Great Dane Nutrition Basics

Great Dane and Dog food

Great Dane Nutrition

If you have or plan on having a Great Dane, in my opinion, nutrition is the cornerstone to happy health Dane. While following good nutrition guidelines can not guarantee to stave off Cancer, DCM or other life threatening disease, it certain can help to hedge against them. Of all the life stages that a Dane goes through it cannot be stressed enough that proper nutrition during the first year of age is of the utmost importance. That is of course because the Great Dane grows faster than almost any other dogs and suffers more bone related issues because of it. The food you feed you Great Dane puppy will effect its health years down the road. So you want to get it right the first time. As your Dane grows older and the growth plates have closed off calcium and fat become less important.

I will usually engage Great Dane owners when I see them and ask some general questions to garner their knowledge levels. To my horror I run into quite a few that say they are feeding puppy food. My first thought is immediately, where did you buy this dog that the breeder knows so little that they would allow you or not educate you on this mistake. Sadly, its always either a unscrupulous backyard breeder or worst yet a pet store.

You should get used to buying better quality food that what is offered in grocery stores.

You absolutely cannot skimp on Great Dane nutrition particularly during the first two years of life up until the growth plates are fully closed. DYHAS understands in these economic times things can get tight, but there are a few good quality reasonably priced dog foods out there so don't despair. It may shock you to know that most of these dog foods you probably never heard of. They are not the dog foods you see on TV with the heartwarming talking dog playing fetch. In most cases those foods are bottom barrel foods with nothing more than a marketing machine behind them. In some cases they are downright dangerous to feed your Great Dane. Also, just because a dog food says "Large Breed" doesn't mean it is suitable for a Great Dane. It is important to remember Great Danes are not a large breed dog.. they are a giant breed dog.

Ok you get it, nutrition is important, now what?

The very fact that here and willing to learn makes us here at DYHAS happy. Our hope is by the end you will have a good foundation on reading labels, understanding food analysis and the levels that are acceptable for a Great Dane. Lets dig in shall we... the tabs above are laid out in order. Lets take a look at the first one.. The Trinity


Great Dane and Dog food

The Trinity: Protein, Fat, and Calcium

These are the three important elements that you will need to know about in regards to Great Dane nutrition. The ancient wisdom in the Great Dane world has always been moderate %protein (22-25%), low %fat (10-13%) and calcium levels under 1.5%. DYHAS makes this disclaimer: The following information is meant for you to read objectively. We are not canine dietary experts, but we do read a lot of research. I will challenge some conventional wisdom in this section in regards to protein and the amounts fed by most Dane owners. But I also recommend you read why the traditional numbers are what they are. In the end, you can make the decision.

The following breakdown appears in what DYHAS considers the most important to least important

Lets get into the meat of it, shall we? (no pun intended)

1. Calcium

DYHAS believes that calcium is the most important factor to consider when deciding on dog food. I have read numerous studies and trials all with the same results. Calcium intake directly affects skeletal growth during the first 1-2 years of life and has direct correlation with skeletal diseases such as Bone Cancer and HOD. Quite simply put Calcium intake is DYHAS main concern with growing puppies. Too much calcium and your Dane will inevitably suffer from a serious condition later down the road. The same can be said with too little calcium. This is why we NEVER add calcium supplementation to a commercial feeding program. Most dog foods today are balanced and there is no need to add supplementation.

That doesn't mean you get out of having to do your research however. You still must find a dog food that has acceptable levels or calcium. Complicating the fact it that few dog food companies post their calcium percentages on their labels. This means you will need to do extra leg work by looking up the dog food analysis online or calling the company directly. So, what is the correct calcium levels? We refer to an older study by Michigan State university which describes the correct rate.

It is the absolute level of calcium, rather than the calcium/phosphorus ratio, that most influences skeletal disease.(11) Young, giant-breed dogs fed a diet containing 3.3% calcium (dry matter basis) and 0.9% or 3% phosphorus have significantly increased incidence of developmental bone disease. These dogs seem to be unable to protect themselves against the negative effects of chronic excess levels of calcium.(26) Calcium levels for a growth diet should be between 1% and 1.6% (dry matter basis).

So there you have it, find a dog food that falls into the 1-1.5% range and then move on to the next criteria.. Amount Fed.

2. Amount Fed

Ok, so technically this isn't part of the "Trinity" but we believe it to be as important or even more so, than Calcium, Protein and Fat. In most cases when you buy a Dane from a breeder, they supply you with a package that has some information in it. One of those papers will most likely be a feeding schedule. These typically look something like this:

  • 1-2 months - feed 2-3 cups 3 times a day
  • 2-4 months - feed 3-4 cups 2 times a day
  • and so on.. and so forth..

As I began to really research dog food and talk to various manufactures it dawned on me that this is not the greatest way to go about it. I understand that this is "dumbed" down for people who may not do research and together with the standard moderate protein, low fat, low calcium diet that most recommend it works as a sort of ballast to keep people from giving to much of those very things. But why is it so important not to overfeed? Because if you do overfeed, you can negate the very thing you are trying to prevent, which is to say too much calcium. And why does that matter if you are feeding a moderate protein, low fat and calcium diet? Because even though you are feeding a diet with only 1.5% calcium it is still based on amount fed.

Confused? Just liken it to a human diet. You can eat low fat chicken to lose weight, but if you eat 5 low fat chickens, you have essentially eaten more calories, protein, fat, etc. than if you ate that big juicy slice of pizza. And now comes the point... or perhaps the kicker. Not all dog foods are the same per cup as some weigh more and deliver more calories per up than others. Let me give you an example:

Dog food A
Weighs 460g per cup and delivers 480kcal. It has 30% protein and 1.3% calcium per cup.

Dog food B
Weighs 400g per cup and delivers 375kcal. It has 23% protein and 1.3% calcium per cup.

Now lets say you have 2 Dane puppies each 4 months old and each getting 4 cups a day. Now lets say puppy 1 is on Dog Food A, and puppy 2 is on Dog Food B. Of course puppy 1 is going to get a lot more protein and calcium than puppy 2, but also significantly more calories. This is why DYHAS advocates feeding on a calorie basis, not a cup basis. If you base it on calories instead of cups these numbers change dramatically. Lets see what it looks like at 1800 calories.

Dog food A
1800/480 calories = 3.75 cups fed.
Dog food B
1800/375 calories = 4.8 cups fed.

You can see the difference when we measure by calorie, its quite dramatic. So how do you determine how many calories you need... we discuss that and a lot more in the tab labeled "Dog Food Calculator". Lets move on to Calcium:Phosphorous ratio.

3. Calcium:Phosphorous ratio

The Calcium:Phosphorus ratio is simply the ratio of % calcium (which comes from bone content) and % Phosphorous (which comes from meat content). This ratio also plays an effect in bone growth in Great Danes. Improper ratios can lead to excessive bone growth or deformities in the bone. It can also cause a disease in puppies known as Calcium Phosphate Deposition Disease. For this reason, we highly recommend feeding a food that has a fairly balanced Calcium:Phosphorous ratio. This is another analysis you will rarely find on a dog food label and thus, you will need to call the company or see if it is present on their website.

So how do you know if its balanced? We use good ole' math for it. Its quite simple really, as ratios are the relationship between two amounts. You want to achieve as close to a 1:1 ratio as possible. Given we want to stay in the 1-1.5% calcium range in general you will want to find something in that range ratio wise. For example, 1.5:1.5 is a perfect ratio but these would be fine as well 1.0:1.3, 1.3:1.0. Generally speaking try to stay within .5 ratio wise. An example of a bad ratio would be something like 1.5:.65 as this would be almost a whole 1% swing.

In our experience, Lamb formulas have consistently showed a large calcium:phosphorous ratio. We don't recommend feeding a lamb based diet until after 1-2 years old, unless you can find one that has a ratio in acceptable ranges. Lets move on to Fat.

Fat

Fat by itself has no direct correlation to skeletal development that I have come across in my research. Fat is important for a different reason however, in that it has twice the caloric value as animal and plant protein. This is important because if you remember from the "Health" section of this site, maintaining slow and steady growth is your #1 goal. If you subscribe to the cups/day formula, you can vastly overdue the caloric intake with high fat kibble. This is of less concern using the calorie model, because you are calculating caloric intake, however we recommend that calories from quality protein are far better for your Dane. DYHAS recommends conventional wisdom here and find a food between 12-14% fat.

Protein

This is where we challenge conventional wisdom. Protein intake in Great Danes seems to be a controversial issue. Many Great Dane breeders advocate a moderate protein diet usually between 22-24%. The reasons behind this most likely stem from the "trinity" as a whole and maintaining slow and steady growth and the assumption most likely advocates that high protein will lead to faster growth. DYHAS has found numerous studies that show that protein does not have an affect on skeletal growth. However, we recommend you do more research to better understand why they advocate a moderate protein level and then make up your own mind.

In the research I have read, excessive protein played no key role in skeletal growth in giant breed dogs. However, the inverse is not the same in that low protein levels will affect the growth in giant breed dogs and can lead to "rickets" in extreme cases. Looking at the facts further, dogs are in fact carnivores not omnivores, despite what is said in various canine BARF books. Wolves in the wild, which are the direct ancestors of dog, do no in fact eat the stomach contents of their herbivore prey. So that holding true, protein should be the main constituent in your dog food. It can be assumed that domesticated dogs today only eat vegetable matter due to human intervention.

Do wolves, in fact, eat the stomach contents of prey? Not according to David Mech (1), who has studied wolves in various parts of the world for more than 30 years. Mech observed wolves attack large herbivores, such as moose and elk. When wolves open the abdominal cavity and begin to eat digestive organs, they shake out the contents of stomachs before eating the organs. Thus, according to Mech, wolves eat a small amount of digested grasses that cling to the rough lining of stomachs, but they shake out large volumes of undigested grasses from herbivores' stomachs.
(1) L. David Mech & Luigi Boitani (Eds.) Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation,Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2003.

There are a few caveats to feeding a higher protein food. If you decide to do so, we highly recommend you do so based on calorie intake and not cups. That is because most high protein food is dense and caloric heavy due to increased fat levels. It also should be noted that some high protein foods have a bad calcium:phosphorus ratio due to the high protein content. Make sure if you do decide to feed a higher protein kibble that the calcium and calcium:phosphate levels are in acceptable ranges. DYHAS recommends sticking with a moderate protein (24-28%) food until 1 year of age.

Protein and Giant Breed Research
Skeletal Diseases of the Growing Dog
Growth and Skeletal Development in Great Dane Pups Fed Different Levels of Protein Intake1