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Newfoundland dog close up

The essentials

  • Keep your dog a healthy weight — Overweight dogs are more susceptible to developing joint problems.
  • Osteoarthritis is especially common in large-breed dogs — Large-breed dogs develop this due to their size, weight, and greater stress on their joints.
  • Large breed puppies don’t reach maturity until 18-24 months — Large breed puppies mature slower than other smaller-sized breeds. They should be fed puppy food until they reach maturity.

Joint health issues are common among larger-breed dogs. Whether you’re looking for a large breed or looking for ways to support your current pet, being informed can help you manage joint-related problems. Knowing the risks and preventative measures for joint problems ensures your pet remains healthy and active throughout their life.

Common joint problems in large-breed dogs

Many large-breed dogs lead active lifestyles. Whether walking, running, or playing, these actions can all put their joints under daily pressure. Regular activity and breeds prone to joint issues heighten the risk of tears, osteoarthritis, and developing dysplasia. Certain large and extra-large breeds are more susceptible to orthopedic issues, including:

Hip and elbow dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a genetic condition where the hip joints are malformed, causing the ball and socket to fit poorly. This leads to laxity, grinding, joint pain, and osteoarthritis. Elbow dysplasia is similar to hip dysplasia but affects the elbow, resulting in abnormal bone growth and joint stress.

  • Causes. Genetics, rapid growth, and excessive weight gain can contribute to dysplasia in large breeds.
  • Symptoms. Symptoms like stiffness and a bunny-hopping gait may appear at 4 to 12 months.
  • Treatment. Treatment includes a specialized large-breed diet, joint supplements, anti-inflammatories, weight management, physical therapy, and possibly surgery.


Arthritis is the breakdown of cartilage between joints, worsening with age and affecting mobility. There are two types: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is a chronic and worsening joint disease that affects dogs. The loss of cartilage (cushioning between their joints) results in bone changes, discomfort, pain, swelling, and difficulty using the limb.

  • Causes. Large-breed dogs are more at risk because of greater stress on their joints. Weight gain exacerbates the onset and severity by increasing the weight on joints.
  • Symptoms. Osteoarthritis symptoms include a reluctance to move, difficulty getting up, stiffness after resting, and difficulty going up and down stairs.
  • Treatment. Treatment for managing arthritis includes specialized diets, joint supplements, pain medication, anti-inflammatories, monoclonal antibody therapy, physical therapy, and in some cases surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that causes joint inflammation and bone damage.

  • Cause. The cause is unknown, but genetics may predispose certain dogs.
  • Symptoms. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, fever, and swollen joints.
  • Treatment. Treatment often involves immunosuppressive medications.


Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD) is a growth-related condition that affects medium to extra-large breed dogs. It occurs in dogs between 6 and 9 months when the immature joint cartilage cracks and separates from the bone.

  • Causes. Overfeeding, genetics, and rapid growth can cause and contribute to OCD. Large breeds grow more rapidly, making them more susceptible to this condition.
  • Symptoms. Symptoms include lameness, joint stiffness, and fluid accumulation in the joints.
  • Treatment. Veterinarians typically treat osteochondrosis with rest, pain management, and sometimes surgery.

Cranial cruciate ligament tear

Cruciate ligament issues are a common cause of lameness in large-breed dogs because of the structure and mechanics of their knees.

  • Causes. Large breed dogs’ size and weight strain these ligaments and increase the risk of sudden tears or ruptures during intense physical activity, like running or abrupt directional changes. Overweight dogs are more susceptible because their extra weight further stresses the knee.
  • Symptoms. Signs include not bearing weight or toe-touching lameness on the affected back leg.
  • Treatment. Veterinarians typically recommend surgery in most cases.

Why large breed dogs develop joint problems

Unlike smaller breed dogs, large and extra-large breeds have longer growth phases. In small dogs, this happens around 12 months, whereas in larger breeds, it can take 18-24 months. The problem with this is that their growth plates don’t close until much later, making them vulnerable for longer. This lengthened maturation rate can increase the risk of instability and trauma, leading to misaligned joints, deformity, and osteoarthritis.

It seems that large and giant breed dogs are more prone to joint issues if spayed or neutered early. However, this is something that should be discussed with your vet. Spaying before the first heat cycle can decrease the risk of mammary cancer and eliminate the risk of pyometra, a life-threatening uterine infection. So there are multiple factors to consider.

Dr. Liza Cahn

Development orthopedic diseases are common among large breeds already predisposed to joint issues, such as Labradors, Great Danes, and German shepherds. Orthopedic conditions cause pain and lameness, so owners of large breed dogs must be proactive and vigilant about their pet’s joint health from a young age.

“As an owner of a large breed dog, you can do your part to help promote their joint health by using a reputable breeder who has completed recommended health testing (such as OFA or PennHIP), feeding a WSAVA-complaint large breed puppy food until your dog reaches maturity, keeping them at a healthy weight, monitoring closely for clinical signs, and asking your vet about joint supplements.” - Dr. Liza Cahn

How weight impacts a larger dog’s joints

Carrying excess weight increases the risk of joint damage, osteoarthritis, and chronic pain. Larger, overweight, and older dogs are likely to suffer from osteoarthritis. Joint damage from prolonged trauma of being overweight can also accumulate and go undetected.

Additionally, the weight of larger breeds places significant stress on their joints, causing arthritis. Decreased activity can lead to more inactivity, which can contribute to gradual weight gain. Managing your dog’s weight can help decrease these issues, including hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis.

You can help your dog lose weight by cutting back on the amount they’re fed (including treats and table scraps) or feeding a prescription diet for weight loss. Your pet’s body condition score can give you an idea if they are at a healthy weight or not.

👉 If your dog is overweight, helping them lose weight can significantly improve their quality of life. Weight loss can help alleviate lameness and pain associated with osteoarthritis. It can also improve mobility, and reduce the risk of developing other diseases.

The right diet for larger breeds to support bone and joint health

Aside from breed size, how you feed your dog (free feeding or scheduled feedings) and the amount of nutrients they receive can contribute to developing orthopedic diseases. Nutritional management is critical for large-breed puppies. Rapid growth from excessive calories can stress their skeletal systems, weaken bones, and lead to future joint problems.

Don’t free feed — Free feeding, especially during the puppy stage, can put stress on their skeletal system due to high fat and energy levels. When a puppy’s weight increases too quickly and outpaces their bone development, it can damage their bones and joints. As a result, they are at risk of developing joint issues as they mature.

Choose a specifically formulated food — Feed your puppy a properly balanced and WSAVA-compliant commercially formulated food for large or extra-large puppies. These foods meet the unique nutritional needs of puppies expected to be over 50-70 lbs as adults. They are typically lower in calories and fat to promote slow, steady growth and contain the appropriate amount of minerals and nutrients for these breeds. They may also contain ingredients to promote joint health, such as omega-3 fatty acids or glucosamine.

Supplements aren’t always needed — Adding unnecessary supplements can disrupt the balance of essential minerals dogs need. Imbalances in key minerals like calcium and vitamin D can disrupt normal skeletal development. Large breed puppies that consume excess calcium are more at risk of developing orthopedic diseases and skeletal issues. Additionally, while treats can be great in moderation, they shouldn’t exceed 10% of your dog’s caloric intake.

👉 If you’re preparing a homemade diet, consult your veterinarian or a nutritional specialist to make sure your pup’s diet is properly balanced. 

When it comes to feeding large-breed dogs, you want to make sure their growth is supported. However, each dog is unique, and their needs will vary based on their body condition, age, and activity level. Start with the feeding guidelines on the back of the food you choose and then adjust based on your dog’s body condition.

If you have a large breed puppy, you’ll want to continue feeding them a large breed puppy formula until they reach skeletal maturity around 18 to 24 months old. Transitioning them too early can prevent them from receiving essential nutrients for development.

Joint issues in large breed dogs significantly impact their quality of life, leading to reduced mobility, chronic pain, and other related issues. For large breed dogs, rapid growth can stress their developing systems, causing joint problems as they mature.

Excess weight and improper diets can also lead to and accelerate the wear and tear of these conditions, putting excess stress on joints. Managing an ideal weight, feeding a controlled and appropriate diet, and regular veterinary checkups can reduce the risk of joint issues. Prioritizing their health from a young age can improve your pet’s health and longevity for a long, happy, and active life.

Frequently asked questions

What is the common joint problem in large dogs?

Large breed dogs are prone to many orthopedic issues, ranging from hip and elbow dysplasia to cranial cruciate ligament tears. These may lead to painful osteoarthritis that can significantly affect mobility and quality of life.

What is the best pain relief for dogs with arthritis?

Animal-specific NSAIDs are the most used pain relievers for dogs suffering from arthritis. Common animal NSAIDS, such as carprofen, Galliprant, and meloxicam, help reduce inflammation and ease pain. A  new monoclonal antibody therapy , Librela, has also successfully managed arthritis in dogs. Never give your dog over-the-counter or human pain medication.

At what age do dogs start having joint problems?

While joint problems usually affect older dogs, between 5 and 9 years, younger dogs can suffer from it, too.  This is especially true for genetic conditions such as hip dysplasia. Depending on the breed and size, you may notice joint problems early on.

How long can a dog live with degenerative joint disease?

Dogs with degenerative joint disease can live for years. However, pet owners must proactively manage this condition for the best outcome.

Is walking good for dogs with osteoarthritis?

Regular walks can benefit dogs with osteoarthritis. Ask your vet about the best exercise program for your dog.