Big dog health problems

If you`re the proud owner of a large, X-large or giant breed, there are a range of big dog health problems that you need to be aware of.

Dogue de Bordeaux adult

Although these big guys (and gals) tend to look strong and robust, and even as puppies they`re often built like tanks, it`s important to realize that they`re still at risk for developing some very specific health issues.

I`ve taken a closer look at some of the most common diseases/conditions belo.

Although these problems are NOT entirely exclusive to large, extra-large or giant dog breeds, many of them are most often seen in these groups. 

Of course small breeds have their own unique health challenges (especially when you start to look at the tiny/teacup varieties) and those at the top or bottom of the size-scale seem to fare the worst.

BUT don`t panic! Having an owner who is aware of the risks, and knows what to do if problems do show up, gives your big `un the best chance at living a long, happy and healthy life.

Video: Top 10 Common Dog Health Problems (and Solutions)

You can use these quick links to jump straight to the section/category you`re interested in, or simply scroll down to read the entire article.

  • Life expectancy for large breed dogs
  • Bone, joint & ligament issues
  • Heart condition
  • Other `big dog` health problems

Big Dogs - Lifespan & General Health

It`s a fact of life that large and giant breed dogs tend to live for significantly fewer years than the medium to small breeds. 

For example, the usual life expectancy for a Great Dane falls somewhere between 7 - 10 years, for a Rottweiler 9 years is about average.

Compare this to smaller breeds who routinely live to be 12 - 15 years old and you can see the difference.

Although you can`t change these facts, you can help your pup/dog maximize his potential for a long, happy, healthy life by:

Making sure he eats a premium quality dog food  which is formulated for his specific nutritional needs

That he gets adequate, and appropriate, exercise. This means not putting too much strain on growing bones/joints too early on.

Gets good veterinary care throughout his lifetime. This includes getting vaccinations done on time, keeping current with parasite prevention,  ensuring good dental health and getting annual check-ups.

Large and giant breeds can be much more fragile than they look!

Some of them (including Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and `bully breeds` such as Pitbulls) have immune systems that are especially vulnerable to the highly contagious and extremely dangerous Parvovirus.

They can catch it very easily and react severely once infected.

It`s obviously REALLY important to vaccinate puppies against the most common, contagious dog diseases, but some breeds should have an additional (4th) Parvo shot at or around 16 weeks of age (when the Rabies shot is given) to make sure they`re safe.

Of course exercise is as important for your XL best friend as it is for you, but it`s important not to overdo it, especially with large or giant breed puppies.

This is because theirbodies are growing at a phenomenal rate during the early months andbones, joints and ligaments can have trouble `keeping up`.

This can result in sprains, tears, dislocations and other orthopedic problems.

It`s also important to keep large and extra-large breed puppies on the `lean` side during this period.

Excess pounds put additional strain on their growing frame and muscle structure and can also be the cause of joint damage.

An overweight dog (regardless of breed size) is also at risk of heart problems, diabetes and other conditions in pretty much the same way humans are.

Bigger isn`t better, so never try to make your large-breed puppy grow bigger, or faster, than he is naturally inclined to do. It`s a recipe for trouble!

Now let`s take a look at some of the more common health conditions that affect large, extra large and giant dog breeds.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of these problems are unique to the big guys!

Bones, Joints, Muscles & Ligaments

Big dogs can be surprisingly fragile when it comes to their skeletal frame!

The extra size/weight, plus the rapid growth that our big dogs experience in the first year play a big role in this.

Here are some of the most common orthopedic problems seen in large breed dogs....

Dysplasia, Ligament Tears & Panosteitis (Growing Pains)

These include Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, which are orthopedic conditions caused by malformed or `poorly fitting` joints.

This can be a genetic problem, or caused by poor diet, jumping from height, or by exercising a growing puppy too hard/too much.

One of the best ways to make sure the puppy you choose is less likely to develop hip or elbow dysplasia is to make sure that you buy from a reputable, responsible breeder whose parent dogs (and preferably grand-parents and great-grandparents too) have an OFA certification of `Good` or `Excellent`.

This will go a long way to eliminating dysplasia that has a genetic component,.

Cruciate ligament damage (usually to the back leg in the `knee` area) are fairly common. Can happen for no apparent reason, but uneven ground, turning abruptly, or falling can all cause it.

Panosteitis(often called `Pano`) is a condition caused by inflammation in thegrowing joints of a young or adolescent pup. It causes lameness orlimping.

Hypertrophic Osteodystrophy (or HOD) causesswollen/painful joints (often the lower joint in the front legs), andcan be triggered by several things including infection, improper diet,vaccine reactions and more.

This condition can cause the joints tobecome malformed and your pup may `knuckle-over` or his front legs maybecome bowed.

A nutritionally balance diet can help to prevent many bone/joint problems.

Canine Nupro Dietary Supplementis a totally holistic dietary supplement that contains vitamins,minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and essential fatty acids in natural rawforms.

It is an excellent addition to your dogs nutritional program andis suitable (and beneficial) for all ages. 


This is a health condition that affects a lot of dogs both big and small, usually showing up in older dogs and getting worse with advanced aging.

Big dogs are especially at risk because of their growth patterns and weight, plus they tend to show arthritis symptoms earlier than their more moderately sized cousins.

There are several things that contribute to, or accelerate, the onset of arthritic changes - in addition to the growth/weight factors I mentioned above.

They include a genetic pre-disposition which can run through certain breeds and specific bloodlines within the same breed.

Plus very early spaying/neutering, a diet that promotes too rapid growth, obesity or joint changes such as hip-dysplasia can be the `trigger`.

Symptoms of arthritis in dogs can include:

  • stiffness (especially first thing in the morning or after a nap)
  • limping or lameness
  • a general `slowing down`
  • increasing difficulty in terms of movement (eg. climbing stairs, getting in and out of the car)
  • exercise difficulties (reluctance to run/walk for long periods, no desire to play `fetch`)

Although you can`t prevent arthritis developing in later life, feeding a premium diet that is formulated for his breed type/size and keeping him `lean` will definitely help slow down those changes.

Large and giant breed dogs, especially the guardian and working breeds, tend to have a high tolerance for pain and the signs that they`re in discomfort may be very subtle!

Adding a joint supplement to your mature dog`s daily diet may also work to safeguard those joints, products such as Veterinarian`s Best Hip Joint Advanced, Joint Rescue Super Strength Chewable or Agile Joints Arthritis Support are all good choices.

Gentle exercise, a memory foam and/or heated bed, carpeted floors or non-slip rugs/runners and elevated dog bowls can all make life more comfy for your arthritic pet.

There are treatment options including medications such as Rimadyl or Derramax (by prescription from your veterinarian), or you can give him Aspirin  (preferably one that is specially coated and formulated for dogs).

Wobblers Syndrome

Also known as Spondylolitheses, this is a condition thataffects some extra large breed dogs, mainly Great Danes and DobermanPinschers (although Bullmastiffs and St. Bernards, Rhodesian Ridgebacksand Borzois have been known to exhibit similar symptoms). It`s also morecommon in males than in females.

This syndrome is caused by a narrowingor malformation of the vertebrae in the dogs neck, which puts pressureon the rest of the spine.

It usually appears in adolescent Great Danes, somewhere between 5 and 18months of age, but usually shows up much later in Dobermans, at around 4or 5 years of age.

Symptoms are usually a `wobbly` or unsteadygait, or weakness, lameness (normally in the back legs), the symptomsgradually get worse, and occasionally paralysis can occur.

Treatment might include a neck brace, steroids or surgery, depending on the severity ofthe condition. 

Heart Problems In Large Breeds

Vizla dog with stethoscope

There`s a lot of strain on a big dog`s heart... that large frame and weight needs a strong heart to support it.

Some heart conditions in big dogs are genetic, others can be caused by illness, infection, even parasites.

Age-related heart problems in dogs can occur (humans suffer from this issue too) in breeds of all sizes.

Dogs don`t have `heart attacks` the way humans do, but heart conditions can still be very serious, and potentially fatal.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

This is a heart condition, and a dog with DCM has heartmuscles that don`t contract efficiently, causing arrhythmia (irregularheartbeats).

It also means that the heart has to work extra-hard to pumpblood around the body and this puts an immense strain it.

Mostcommonly seen in extra large breed dogs, especially Great Danes, IrishWolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds, Doberman Pinschers, St Bernards andNewfoundlands.

A dog can show no symptoms and die suddenly from this condition,although sometimes dogs show symptoms such as excessive panting, heavybreathing and are easily tired.

Severity of the condition varies, asdoes the treatment and prognosis for individual dogs.

Video: Check your dog's health for problems - Purina

An echocardiogram,chest x-rays and an EKG can help diagnose this condition.

There`s a natural product that can help promote healthy cardiac function in your dog. It`s called Young at Heart for Dog Heart Diseaseand it`s a totally herbal formula, free of all chemicals.

You can help yourdogs` heart stay strong and healthy, and improve his overall vitality byadding Hearty Heart to his daily regimen. 

Aortic Stenosis

This is another heart condition that is more commonly seen inextra large or giant dog breeds.

AS and SAS (Sub Aortic Stenosis) arecaused by a narrowing of the aorta, which puts extra strain on theheart.

Limiting exercise and stress in affected dogs can help reduce therisks associated with this condition, but it does vary in severity andcan cause sudden death.


These are internal parasites which are transmitted by mosquitoes, and can affect ANY dog, of any breed/size/age.

Most heartworm infestations in dogs don`t show symptoms until the condition is advanced, sometimes too late to be treated.

Even if it`s not too late, heartworm treatment is long, painful and expensive.

It`s MUCH easier to prevent heartworm than to treat it. Giving your dog a monthly heartworm preventative is quick and easy, and could literally save his life.

Other Health Problems In Large Breeds

There are several other health issues that occur in big dogs, but not necessarily exclusively.

Dogs of any size/breed could potentially develop them too.


This is a condition of the thyroid gland, where it produces toolittle of the hormone thyroxin.

It`s fairly common in some giant breed dogs andsymptoms include unexplained weight gain, lethargy and skin conditionssuch as thinning hair, darkened skin, itching and so on.

Hypothyroidismin dogs is usually treated with hormone supplementation.

If you`d prefer to try the natural approach to your dogs thyroid problems, tryCanine Thyro-up for Dog Hypothyroidism. This all-natural, herbal product contains no synthetic hormones, has no harmful side effects and is safe for long-term use.

Bloat or Torsion

This is a very serious condition and is also known as GastricDilatation Volvulus (GDV).

It`s a condition that mostly affects large,deep-chested dog breeds including Great Danes, Greyhounds, Bullmastiffs,and St. Bernards (among others).

Smaller dogs who have big/deep rib-cages are also at risk, Dachshunds are an example of these.

It`s a condition where the stomachfills suddenly with gas and twists into an unnatural position, basicallycutting off the passages between the stomach and the esophagus and thestomach and the intestines.

This is life-threatening and, unlessrecognized and treated quickly, is often fatal.

The causes of bloat aren`t fully understood, but there are somethings that seem to trigger it. These include:

  • eating too much at onesitting (especially common if the dog is fed once a day)
  • eating toofast
  • drinking a lot of water very quickly
  • and indulging in vigorous exercise toosoon after eating/drinking

Video: Golden Retriever Pet Profile | Bondi Vet

The symptoms of bloat include:

  • excessivepanting
  • pacing or whining
  • drooling
  • retching or dry-heaving
  • vomiting (although your dog maynot actually bring back up any food due to the twisted stomach)
  • a swollen or distended belly.

If you notice any of these symptoms,get your dog to a veterinarian or emergency animal hospital IMMEDIATELY.

Although they`re by no means guaranteed to prevent bloat, using elevated dog bowlsfor your big guy`s food and water can help minimize risks.

This isbecause they make it easier for your dog to eat in a comfortableposition and reduce the amount of air he swallows (a factor intriggering bloat).

If you have a `chow hound` who guzzles his food, a `go-slow` or `anti-gulp` type of dog bowl (such as the Healthy Diet Slow-Eating Anti-Gulping Dog Food Bowl) can also help. 

Entropion & Ectropion

These are conditions affecting the eyes, to be more precise the eyelids and eyelashes.

In Entropion,the eyelid rolls inwards and fur or eyelashes irritate the cornea, ifleft uncorrected it can cause infection/irritation and vision problems.

It`s more commonly seen in giant dog breeds such as Mastiffs, GreatPyrenees, Newfoundland, Bernese Mountain Dog, Great Dane and St.Bernard.

Video: These are the 3 dogs with the most health problems

Ectropion is not seen as often in the extra largebreed dogs, but it can occur in the same breeds affected by Entropion.

Ectropion is caused when the eyelid rolls outwards or droops.

This cancause infection, inflammation, conjuctivitis and more.

Both conditionscan be corrected with a simple surgery, and Ectropion can sometimes betreated with eyedrops and other medications.

Cherry Eye

Although this isn`t confined to large breed dogs, Cherry Eye is a problem that can affect all types of Mastiffs as well as Bloodhounds, Shar Peis, Saint Bernards and more.

Dog with Cherry EyeMy dog Ivan before Cherry Eye surgery

Cherry Eye happens when the gland in the third eyelid becomes inflamed and enlarged, causing a red, swollen lump to appear in the inner corner of your dogs eye.

Although it`s not a life-threatening condition, left untreated it can cause discomfort, pain, infection and potentially damage his eyesight.

There are treatment options available, check out this page to learn more and to read about one of my dog Ivan`s `up-close-and-personal` experience with this condition.

It`s" not possible to cover all the health issues that big dogs can experience, there are just too many variables and each breed has their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

But I"ve touched on some of the most common ones and hope that the info. above will help you minimize the risks and also recognize potential trouble early on... when treatment is most effective.

Good luck with your big guy or girl!

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