My wife and I had been married for about 3 years when my mother called me to let me know she got us a dog. We already had two. A mixed breed who was already fully grown and weighed around 25 lbs and a Maltipoo who was also fully grown and tipped the scales at 15 lbs.
A friend of hers came across a litter of abandoned pups and my mom just couldn’t say no to giving one of them a home (by which, of course, she meant our home). She sent me a picture of the little guy in a shoebox, barely two months old. The picture came with a caption: “I don’t think he’ll grow much.”
Famous. Last. Words.
At the time you couldn’t guess a breed at him, but it soon became evident that Ollie (that’s the name we landed on for him) was a lab mix with a heavy emphasis on the “lab” part. Fortunately, I had prior experience with larger dog breeds, so I knew what to expect.
According to the ASPCA’s National Rehoming Survey, 47% of dogs are rehomed due to “pet problems”. This is a bit of a catch-all term that encompasses different provided responses to the survey. Among those are problematic behaviors, aggressive behaviors, health problems the owner couldn’t handle, and the pet growing larger than expected.
I believe that frustration is bred from unmet expectations, so if you want to have the right expectations about large breeds, read on.
They Experience Unique Medical Issues
No dog is exempt from medical issues, and there are definitely breed-specific issues to look out for, but large breeds across the board tend to experience health issues that tend to be more related to their size than their bloodline
- Hip dysplasia- Can be found in dogs of any size, but is most commonly associated with large breeds and is one of the most well-known. This is a loose fit in the hip joint and can lead to hip pain, limb dysfunction, and progressive issues (see arthritis below). It also lends itself to dislocation.
- Elbow dysplasia - While sounding similar to hip dysplasia, this is a more complex issue. The Elbow joint is actually the meeting of 3 bones: the radius, the ulna, and the humerus. To put it very briefly, elbow dysplasia happens when these bones don’t meet in exactly the right way. This can lead to pain and even loss of function.
As with hip dysplasia, this can happen to any dog but is most common in large breeds. A bit of an admittedly oversimplified explanation for both is that bigger dogs are heavier, and thus, these joints get put under more strain than those of smaller dogs.
- Arthritis - Can affect any dog (noticing a trend here?), but due to the aforementioned propensity for dysplasia of both the hip and elbow, larger breeds are more likely to develop arthritis at a younger age.
- Bloat and torsion - This is a less common medical issue across all large dog breeds and is more closely associated with deep-chested dogs (think Great Dane). Essentially the stomach becomes full of food and gas and can flip over on itself, causing a twist at the top and bottom, making it impossible for food to get in or be expelled. This can only be treated with surgery, which consists of re-orienting the stomach and stapling it to the abdominal wall, as to prevent the issue from happening again.
This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of health issues and is only meant to illustrate the types of things you need to be prepared for if you plan to bring a large breed into your home.
They Age Faster
Do you know that old rule of thumb that dogs age 7 times faster than humans? There is absolutely zero evidence that backs that up. There’s really no cut-and-dry rule for making equivalencies between dog aging and human aging. Furthermore, it is generally agreed upon that larger breeds age faster than smaller ones. This is determined by veterinarians observing age-related issues several years earlier in larger breeds than in smaller ones. A large dog is generally considered to be a “senior” by 5 or 6 years of age.
This is, again, something you need to plan for. As stated earlier, larger breeds start encountering medical issues associated with age earlier than their smaller counterparts.
In order to properly care for your prodigious pup, you need to proportionately prepare yourself. This means either allocating a portion of cash for a veterinary savings fund or shopping for adequate coverage.
They Pass Younger
Because they age faster, it follows that larger breeds also die younger. This is one of the more bittersweet aspects of dog ownership; how tragically short their lives are compared to ours.
This, however, is even more true when it comes to large breeds. While a Shih-Tzu can live well into its teens, the aforementioned Great Dane on average doesn’t live past 7, and a Labrador Retriever usually lives between 10 and 12 years.
One recent study sought to shed some light on why larger breeds live shorter lives than smaller ones, and there may be some merit to giving antioxidant supplements to your large breed while they are still puppies in an effort to extend their lives, but it is still to soon to make any definitive call as far as that is concerned.
The Cost of Ownership is Higher
After everything you just read, it should come as no surprise that raising a large breed dog can be expensive. According to the ASPCA, it’s more expensive to own a large breed dog than either a medium or a small breed.
It’s not just the medical issues we have gone into above. For example, large dogs just eat more. An adult dog weighing between 76 and 100 lbs eats twice as much as a similarly aged dog weighing between 25 and 50 lbs. Even grooming tends to be more expensive for larger breeds.
I know the tone of this might seem like a bit of a downer, but the intent is all about setting the right expectations. If you are properly prepared, you can mitigate a lot of the health issues that come with larger breeds and be financially ready for the ones you can’t avoid.
There is nothing that quite compares to the love you get from a big ole beast who has no concept of personal space. We owe it to them and to ourselves to be ready to give them the care they deserve.
Oh, and if you’re curious, Ollie ended up weighing 80 lbs. He still thinks he fits in my lap and I just haven’t had the heart to tell him otherwise.