How to Choose the Best Large Breed Puppy Food and Lower Your Dog’s Risk of Hip Dysplasia


Girl with Large Breed Puppies

Choosing the best large breed puppy food — and feeding it in the right amount — can significantly lower your dog’s risk of developing hip dysplasia.1

That’s because the nutritional needs of large and giant breed puppies are different from those of small and medium breeds.

And ignoring those needs can lead to crippling bone and joint disorders like:
Canine Hip Dysplasia Xray

  • Elbow dysplasia2
  • Osteochondrosis (OCD)
  • Canine hip dysplasia (CHD)
  • Developmental orthopedic disease (DOD)

However, before a dog owner can take steps to help prevent these conditions, it’s important to first understand the cause.

Why Large Breeds Are
at Greater Risk

Large breed puppies are those whose adult weight will ultimately exceed 50 pounds.3

When compared to smaller breeds, two important factors about the way they grow make large breed puppies more prone to skeletal problems:

  1. They grow faster
  2. They remain puppies longer

A Labrador retriever can grow from just under a pound at birth to over 70 pounds in a year. That’s a whopping 70-fold increase in size in just 12 months.

In comparison, a human being can take 18 years to achieve results that are less than half that much.

What’s more, unlike smaller breeds that can be fed as adults at about 9-12 months, many larger breeds continue to grow and can still be considered puppies until 12 to 24 months.4

Rapid growth means the bones must change quickly — a factor that can put them at risk of forming improperly.

And it is this remarkable rate of growth that makes large and giant breeds so sensitive to nutritional imbalances.

The Protein Myth

Unfortunately, the Internet is awash with misinformation about how to feed large breed puppies.

For example, many insist that high levels of dietary protein can lead to hip dysplasia.

Yet contrary to that popular myth…

No evidence exists to link high protein intake to skeletal disease in large breed dogs.5

So, if high protein isn’t the problem — what is?

The Real Causes
of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs

If you exclude all the less common factors, orthopedic disease in large breeds appears to be the result of at least one of 3 proven causes:

  • Genetics6
  • Overfeeding7
  • Excessive dietary calcium8

So, since after birth there’s nothing you can do to change your puppy’s genetics

It’s important to avoid overnutrition — feeding too many calories or too much calcium — to help lower your dog’s risk of hip dysplasia.

The Danger
of Overfeeding

Free choice is a popular feeding method in which the food remains in the bowl and continuously available — so a puppy can eat whenever it wants.

And many owners of large breed puppies mistakenly believe that this form of uncontrolled eating is the correct way to feed their pets.

However, free choice feeding has been shown to cause a puppy to grow too fast — and lead to serious problems.

For example, a 1995 German study of Great Danes demonstrated a significant increase in the risk of developing skeletal disease when the puppies were fed free choice.9

In another study, one group of Labrador Retriever puppies was fed throughout life a restricted calorie diet while a second was fed free choice.10

The restricted calorie group experienced a much lower incidence and later onset of hip joint arthritis.

Too Much Calcium

Like overfeeding, excessive dietary calcium has also been shown to increase the risk of skeletal disease in large breed puppies.11

That’s because puppies can have trouble regulating how much calcium is absorbed from their intestinal tracts.12

And that’s not all.

Feeding too little calcium can also lead to problems.

That’s why it’s so important to feed a dog food that contains an amount of calcium that’s safe for large breed puppies.

Calcium Guidelines

Fortunately, there’s general agreement among the experts. To meet AAFCO nutrient profiles for growth13 in large breed puppies, a dog food must (on a dry matter basis) contain:

  • 1.2 to 1.8% calcium
  • 1.0 to 1.6% phosphorus
  • Calcium-to-phosphorus ratio 1:1 to 1.8:114

However, for some higher calorie foods, the above percentage guidelines may not apply.

Special Caution for
Canned and Raw Feeders

Canned and raw foods tend to have higher fat levels — which means they often contain more calories per kilogram on a dry matter basis compared to kibble.

In fact, if the dog food you’re planning to feed contains more than 4000 calories per kilogram on a dry matter basis, the recipe must meet special calorie-weighted nutrient requirements.

These energy-dense dog foods must contain:

  • 2.0 to 4.5 g calcium per 1000 calories15
  • 2.5 to 4.0 g phosphorus per 1000 calories
  • Calcium-to-phosphorus ratio 1:1 to 1.8:116

Keep in mind that because of the amount of food consumed by a growing large breed puppy, wet foods can pose an affordability issue for most dog owners.

How to Verify
Safe Calcium Content

Unfortunately, these guidelines and ratios are not typically found on a dog food label. Yet with a little effort, you should be able to use our Calcium Content Analyzer Tool below to check these values yourself.

To use it, you’ll first need to grab the following 3 values from the package label:

  • Calcium %
  • Phosphorus %
  • Calories (kcal/kg)

Important: Calcium, phosphorus and calorie values may be reported as “dry matter” or “as fed”. Either type will work, so long as all 3 are entered using the same type

Calories are typically reported as metabolizable energy (ME) on a pet food label.

Then, enter those figures into the Calcium Content Analyzer tool below. Then, check the results to be sure each falls within the safe range described above.

Keep in mind — pet food companies typically report the minimum calcium level in their food.

Important: Be sure to use the average calcium content or the maximum content — not the minimum

Entering a mixture of “as fed” and “dry matter” values will deliver erroneous results.

Calcium Content Analyzer
Step 1

Enter dog food's calcium content

Step 2

Enter dog food's phosphorus content

Step 3

Enter dog food's calorie content

If a company isn’t willing to share the actual “tested” amount of calcium in its product, you should probably pass on feeding that food to your puppy.

5 Feeding Tips
to Lower Your Puppy’s Risk

The following recommendations can help lower your dog’s risk of hip dysplasia or other serious bone and joint disease.

Keep in mind — the larger the breed, the more critical it is to follow these guidelines.

  1. Feed a “complete and balanced” food that meets the AAFCO nutrient profile for growth or all life stages.
  2. Don’t feed your large breed puppy any dog food specifically formulated for adult maintenance.
  3. Use our Calcium Content Analyzer tool to make sure the food doesn’t contain too much calcium or calories.
  4. Don’t use nutritional supplements when feeding your large breed puppy any commercial diet.
  5. Don’t overfeed your puppy — focus on controlled growth. Maintain your puppy at a lean body condition score (BCS) of “4” on a 9-point scale. Avoid free choice feeding. And serve small, measured meals on a regular schedule.17

Important Note to
Editor’s Choice Members

Editor’s Choice members may click here to view our current list of recommended puppy foods.

Look for the link to our Editor’s Choice Puppy Foods located on your member’s home page — and in the left sidebar menu on any page once inside the member’s area.

Click here to learn how to become a member.

The Bottom Line

Although there’s no guarantee your new baby won’t develop hip dysplasia, choosing the best large breed puppy food and making a few simple dietary changes can significantly lower the risk.

And when it comes to the future health of your new puppy, what could be better news than that?


  1. Lauten SD, Nutritional Risks to Large Breed Dogs: From Weaning to the Geriatric Years, Vet Clin Small Anim 36 (2006) 1345–1359.
  2. Elbow dysplasia, Wikipedia
  3. Lauten SD, Nutritional Risks to Large Breed Dogs: From Weaning to the Geriatric Years, Vet Clin Small Anim 36 (2006) 1345.
  4. Iams: Is Your Puppy Ready for Adult Food?
  5. Lauten SD, Nutritional Risks to Large Breed Dogs: From Weaning to the Geriatric Years, Vet Clin Small Anim 36 (2006) 1348.
  6. Hedhammar A, Canine hip dysplasia as influenced by genetic and environmental factors, EJCAP, Oct 2007, 17:2 (pp 141-143)
  7. Kealy RD et al, Effects of limited food consumption on the incidence of hip dysplasia in growing dogs, JAVMA, Sep 1992, 201:6 (pp 857-863)
  8. Richardson, Skeletal diseases of the growing dog: Nutritional influences and the role of diet, Canine Hip Dysplasia: A Symposium Held at Western Veterinary Conference, 1995
  9. Zentek J, Meyer H, Dammrich K. The effect of a different energy supply for growing Great Danes on the body mass and skeletal development. Clinical picture and chemical studies of the skeleton. Zentralbl Veterinarmed A 1995;42(1):69–80.
  10. Smith GK, Paster ER, Powers MY, et al. Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis of the hip joint in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;229(5):690–3.
  11. Hazewinkel HAW. Nutrition in relation to skeletal growth deformities. J Sm Anim Practice. 1989; 30:525-630.
  12. Tryfonidou MA et al. Intestinal calcium absorption in growing dogs is influenced by calcium intake and age but not by growth rate. J Nutr. 2002;132:3363-3368.
  13. AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles, Association of American Feed Control Officials, Official Publication, 2016 edition
  14. Ratio reduced by the author from 1:2 to 1:1.8 based on dry matter maximum calcium and minimum phosphorus values
  15. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, National Research Council of The National Academies of Science, Washington, D.C. (2006), Table 15-5 “Nutrient Requirements for Growth of Puppies After Weaning”, Wasington, D.C., page 357
  16. Ratio reduced by the author from 1:2 to 1:1.8 based on energy-weighted maximum calcium and minimum phosphorus values
  17. Larsen J, Feeding large breed puppies, Focus on Nutrition, Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians, May 2010, E2.