Gentle Giants, the Appollo of dogs, the lovable Great Dane that is admired worldwide has so many mesmerizing characteristics that the breed’s likeness is mimicked in many works of art. As pets, we know them as the playful life-long giant puppies that thrive on love, activity, and family interaction. As adorable as Great Danes are, taking caring of and keeping them healthy and happy is important work that must take into account very crucial characteristics that we must be aware of when deciding anything from their home type, food choices, household make up (especially human children, cats, other dogs), and how long to expect them to enhance our own lives.
Their size, genetics, early growth rates, and ingrained behavioral makeup are all good reasons to understand what a Great Dane needs before obtaining one as a new family member. For example, providing the type and amount of feed during the growth phases can prevent bone deformities at the early stages, and socialization can make a world of difference regarding their ability to interact safely with others. Providing species-appropriate food can also maximize the nutritional role in preventing many of the medical and health issues that Great Danes can be prone to due to their unique genetics and large size. The following guide can give you a good overview of what to expect and consider when caring for your Great Dane.
Characteristics of these gentle giants
Growth and size
Great Danes are tall, giant dogs weighing from 110 to 175 pounds as adults with an average adult height range of 28 - 30 inches for female Great Danes, and 30 - 32 inches for males. As with any dog, Great Danes will go through growth spurts (periods of rapid growth) that can occur when the puppy is in the 4 - 6-month-old range. During these spurts, a puppy can feel pain often prompting a veterinary visit. Such visits are actually worthwhile because dysplasias (abnormal development) can develop during this period.
A Great Dane weight chart can help in navigating the growth process and in planning for the initial life stages. By about 7 months of age, the adult hair coat begins to grow. This age can be considered the teenage or adolescent stage. Sexual maturity is generally achieved at about the 12-month mark. Full adulthood, however, is not reached until 18 - 24 months of age, a little longer than for smaller, non-giant breeds.
The standard coat colors recognized by the AKC are black, black and white, blue, brindle, fawn, harlequin, merle, silver, white, and mantle. Remember that the AKC colors and other standards refer to what is deemed the ideal and what is used for judging at dog shows. The harlequin coat color is one of a white base but with random black spots or splotches on the body (except the neck). The merle coloration is similar, but the base tends to be a grayish color, and the spots can be black and/or white.
Mantle describes a black coat color with white markings on the chest, neck, muzzle, and the lower region of all four legs. The look is reminiscent of the Boston Terrier color pattern, and Great Danes of this color have been referred to in the past as the “Boston Great Danes.” There are different colored Great Danes such as brown or chocolate, white base with brindle spots, and Great Danes with absolutely unique coloring. Dogs of non-standard colors are considered mismarked by the AKC and GDCA.
The gentle giant is the best two-word choice as a description of the Great Dane’s overall personality. The lovable Great Dane is known for its playfulness and desire for attention. These loyal dogs tend to have a cool, calm composure and thrive with ample opportunities for exercise and interaction. Many Great Dane parents report some that are content hanging around the house as a lap dog, provided there are strong enough laps to support them. Like many dogs, Great Danes would not fare well emotionally if left alone for long periods of time. Given their protective nature, adequate and appropriate training is a must to ensure that destructive behaviors or aggression do not develop.
As the Gentle Giant name implies, they are very good around children, other dogs, and even cats. In the case of small dogs and cats, however, it is very important to carefully introduce the pets. If it is necessary to leave the pets alone for a period, separating the small pets/cats from the Great Dane is a prudent safety measure. Overall, it is very important to gauge and characterize a given Great Dane’s temperament prior to deciding her cohabitation with other pets.
Everyone knows the memorable big appetite of the Scooby-Doo cartoon character. This is a trait that does match that of real-world Great Danes. They can really “put it away” and quite impressively. However, this tendency makes them susceptible to serious bloat episodes. Therefore, it’s best that adult dogs have at least two feedings a day. The appetite trait can be harnessed to provide mental stimulation via treat toys.
Great Dane parents and caregivers must have a tolerance for saliva, and much of it. Although not considered a personality trait, drooling is a characteristic that is quite noticeable and common for the Great Dane breed. The facial features (eg. loose lips) contribute to the tendency to drool, but this is more voluminous after a meal, drinking water, and during or after physical activity. Normal drooling not related to a medical problem can be addressed simply by having towels handy to wipe excess drool from the dog’s mouth and being particularly cognizant of the triggers of most of the drooling (eating, etc.).
The Great Dane breed’s personality and other characteristics (except maybe the drooling and Scooby-level appetite) have provided a basis to train some to be great service dogs. Their height and weight benefit those who need mobility assistance, yet their amiable personality and intelligence make training easier. Given their disposition, Great Danes also can be good service dogs for people with other types of disabilities including those stemming from mental disorders.
Great Danes fair well with moderate exercise levels. This can take the form of 30-60 minute walks or similar time of interactive play in the yard. Don’t let the large size fool you into believing that this dog breed needs extensive exercise periods, it doesn’t. Moderate exercise is the key to giving sufficient health-sustaining activity while maintaining joint health. Over-exercising should be avoided to preserve joint and overall muscular-skeletal health in this breed.
A time to play in the yard is great, but if not available, daily walks are very good and allow more bonding and socialization opportunities. Most Great Danes need substantial mental stimulation, without such, they can begin destructive behaviors in an attempt to fill the activity void. There is a wide variety of interactive toys that can pique a Great Dane’s interest such as puzzle toys stuffed with treats (also engaging the avid eating aspect), dental chew toys, treat-dispensing toys, and fetch balls. When visiting dog parks, keep in mind that a Great Dane can get tired sooner than a smaller breed dog. If this occurs, give a good rest period and monitor the activity level. It is also fine to engage the Great Dane in special activities such as agility and other competitions.
Great Danes have smooth, sleek, short hair coats, but they still shed. They are considered moderate shedders when compared to other dogs. Great Danes have single coats, so it's easier to groom these dogs. Grooming goes hand-in-hand with proper nutrition (discussed later in this article). The shedding of hair of any animal corresponds to the phases of the hair growth cycle. There are 4 broad phases of hair growth, the anagen phase (new hair growth), the catagen phase (signals to stop hair growth), the telogen phase (no growth or shedding), and the exogen phase (hair sheds and new hair grows in its place). Great Danes spend less time in the anagen phase than dog breeds that are low shedders.
Regular brushing to remove loose fur is essential for Great Danes. In this case, a brush such as the Furminator can be your best friend, even for single coat dogs like Great Danes. Brushing one to two times per week is typically suggested for grooming, and this may need to increase to once a day during the spring. Bathing is less frequent (every 3 weeks or so) to avoid the drying of the skin, and oatmeal shampoos are a good option for this.
Housing/Environment and Socialization
The size of adult Great Dane dogs requires that they have sufficient space to move around safely and comfortably. Given their moderate exercise needs, they can do well in apartment settings as long as they are walked daily. The most important needs to provide for a Great Dane’s environment are interaction, mental stimulation, companionship, and the opportunity to bond with household mates.
The optimal period of socialization is between 1 to 4 months of age. This period to provide exposure to various people and places will bolster their adaptability throughout their life and associated changes. They have a strong protective trait though, making it important to properly train and socialize them to prevent the possibility of aggressive behavior development or even timid dispositions.
For optimal health, dogs should be fed with formulations specific for their life stages. Many dog breeds have unique genetic characteristics that impact what nutrients (and levels) are needed for various body functions. It takes longer than the average dog for Great Danes to achieve a fully developed musculoskeletal system. It is particularly important to have a feeding schedule and provide the correct portion sizes. This means that ad libitum feeding (free feeding) should be avoided.
For puppies under 6 or 7 months of age, feedings should take place 3 to 4 times per day. Great Dane puppies should be started on large-breed puppy food to avoid growth that is too rapid, which can cause abnormal musculoskeletal growth. Feeding more than once per day is also of value in a mature dog to help prevent bloat in Great Danes. Make sure they don’t over-drink by supplying water manually instead of using automated watering bowls.
To help maintain your Great Dane’s joint health, it is crucial that they have a sufficient calorie intake that is not more than the daily requirement. All dogs need to maintain a healthy weight, but this is even more important in large-breed dogs to avoid undue pressure on the joints. Also, omega-3 fatty acids help to provide nutrients that support healthy joints. Supplements that are available with turmeric (curcumin) may also provide joint health support, including in senior dogs.
Precision home-cooked formulations are a great option for most dogs, but this feeding approach is not feasible for most households. In this case, a well-formulated dry kibble is a good option.
Common Health Problems in Great Danes
Many purebred dogs have specific health conditions that are more common than for mixed-breed dogs. Some are based on the unique genetics of the dog breed or on general characteristics (growth rate, size, anatomic variations) associated with a particular breed. The following are conditions that can affect Great Danes more than the average dog.
Bloat: Gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) is a condition that more frequently occurs in deep-chested dogs such as Great Danes. When bloat occurs in dogs with narrow and deep chests, the stomach can twist around its axis. The blood flow to the stomach is obstructed leading to an emergency medical situation. The condition is extremely painful and is fatal if not treated quickly. Surgical treatment to prevent a recurrence of stomach twisting may be performed if necessary.
Cardiomyopathy: Great Danes are prone to develop a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The heart increases to an abnormally large size and the heart walls become thin; these changes make it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently. Studies and patterns of incidence suggest that the development of DCM may have a genetic component in Great Danes (1). Due to the increased risk of this condition in Great Danes, heart evaluations are recommended at about 1 year of age to catch problems early.
Hip Dysplasia: Many large-breed dogs have a propensity for developing hip dysplasia, and Great Danes are no exception. With this condition, there is an abnormal or faulty articulation of the surfaces of the ball and socket components of the hip joint leading to pain, inflammation, and difficulty walking. Depending on the severity, medical (anti-inflammatory drugs and joint supplements) or surgical treatment approaches are considered. Weight control is very important in preventing further problems such as arthritis.
Joint and Bone Disease: In addition to hip (and elbow) dysplasia, other musculoskeletal abnormalities can develop in Great Danes. If puppies grow too fast (more than 4 lbs per week), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) can set in, which is typically approached surgically. This can be prevented by not overfeeding and avoiding unnecessary supplementation with calcium and/or phosphorus (2). Panosteitis is an inflammatory condition of the long bones and is usually manifested when the puppy reaches 6 months of age on average. This is typically a condition that has no significant anatomical malformation, but it is fairly painful. Physical therapy and pain medication is the primary approach to this condition.
Thyroid Disorders: Great Danes are at a higher than normal risk of developing hypothyroidism, and low thyroid hormone production. Unfortunately, this can lead to weight gain, a risk factor for joint dysplasias. Signs caught by the veterinarian can lead to hormone testing and oral treatment to replace thyroid hormone.
Congenital disorders: Recall the discussion on coat colors. There are dogs born as double merles that are white in color. Double merles can occur in Great Danes and is associated with an increased incidence of blindness and/or deafness (3). Congenital Ichthyosis has also been described in Great Danes, a condition characterized by a scaly skin abnormality primarily of the head and legs (4). Sadly, there is no cure, the condition worsens with age, and life-long symptomatic treatment (medicated baths) is the only approach to this condition.
Great Danes are at a higher risk of developing other conditions and diseases associated with immune system alterations. Some of the more common conditions in this category include allergic skin conditions, Demodex (a type of mite), hemolytic anemia, and thrombocytopenia (low red blood cell and platelet counts). Wobbler disease (or syndrome), is a neurological condition that causes a drunk-like, wobbly gait in Great Danes. The cause is a narrowing defect in the neck vertebrae placing stress and impingement of the spinal cord. This condition can be approached in a variety of ways including medications for nerve pain and malfunction, physical therapy, neck stabilization, and surgery (5). Cancers that tend to affect Great Danes more are osteosarcoma (affecting middle-aged large dog breeds), hemangiosarcoma (often of the spleen), and lymphosarcoma (affecting the white blood cells). Regular veterinary medical visits and follow up can help catch these early enough to treat and increase the survival time.
The size and genetic make-up of Great Danes are associated with a shorter life span than the average dog. These dogs typically have a life expectancy in the 6 to 9-year-old range. This can be even shorter if the various health risks are not managed or if unhealthy breeding practices occur. Adhering to a preventive care regimen, feeding a diet appropriate for the breed, and providing an emotionally enriching and healthy environment promote the attainment of the full life span possible for the breed.
History of Great Danes
The Great Dane, often called the Apollo of dogs, is a much-adored breed worldwide. Historically referred to as the German Mastiff, the breed’s origin is primarily attributed to Germany. However, other historical accounts indicate that the German breed (called Deutsche Dogge in Germany) developed from English (English Mastiff) and Irish (Irish Wolfhound) ancestry. Despite the name, the Great Dane’s origin is not considered to be Danish. While traveling in Denmark in the 1700s, the French author and naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, saw a more narrow-bodied, Greyhound-like Boar Hound, and referred to the development of this dog as a Grand Danois. This led to the Great Dane name that is used to date. Another intriguing perspective is the possibility of an earlier origin based on the appearance of a Mastiff-like dog in depictions on Egyptian monuments dating back to 3000 B.C.
In Germany, the Great Dane was used primarily to hunt boar and protect nobility. As hunting technology such as firearms developed, the hunting function of the Great Dane faded. Breeding in Germany to develop a less aggressive version for use as guard dogs helped lead to the breed’s gentle disposition of the modern Great Dane, thus the term Gentle Giant. The Great Dane breed appeared in the United States (US) during the 1800s, received American Kennel Club (AKC) recognition in 1887, and the Great Dane Club of America (GDCA) was founded in Chicago in 1899.
The Great Dane is one of the largest dog breeds in the world, and this and other notable characteristics have been featured in stories, television, and shows globally. A well-known record holder for his phenomenal size was Zeus of the US. In 2011, Zeus was recorded in Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest dog ever with a height of 1.118 meters (44 inches). Prior to that, another Great Dane (Giant George, US) was listed in 2010 with a height of 43 inches. This towering dog breed with a happy-go-lucky gallop-like walk and lovable disposition has always captured the attention of many leading to the use of the Great Dane’s likeness for various cartoon characters such as Marmaduke, Scooby-Doo, and Astro (the Jetsons).
To read more about your dog’s health and wellness needs, visit the Native Pet blog.
- Meurs KM, Miller MW, Wright NA. Clinical features of dilated cardiomyopathy in Great Danes and results of a pedigree analysis: 17 cases (1990-2000). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001 Mar 1;218(5):729-32.
- Schoenmakers I, Hazewinkel HA, Voorhout G, Carlson CS, Richardson D. Effects of diets with different calcium and phosphorus contents on the skeletal development and blood chemistry of growing great danes. Vet Rec. 2000 Dec 2;147(23):652-60.
- Strain GM, Clark LA, Wahl JM, Turner AE, Murphy KE. Prevalence of deafness in dogs heterozygous or homozygous for the merle allele. J Vet Intern Med. 2009 Mar-Apr;23(2):282-6.
- Hoffmann A, Metzger J, Wöhlke A, Peters M, Junginger J, Mischke R, Distl O, Hewicker-Trautwein M. Congenital Ichthyosis in 14 Great Dane Puppies With a New Presentation. Vet Pathol. 2016 May;53(3):614-20.
- Danielski A, Vanhaesebrouck A, Yeadon R. Ventral stabilization and facetectomy in a Great Dane with wobbler syndrome due to cervical spinal canal stenosis. Vet Comp Orthop Traumatol. 2012;25(4):337-41.