There are many, many advantageous to owning a giant breed of dog. As a group these dogs tend to be very calm, steadfast, loyal and loving, plus they are also naturally effective guard and watch dogs. As with most types of dogs and dog breeds, there are also some disadvantages or at least concerns that owners need to be aware of. Most of these health concerns are directly related to the large size of the dogs and can be at least managed by good feeding, routine exercise and proper care for the dogs, especially in their growing stages.
One of the biggest realities that owners of giant breed dogs have to face is that these dogs typically have a significantly shorter life span than small to large size breeds. While the average life span for a small, medium or even large sized dog is often 12-15 years, giant breed dogs are shorter lived, having an average life span of 10-12 years. Some of the largest of the giant breeds may have even shorter lives, often ranging between 8-10 years. While this may be difficult for owners to accept, there are more difficulties with heart problems, bloat, osteosarcoma and arthritis that can lead to early health complications.
The most common type of heart and circulatory problem found in the large and giant breeds of dogs is congenital aortic stenosis. This condition is present from birth, so it is very important to have both parents health checked before deciding if the puppy is right for you. Since this condition is caused by a recessive genetic condition, check back at least 2 generations or more if available.
Congenital aortic stenosis is actually a malformation of the aorta, requiring that the heart actually pump much harder to move the blood through the system. Generally most dogs start out with a mild condition that may not have any visible symptoms at all. If the dog becomes sick, injured or otherwise stressed the condition can worsen. Also scar tissue and thickening of the heart itself can occur over time, further contributing to the decrease in blood flowing through the heart. As the condition becomes more pronounced symptoms such as abdominal swelling, excessive fatigue, breathing problems and general lethargy and lack of energy will become very obvious. In severe cases the dog will slip into a coma, shortly followed by death.
Treatment can include management of overall health, antibiotic treatments to decrease risk to the heart, and even surgery in some conditions.
More correctly known as Gastric Dilation Volvulus, bloat is a life threatening and very serious condition that is most common in deep chested dogs. In addition recent research indicates that dogs with chests that are significantly deeper than they are wide are most at risk. Greyhounds, Great Danes, Bouvier Des Flanders, Irish Wolfhounds and Afghan Hounds are more likely to develop this condition than other giant breeds, but in general any large or giant breed may potentially be at risk.
Bloat or GDV is actually a twisting of the gastro-intestinal tract. Pressure builds in the stomach, forcing pressure upwards on the heart and lungs. Without immediate treatment this pressure will lead to death within a few hours of the onset of symptoms in the condition of full GDV.
To prevent bloat it is important to feed at least two or possibly three smaller meals a day and limit exercise for at least one hour after eating. Dogs should also not be allowed large quantities of water during or after the meal, rather water should be provided free choice at all other times. Some foods are more likely to cause bloat so always check with your vet to find out what foods are least problematic. Treatment to prevent the condition is the best option. There is some evidence in some breeds that there is a hereditary connection, so always ask about the history of both parent dogs.
The symptoms of bloat typically develop within an hour or so of eating. They include high levels of anxiety, vomiting with nothing being expelled, swollen abdominal area and rapid, shallow breathing. Often significant drooling or salivation is also seen at the onset of the symptoms. Without immediate action by a vet the dog will die within a matter of hours.
Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer that is most commonly found in the leg bones of large and giant breeds of dogs. It is the most common form of cancer in these breeds and can strike middle age to older dogs, however younger juvenile dogs may also develop this disease.
Typical symptoms include gradual lameness and weakening of the bones, eventually resulting in pain in movement, swelling of the limbs and lack of mobility. In addition the limbs affected by the osteosarcoma are more likely to break as the cancer forms from within the bone, gradually weakening the bone structure. In most cases the dog will develop significant symptoms within one to three months of the initial cancer.
Diagnosis is typically confirmed with x-rays and a biopsy. There are several different types of cancer that can affect how treatment occurs. Treatment can include similar treatments as those used with humans. These chemotherapy and radiation treatments can be very effective for some types of osteosarcomas, providing they have not spread to adjacent bone, tissue or organs. In some cases if the osteosarcoma is beyond treatment but is only in one limb, amputation of that limb or surgery to remove the affected bone may be an option for treatment.
Arthritis can occur in dogs of any size, however with large and giant breeds the weight of the dog contributes to a rapid acceleration of the symptoms if not treated. The good news is that new research in preventative diets, supplements and even alternative treatments are providing a bigger range of treatment options.
Like most of the conditions, there is a hereditary condition in some breeds with regards to developing arthritis. Many breeds that prone to hip dysplasia also have a higher likelihood to develop arthritis, so be sure to talk to your vet and breeder. Many breeders of larger and giant breeds recommend feeding a raw or natural food diet to help prevent arthritis and other muscle and skeletal conditions from developing in giant breeds.