  • Changes in gait — Stiffness, shuffling, slipping, or favouring a particular area 
  • Swelling — Visibly swollen joints
  • House soiling — A potential sign of illness or pain, especially in dogs that are house trained
A lack of energy can be an early warning sign of joint discomfort.

Nutritional support for joint health

Food as medicine

Nutrition is the foundation of all health, which of course includes joint health. However, it’s especially important when dogs are predisposed to certain medical issues, as the right nutrients provide them a better chance at living fuller, healthier lives. 

As all health begins in the gut, it only makes sense that a healthy digestive system begets a healthy body. This is especially true in cases of joint health, as joint issues are often a result of widespread inflammation; a concern that can be prevented or alleviated with the right nutrition. 

Starting as puppies, dogs are provided with the building blocks of good health through feeding  raw, species-appropriate food. ProDog’s Raw Puppy food include the perfect blend of nutrients for developing puppies, giving them their best chance at growing up strong and healthy. 

Adult dogs can also benefit, however, and it’s never too late to make the switch. ProDog offers a wide variety of raw dog food, each containing the appropriate combination of ingredients to support optimal health.

Need help with your dog’s diet?

Contact ProDog’s expert team today for FREE tailored canine nutrition advice
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Nutrition-boosting supplements

Along with diet, there are additional benefits to be gained through the use of nutritional supplements. These concentrated blends include ingredients that target specific areas of health, or aim to alleviate various health concerns. ProDog’s Flexx joint supplement is a great example of this; its whole food, health-promoting formula includes key ingredients for joint health support:

  • Methyl-Sulfonyl-Methane (MSM) — A naturally occurring chemical produced by animals and plants that promotes collagen and keratin production, supports the health of connective tissues, and aids in flexibility
  • Chlorella — A nutrient-dense algae, rich in vitamins and minerals to support gut health, toxin removal, immune function, and heart/kidney health
  • Fish collagen  — Natural source of essential fatty acids Omega 3, 6, and 9, promoting brain health, gut health and joint lubrication
  • Green Lipped Mussel there are 90 different fatty acids in GLM, but they are most abundant in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid). These are two important fatty acids that are known to reduce inflammation. 
  • Hemp protein — A complete plant protein containing essential amino acids for supporting healthy muscle tissue 
  • Glucosamine sulphate — A natural compound found in cartilage that supports cartilage and joint health
  • Boswellia – Also known as Frankincense, contains anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties
    Vitamin C — A powerful antioxidant that contributes to healthy tissues, teeth, gums and bones whilst promoting collagen production
  • Chondroitin — An elasticity-promoting compound found in dogs’ cartilage; aids the body’s natural repair processes and promotes mobility
  • Turmeric — Rich in curcumin, known for its anti inflammatory properties and ability to promote a balanced inflammatory response

These ingredients work together to support canine joint health, whether used as a proactive measure or to provide relief from existing joint issues. It should be noted that many supplements aren’t recommended for puppies under 6 months of age, so checking with your vet before adding any supplements to their diet is important. 

If you do plan to go ahead with nutritional support in supplement form, I also highly recommend bone broth and colostrum. ProDog’s Colostrum supplement is a nutrient-dense supplement that supports joint health through promoting dogs’ gut health, immunity, and inflammatory response, while also helping to maintain cartilage strength and health.  

Meanwhile ProDog’s bone broth options is also an excellent choice. Bone broth contains collagen, gelatin, and amino acids that care for the gut lining and ease inflammation, aiding digestion in dogs. Additionally, its nutrients nourish joints, aiding mobility and reducing discomfort. This nutrient-rich elixir is easily digestible, making it a wholesome addition to canine diets for overall well-being. 

However, feeding them a fresh, whole food diet will get them started on the right footing. To learn more, read our guide on How to Switch to Raw Dog Food.  Should you choose to add supplements to their routine later contact us anytime for free tailored advice from our canine nutritionist team, they’ll provide guidance on the best dog supplements for you dogs’ individual needs.

To hear a vet’s perspective and learn more about joint health support through natural dietary additions, read “Supporting Your Dog’s Joint Health Through Diet” by Dr. Nick Thompson.

Although they appear big and strong, large breed puppies can be vulnerable to joint injuries.

Lifestyle adjustment tips

Maintaining a healthy weight

Whilst maintaining a healthy weight is ideal for all dogs and promotes a healthy lifestyle in general, this point is especially true for large breed dogs. Considering their excessive size, they’re already carrying around more weight than the average dog for the duration of their lives. Adding excess (and unnecessary) weight to bones and joints that are already overworked only increases their risk of developing joint concerns. 

The good news is, this is entirely preventable in the majority of cases. Ensuring large breed dogs get regular, appropriate exercise, feeding them fresh, whole foods, and adhering to portion control can all contribute to keeping their weight within healthy boundaries.

Discover more weight loss tips for dogs in our comprehensive guide.

Exercise recommendations for large breed dogs

As every breed is different and will therefore require unique amounts of exercise, it’s important to research this early in your dog’s life (or at least early in their life with you). Though puppies are bundles of energy, and it can be tempting to “tire them out,” this can sometimes lead to over exercising which can be detrimental to their growing bones and vulnerable joints. Playtime should be kept to short, frequent sessions to avoid them becoming overtired.

With large breed puppies, limiting jumping and not over exercising them is important. I.e., taking them on a 5 mile bike ride when they are very young would be detrimental to their growing bones and immature joints. They do, however, need to burn energy and build muscle, develop their motor skills, and learn social skills. So I encourage appropriate exercise; puppies will naturally flop and lay down when they have had enough if allowed. 

For adult large dogs, regular exercise is of course important, but needs to be kept within their physical limits. Some examples of exercises that support joint and muscle health include:

  • Walking, including up/down hills to strengthen muscles (particularly important for breeds prone to hip dysplasia)
  • Swimming/water exercise 
  • Controlled games such as tug of war and flirt pole activities
  • Agility and other dog sports, depending on breed exercise recommendations 
  • Mental stimulation and enrichment, such as obedience training, puzzle toys, raw meaty bones for chewing, hide and seek, etc.

Home setting adjustments

Certain aspects of home life can be challenging for dogs, especially those that are prone to mobility challenges. Small changes to the home environment can make navigation easier on dogs’ joints, whether they’re already having issues or as a proactive measure. Some examples of these include:

  • Placing rugs/non-slip mats on hardwood or tile floors to minimise slipping
  • Discouraging dogs from running around corners or up/down stairs 
  • Making furniture/dog beds lower or easier to access, providing ergonomic dog bed options, thick memory foam bed cushioning 
  • Raising food/water bowls to promote spinal alignment
  • Allowing dogs plenty of space and thick, soft beds to lie down comfortably
  • Puppy playpens/baby gates to minimise accidents

These are relatively easy changes to make, but can allow large dogs to move about your home more comfortably whilst putting less stress on their vulnerable joints. You’ll find there are plenty of options available that are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, allowing you to continue to enjoy your home whilst simultaneously supporting your large dog’s joint health.

Joint health support for large breed dogs

Large dogs are fantastic companions, and can spend a lifetime quite happily without any joint health issues. However, their predisposition to these conditions warrants careful consideration and proactive measures on your part, to save you both the pain and suffering that mobility issues can cause.

Thankfully, natural measures such as a species-appropriate diet, joint support nutritional supplements, and a few lifestyle tweaks can make all the difference in your dog’s joint health. Implementing these habits, along with regular vet checks and your love and care, can allow large breed dogs to live happy, healthy lives.

Large breed joint care FAQs

How long can a dog live with hip dysplasia?

Hip dysplasia in dogs is not life-threatening, but affects their quality of life on various levels. Once they lose complete function of their hips, surgery is the only course of treatment, which is why I recommend a proactive approach: species-appropriate nutrition, joint-supporting nutritional supplements, and appropriate exercise to keep muscles strong and joints healthy.

Can dog hip dysplasia be fixed?

Depending on severity, yes, surgery can help restore hip function. However, it’s much kinder to the dog to practise a proactive approach so that such a level of discomfort never becomes an issue.

Is it ok to walk a dog with hip dysplasia?

Yes, if they’re comfortable to do so, and it doesn’t cause them pain. However, low-impact exercises like swimming are less stressful on the joints. Again, strengthening muscles before symptoms become obvious is a better course of action. Walking regularly, especially up and down hills, is very helpful for dogs prone to hip dysplasia.

How do I know if my dog has hip dysplasia?

Dogs can be tested for the genes prone to hip dysplasia before any signs occur, which helps approach the issue proactively. Symptoms of hip dysplasia include weakness in the hind legs, “bunny hopping” whilst walking, muscle loss, and mobility challenges. X-rays will confirm this.

How can I tell if my dog has arthritis?

Arthritis is characterised by inflammation of the joints, but this isn’t always obvious. Slowing down physically, reluctance to walk, and difficulty going up/down stairs can all be signs of arthritis in dogs, as well as other joint health issues.

How long can a dog live comfortably with arthritis?

Dogs’ level of comfort with an arthritis diagnosis depends on a variety of factors. Evaluating a dog’s quality of life will essentially determine how long they live, though they can be made more comfortable with the steps highlighted in the article above.

How do vets test for arthritis in dogs?

Vets can test for arthritis in dogs through blood tests to indicate inflammation markers, utilising x-ray/ultrasound to determine joint condition, and evaluating dogs’ mobility through gait examination.

At what age do dogs get luxating patella?

This varies by the dog, as the genetic predispositions are present even before birth. However, around three years of age is the most common time to start seeing signs of this condition [5].

How do I know if my dog has luxating patella?

An exam by your vet is the best way to identify luxating patella in dogs. However, symptoms can include favouring one leg or refusing to put weight on it, hobbling or hopping/skipping, bow-legged or knock-kneed leg/s, and unwillingness to walk/run.

What is the best thing for dogs with arthritis?

The best thing for dogs with any joint health issue is quality nutrition, including joint-focused nutritional supplements. This normalises immune function through the improvement of gut health and calms the inflammatory response. Other ways to help are included in the “Lifestyle adjustment tips” section.

What is the new treatment for arthritis in dogs?

Increasingly popular results are being found for arthritis in dogs through the use of stem cell therapy. This process involves injecting stem cells into affected joints, providing pain relief and stimulating regeneration [6].

Discover ProDog Flexx

Vet approved, science-backed joint and hip support supplement for dogs
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References

  1. Lewis, G, BSc, VN, RVN. Jan 2019. Musculoskeletal Development of the Puppy: Birth to 12 Months. Animal Therapy Magazine;, 15:41-44
  2. Hart Benjamin L.et al. Jan 2020. Assisting Decision-Making on Age of Neutering for Mixed Breed Dogs of Five Weight Categories: Associated Joint Disorders and Cancers. Frontiers in Veterinary Science; vol 7. Doi:  10.3389/fvets.2020.00472
  3. Anderson, K., O’Neill, D., Brodbelt, D., Church, D., Meeson, R., Sargan, D., Summers, J., Zuich, H., Collins, L. Apr 2018. Prevalence, duration and risk factors for appendicular osteoarthritis in a UK dog population under primary vet care. Scientific Reports;, (2018)8:5641. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-23940-z
  4. American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Patellar Luxations. Accessed Jan 2024.
  5. Dona, F., Valle, G., Fatone, G. May 2018. Patellar luxation in dogs. Vet Med;, 9:23-32. Doi: 10.2147/VMRR.S142545
  6. The Royal Veterinary College. Stem cell therapy – information for dog owners. Accessed March 2024.

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