Dr Jessica May, UK lead vet at the video vet service FirstVet, gives her advice on how to best care for large dogs.
The pandemic has seen a huge spike in the popularity of dogs, and larger breeds have been particularly sought after. However, caring for bigger dogs can present unique challenges, so prospective owners should know what they’re in for before bringing home a larger dog.
Pet parents should always research which breed their home and lifestyle is most suited to before bringing a dog home – especially when it comes to big breeds, as these animals have specific characteristics and needs, which owners should be aware of.
Space to roam
Bigger dogs will be suited to a home where they have space to wander throughout the day. Most large dogs will thrive in a house with a garden or outdoor space to stretch their legs and play, although it is important to make sure that this area is secured properly to avoid any escapes. Having access to open spaces or the countryside is also an advantage, as larger dogs may struggle to navigate built up city areas and walks on narrow pavements.
Owners of big dogs should have plenty of time on their hands to ensure that they can keep their canine occupied and exercised. Larger breeds usually need more exercise than average, meaning two long walks a day as a general guideline, although this does vary for each dog. Working breeds, such as German Shepherds or Border Collies, are usually most in need of regular exercise, due to their energetic nature, as well as the need to exercise their brain. For any dog, the amount of exercise they get should be fairly consistent each day, so avoid going for a ten minute walk one day and a ten mile hike the next. Aim to build a regular exercise routine with your pet.
It is also worth thinking about how a big pet will fit into your household dynamic. If you have small children, it is important to know that dogs do not always have perfect awareness of what’s around them. Toddlers may get knocked over by a dog darting around the house, or they may put themselves in a dangerous situation if they do not approach the dog carefully when playing. Interactions between a child and any dog – no matter its size – should always be supervised by an adult.
You might also want to consider how a large dog would interact with other pets in the household. If you have smaller pets, such as a cat, rabbits or guinea pigs, then it is best to keep them out of your dog’s reach, particularly if your chosen breed, like Setters or Lurchers, has a high prey drive.
While larger dogs can lead perfectly healthy lives, there are some common health issues which owners should look out for. Joint issues such as hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are a common problem amongst dogs of large stature. Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition where the elbow joint develops abnormally, which can cause pain, stiffness and swelling as a dog grows, progressing to arthritis.
Hip dysplasia is a similar issue affecting the hip joint, where the ball and socket do not fit properly. These problems can be particularly pronounced in larger dogs because they grow so quickly. Owners should screen breeding dogs prior to mating to reduce the risk of these diseases occuring in puppies. Puppy owners should be on the lookout for any signs of decreased mobility or unusual gait. Catching and managing joint issues early and maintaining a healthy weight throughout life is the best way to prevent them from worsening.
Large dog breeds are often also at higher risk of hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland does not secrete enough hormones, which affects the dog’s metabolism. The most noticeable symptom of hypothyroidism is weight gain. There can also be other symptoms, such as an intolerance to cold or hair loss. Large dog owners should be on the lookout for any changes in their dog’s weight without a change in appetite, and consult a vet if they have any concerns.
Pet proofing and training
Whilst you may not have to worry about small dogs sniffing around the kitchen countertops, a big dog with a big appetite may be able to scoop up anything you leave around. This makes it particularly important to make sure that your home is properly pet-proofed. You can use barriers to let dogs know where the no-go zones in the house are.
Proper training can also help to keep dogs out of areas of the house they should avoid. In fact, good training in general is important for big dogs, particularly when you have visitors, as having a giant pooch jump up at you might be intimidating for people who are not used to dogs.
This means that first time owners should seriously consider whether they are ready to commit to a strict training routine before they bring a large dog home. However, as with any pet, if you put in the time and effort to keep them healthy and happy large dogs can bring great affection and companionship into your home.