By The Farmer's Dog | November 4, 2019

Given their voracious appetite and impressive growth, you might imagine that large-breed puppies can get away with eating just about anything — but just because they will eat anything, it doesn’t mean that they should.

Just like human babies, puppies may not be too picky, but in order for them to maintain peak health, they have very specific nutritional requirements. And it’s exactly because they grow so fast that you need to be aware of those needs. If they don’t get the right nourishment during their body’s biggest growth phase, it can result in lifelong health issues.

Of course, there’s no single right way to feed your growing dog. Different pups will have different tendencies and preferences, but here are 6 basic guidelines that everyone should follow for feeding a large-breed puppy.

1. Do: Know whether your puppy is truly large-breed

Dogs can grow to a truly astonishing range of sizes. The tiniest pups may weigh around 5 pounds at full adulthood, while the largest dog on record — an English mastiff by the name of Aicama Zorba — clocked in at a jaw-dropping 314 pounds.

Naturally, a dog who fits in the palm of your hand will have a different appetite than one who grows up to be twice your size, so it’s important to know what kind of dog you’re dealing with from the very beginning.

But what’s the actual definition of a large-breed puppy? Large-breed dogs are those who will likely be more than 70 pounds at full weight. These include rottweilers, doberman pinschers, some Labradors, and German shepherds, to name just a few. The time required for them to reach their full adult weight varies, but most large-breed puppies will stop growing by the time they’re two years old.

Being certain that your puppy is a large-breed will allow you to plan and budget for their caloric needs, and may affect how frequently you end up feeding them.

2. Don’t: Forget to feed your large-breed puppy in stages

Just like a human infant who wakes up to feed every few hours, the youngest dogs need more frequent meals. At this stage, their stomachs are tiny, their growth is near-constant, and they’re probably hungry all the time — but not all dogs are good at self-regulating their food intake. Give a large-breed puppy as much food as they want and they can easily end up overweight, potentially causing serious health issues.

That’s why veterinarians recommend a staged feeding program. From the time your puppy is weaned (at about 6 weeks) until they’re roughly 6 months old, spread their allotted food over 3-4 feeding sessions per day. This will give them ample time to digest and fully process their food before their next meal.

After 6 months of age, you can shift to a twice-daily feeding schedule and stick with that through their adulthood — but from then it’s really a matter of preference and convenience. As long as your dog is getting all of their daily calories and the right balance of nutrients, they’ll be perfectly healthy.

3. Do: Keep a close eye on your large-breed puppy’s growth

Different large-breed puppies will grow to their final sizes at different rates, depending on their age, breed, exercise habits, appetite, and individual genetic factors. But with such rapid growth comes plenty of opportunity to stray from their ideal weight.

When your puppy’s just a few weeks old, experts say it’s normal for them to have a little baby fat. (Experts also say this is why they’re so dang cute.) But by 8-10 weeks old, they should start to thin out and take on a healthy adult shape.

The best way to gauge your puppy’s ongoing growth is via the Body Condition Score (BCS). The BCS is a simple 1-9 scoring system to visually evaluate how close your dog’s body is to its ideal form. Dogs in the 1 to 3 range are observably undernourished, with visible ribs and backbones. On the other hand, in the 6-9 range, dogs look overstuffed; they bulge out around the middle, with no visible waist or abdominal tuck.

The goal is to keep your large-breed puppy comfortably in the middle of this range at all stages of its growth, with 5 being the ideal BCS. You should be able to feel your pup’s ribs easily, and view their waist behind their ribs when you view them from above.

4. Don’t: Be too eager with the supplements

Giving your dog supplements might seem like a no-brainer. After all, canine supplements are marketed as the perfect solution for your dog’s coat, skin, digestion, mood, and joint issues. These days, you’ll find everything from minerals to fish oil to CBD on the shelves at your local pet food store.

But just because these products are available doesn’t mean they’re something to rely on. While too much of some nutrients might just wash through their systems without causing problems, others — particularly calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D — can build up and cause serious health issues.

Nutritional supplements can be great for your dog, but are no replacement for a balanced diet. Additionally, a veterinarian should be consulted before giving any to your pet.

5. Do: Feed your large-breed puppy balanced food

The most important factor in keeping your growing, large-breed puppy healthy is to feed them a nutritionally rich, complete and balanced diet.

And while pet foods can claim to be complete and balanced, many are also subject to a high-heat manufacturing process. The extreme processing used to create kibble is so harsh that it significantly damages ingredients’ natural nutrients. And because kibble is designed to sit in bags on shelves and in pantries for long periods of time, the manufacturing process also includes shelf-stability lengthening steps such as high-heat drying to reduce moisture even further, and the addition of preservatives. Home cooking is also far from foolproof; it’s laborious, and riddled with opportunities to mess up the delicate balance of nutrients your dog requires, especially given the lack of truly balanced recipes available for consumers.

The easiest solution to avoid ultra-processed or nutritionally-imperfect meals is to feed your puppy a complete and balanced fresh dog food — one with a perfect ratio of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, fat, and over 50 key micronutrients that dogs need, the most vital of which are vitamin C and minerals magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. And if you can get one developed by veterinary nutritionists, pre-portioned, and delivered direct to your door, then even better.

Every dog has its own unique qualities that may require some veterinarian-approved adjustments to its food, but feeding and caring for a large-breed puppy is far from rocket science. With the right approach and nutrition, you can ensure that your dog isn’t merely set up to survive, but thrive.