Common Health Problems in Big Dogs and How to Avoid Them - King Size Canines

Common Health Problems in Big Dogs and How to Avoid Them

When we bring a large dog into our homes, they become more than pets, they're part of the family. Owners of big dogs know these gentle giants bring immense joy and unique challenges, especially when it comes to their health. like their smaller counterparts, big dogs are susceptible to certain health issues. This article looks into five common health problems in big dogs, and explains the symptoms and causes. We will also cover preventative measures to keep your King Size Canine healthy and happy.

1. Joint Problems: Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Dysplasia

Large dog breeds are particularly prone to joint issues, including hip and elbow dysplasia. These conditions are characterised by a malformation of the hip or elbow joint.

Hip Dysplasia


  • Limping, especially in the hind legs
  • Difficulty getting up, sitting, or climbing stairs
  • Stiffness, especially after exercise
  • Pain in the hip area (not always present)
  • A wobbly gait, sometimes described as a "bunny hop"


  • Genetics: A major factor, with some breeds more predisposed (e.g., Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds).
  • Weight: Obesity puts extra stress on hips.
  • Growth rate: Rapid growth can increase the risk.
  • Improper nutrition: Lack of proper nutrients for bone and joint development.
  • Exercise: Too much or too little exercise during growth can be problematic.

Elbow Dysplasia


  • Limping, especially in the front legs
  • Reluctance to exercise or play
  • Difficulty getting up or lying down
  • Swollen or painful elbows
  • Turned-out feet (especially noticeable in puppies)


  • Similar to hip dysplasia, genetics, weight, growth rate, nutrition, and exercise all play a role.
  • Elbow dysplasia is actually an umbrella term for several conditions affecting the elbow joint, making the cause even more complex.

Preventative Measures

  • BVA Hip and Elbow Dysplasia Scheme: You can help prevent joint problems before you get your dog. The BVA (British Veterinary Association) Hip and Elbow Dysplasia Scheme involves veterinarians taking X-rays that follow specific guidelines. The X-rays are then submitted to the BVA for evaluation. The BVA then assigns a score to the hips and elbows and published on the Kennel Club website. To learn more about the BVA Hip and Elbow Dysplasia Scheme, Click here for the hip scheme, and Click here for the elbow scheme.
  • Proper diet: Feed your dog a high-quality, large-breed puppy formula during growth. This will provide the right nutrients for healthy bone and joint development. Remember, consult your veterinarian for specific recommendations.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity puts a lot of strain on joints. Watch your dog's weight and adjust food intake or exercise as needed.
  • Controlled exercise: Regular exercise is important. But, avoid strenuous activities like jumping or running on hard surfaces until your dog is fully grown. Opt for swimming, controlled leash walks, or playtime on soft surfaces.
  • Supplements: Consider veterinarian-approved joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin. These can help support healthy cartilage development.
  • Protective Accessories: Items such as orthopaedic bed's provide a firmer, pressure-relieving surface that encourages proper posture and reduces strain on joints. This can be especially helpful for older dogs or those with existing joint problems.
  • Early spaying/neutering: Researchers at the University of California, Davis looked at 759 Golden Retrievers. They found a surprising link - male dogs neutered before their first birthday were twice as likely to develop hip dysplasia. Click here to see the full study
  • Veterinarian checkups: Regular checkups with your vet are essential to monitor your dog's joint health and address any problems early on.

2. Bloat (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus)

Bloat (Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus), also known as GDV, is a serious and life-threatening condition in dogs, particularly large and deep-chested breeds.


  • Swollen abdomen: This is a telltale sign of bloat. The stomach will appear distended and firm.
  • Restlessness and pacing: Your dog may seem agitated and unable to settle.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to vomit or belch: They might go through the motions of vomiting or belching but bring nothing up.
  • Excessive drooling: This is a common response to the discomfort caused by bloat.
  • Painful abdomen: Your dog will likely be sensitive to any touching around the belly area.
  • Rapid breathing or laboured breathing: Bloat can make it difficult for your dog to breathe.
  • Pale gums: This indicates a lack of blood flow, a serious complication of bloat.
  • Weakness or collapse: In severe cases, your dog may become weak or collapse entirely.


The exact cause of bloat is unknown, but several factors can contribute to it:

  • Diet: Eating a single large meal, rapid eating, and certain types of food (like dry kibble) might increase the risk.
  • Gas: Excessive gas buildup in the stomach can put pressure on the organ.
  • Gastric torsion (twisting): In GDV, the stomach twists, trapping gas and food inside and preventing blood flow.
  • Age: While it can occur at any age, bloat is more common in middle-aged and older dogs.
  • Breed: Large and deep-chested breeds like Great Danes, Standard Poodles, and Saint Bernards are at higher risk.
  • Genetics: Some research suggests certain breeds, like German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Dobermans, might be more prone to bloat due to genetics.
  • Stress: Stressful events might trigger bloat in some dogs.

Preventative Measures

  • Smaller, More Frequent Meals: Split your dog's daily food ration into two or more smaller meals throughout the day. This reduces the amount of food and air swallowed at once, lessening pressure on the stomach.
  • Slow Down Eating: Use a slow feeder bowl or spread kibble out on a larger flat surface. This discourages gulping and encourages controlled eating.
  • Avoid Food and Water Before/After Exercise: Wait at least an hour after exercise before feeding and avoid letting your dog drink excessively before or after strenuous activity.
  • Consider Gastropexy Surgery: Discuss with your veterinarian if a preventative gastropexy surgery is right for your dog. This surgery attaches the stomach to the abdominal wall, preventing twisting (volvulus). It's often performed during spaying/neutering in high-risk breeds.
  • Reduce Stressful Situations: Bloat can be triggered by stress. Minimise stressful events for your dog and provide a calm, predictable routine.

3. Heart Disease 

Large dog breeds are more susceptible to a type of heart disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). This weakens the heart muscle, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood effectively.


  • Coughing, especially at night. 
  • Difficulty breathing, especially during exercise. 
  • Lethargy, weakness, or fatigue. 
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss. 
  • Fainting or collapse. 
  • Swollen abdomen (in severe cases) 


  • Genetics: Certain breeds like Great Danes, Dobermans, and Boxers are predisposed. 
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Lack of certain nutrients like taurine can contribute.
  • Viral infections (less common)

Preventative Measures

  • Regular veterinary checkups: Early detection and treatment are crucial.
  • Diet: Feed a high-quality diet appropriate for your dog's breed and age. Consult your veterinarian for recommendations.
  • Weight management: Obesity puts extra strain on your big dog's heart.
  • Exercise: Regular, controlled exercise is important for heart health. Avoid strenuous activity until your dog is fully grown (consult your vet).
  • Supplements: Discuss with your veterinarian if heart-healthy supplements like L-carnitine might be beneficial.

Click here if you'd like to read more on Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in large dog breeds.

4. Thyroid Problems

Large dog breeds are more prone to a condition called hypothyroidism, which occurs when the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate many bodily functions, so a deficiency can lead to various health problems.


  • Weight gain: This is often one of the first signs, even with no change in diet or exercise. 
  • Lethargy and fatigue: Your dog may seem less interested in playing or activities they used to enjoy.
  • Hair loss and dry, brittle coat: This can be patchy or generalised.
  • Skin problems: Dry, itchy skin and recurrent skin infections are common.
  • Intolerance to cold: Your dog may seek warmth more often and seem uncomfortable in colder temperatures.
  • Behavioural changes: These can include depression, anxiety, or mental dullness.
  • In some cases: Muscle weakness, constipation, and difficulty getting pregnant.


  • Autoimmune disease: This is the most common cause, where the body's immune system attacks the thyroid gland. 
  • Congenital disorder: Puppies can be born with an underdeveloped thyroid gland.
  • Inflammation or destruction of the thyroid gland: Less common causes can include medications, radiation exposure, or surgery.

Preventative Measures

While there's no direct prevention, early detection is key

  • Regular veterinary checkups: Routine blood tests can help detect hypothyroidism early.
  • Be aware of breed predispositions: Certain large breeds like Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, and Great Danes are more at risk. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity can worsen the effects of hypothyroidism.
  • Spaying/neutering at the recommended age: Early neutering in some breeds might be linked to an increased risk, but discuss this with your veterinarian for your specific breed.

Doberman Pinscher Dog, Big Dog, Large Dog

5. Cancer

Cancer is a complex disease that can affect any dog breed, but some types are more common in large dogs. Here's a breakdown of symptoms, causes (which we don't fully understand yet), and preventative measures for owners of large breeds:


  • Lumps or bumps: These can appear anywhere on the body and may vary in size and texture.
  • Weight loss: This can happen even if your dog's appetite seems normal.
  • Loss of appetite: This can be a sign of various health issues, but consult your vet if it persists.
  • Lethargy and fatigue: Your dog may seem less interested in playing or activities they used to enjoy.
  • Bleeding or discharge: Unusual bleeding from any orifice or body opening can be a sign of cancer.
  • Difficulty breathing, eating, or elimination: These can indicate tumours pressing on internal organs.
  • Changes in bowel or urination habits: This could include constipation, diarrhoea, or difficulty urinating.
  • Open sores that don't heal: Unexplained wounds or sores that persist need veterinary attention.
  • Bad odour: A foul odour can sometimes accompany tumours or infected wounds.


The exact causes of cancer in dogs are not fully understood, but some potential factors include:

  • Genetics: Certain breeds may have a higher predisposition to specific cancers.
  • Age: Cancer is more common in older dogs.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to toxins or carcinogens might play a role.
  • Diet and lifestyle: Obesity and lack of exercise may be risk factors, but research is ongoing.

Preventative Measures

While there's no guaranteed prevention, here are some things you can do:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity can increase the risk of various cancers.
  • Provide a healthy diet: Feed your dog a high-quality diet appropriate for their breed and age.
  • Limit exposure to toxins: Be mindful of household chemicals, pesticides, and other potential environmental hazards.
  • Regular veterinary checkups: Early detection can significantly improve treatment outcomes. Discuss potential cancer risks specific to your dog's breed with your vet.
  • Spaying/neutering at the recommended age: This may reduce the risk of certain cancers in some breeds.


The health of our King Size Canines is paramount. By understanding the common health issues these large breeds face, we can take proactive steps to prevent them. Regular veterinary care, a balanced diet, and appropriate exercise are your best tools in maintaining the health and happiness of your large dog. Remember, early detection and intervention are key to managing these health issues effectively.

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