Feeding Large Breed Livestock Guard Dogs

Jan 31, 2022


One of the main challenges facing small ruminant producers is preventing predators from stealing the profit. Sheep and goats are prey animals and tend to be an easy meal for coyotes, feral dogs, and other predators. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that one-third of sheep and goat death loss is due to predation.
In recent decades, large breed livestock guard dogs (LGDs) have become a popular and effective means of protection. Great Pyrenees, Anatolian, and Akbash are just some of the breeds commonly seen standing watch over farms. Unfortunately, another common sight is mature LGDs with mobility problems caused by improper feeding.
A “large breed” dog is defined as one with greater than 50 lbs. mature weight. Many of the LGDs currently in use will weigh more than 100 lbs. as adults. The rapid growth that must occur going from 1-2 lbs. at birth to 100-150 lbs. in a matter of months predisposes them to a host of growth and developmental disorders. Any dietary excess or deficiency is magnified during this period, commonly resulting in irreversible deformities in bone and joints.
Underfeeding is rarely the problem, as most are overfed and with improper ratios of nutrients. Energy, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D all play a role in providing appropriate nutrition for LGDs as they grow from puppies to adulthood.
Overfeeding energy occurs when high-fat, nutrient-dense foods are provided. The National Research Council (NRC) recommends an energy concentration of 3.5-4.0 kcal/g for large breed puppies (rather than 4.0-5.0 in standard puppy foods). Look for fat levels at or below 15%. Protein levels are typically not a concern.
Calcium is vitally necessary for bone growth, but it must be in the proper amount and ratio to other nutrients. Puppies passively absorb whatever calcium is present in the intestines up to about 6 months of age, the period of most rapid growth, after which they can control absorption. Most commercial large breed puppy foods will contain 1% calcium.
Phosphorus is also vital and is better regulated than calcium. The NRC recommends the calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1.2-1.4:1; outside this range can create imbalances in hormone systems. A phosphorus level of 0.8%, with calcium at 1% will maintain this ratio. Home-cooked or raw diets tend to be sufficient in phosphorus but low in calcium. Since this mineral balance is delicate, resist the temptation to supplement or top dress a quality complete feed.
Finally, vitamin D plays a role in the absorption of both calcium and phosphorus. While humans and other animals can produce vitamin D from precursors in the skin when exposed to ultraviolet light, dogs cannot, and it must be provided in their diet. Vitamin D is supplemented at appropriate levels in commercial large breed puppy diets.
In short, save yourself time, trouble, and expense by investing in a large breed puppy food from a reputable company. Provide multiple small meals each day – do not offer free choice. Adjust feeding amounts to achieve desired body conditions. Feed this product from weaning until 12 months of age, then transition to an adult maintenance food. These are not sled dogs, so high protein/high fat “performance” feeds are not necessary. Following these guidelines can help ensure a productive, structurally sound livestock guard dog for many years.
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