Nutritional Needs of Performance Dogs

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Nutritional Needs of Performance Dogs

It is important to understand the unique nutritional needs of performance dogs.

Performance dogs can be categorized by the wide variety of activities in which they engage. First, they may be sprinters. These are dogs that perform very high intensity physical activity over a short period of time. Examples of sprinting activities include racing (greyhounds and whippets), coursing (chasing a lure over an outdoor course), and weight pulling.

Alternatively, performance dogs may engage in intermediate length activities. These are physical activities that are sustained over minutes to several hours. Examples of intermediate activities include agility, exercise with owners (bicycling, running), field trial, hunting, search and rescue, and service work (physical assistance, dog guides). Finally, performance dogs may engage in endurance events in which the physical activity lasts many hours. The most common endurance work for dogs is sled-pulling (e.g. Iditarod).

The success of performance dogs depends upon a combination of genetics, training, and nutrition. The genetic characteristics of the dog must match the activity. For instance, sighthounds are built to excel at the chase over a short distance in the open. They have a long, lean body build with long legs and very little body fat when they are at a healthy weight. The Mastiff, with its bulky muscular build, is suited, once in harness, for pulling a weighted sled over a distance. Physique alone does not guarantee success however; these dogs must have the drive to want to perform and compete, and this is mostly a function of their individual genetics. If a dog has the build and the drive, then its performance can be optimized by paying attention to its unique nutritional needs in conjunction with an appropriate training program. There are many resources available to assist in creating an effective training program for the activity in which the dog will be engaged. No matter the specific focus of training, several key principles hold:

  1. It is important to start training at the dog’s current fitness level and build capacity steadily.
  2. As intensity and duration of any type of training increase, the body and the tissues will adapt to accept the greater challenge.
  3. The nutritional goal for any effective training program is to provide an optimal nutrient profile to support overall health as well as performance.

The Importance of Hydration

The most important nutrient for performance dogs is often overlooked: water. Water is essential for all biological activities, and it helps tissues absorb concussive forces during physical activity. In order for your dog’s body to cool itself appropriately during increased activity, evaporation from the respiratory tract occurs which quickly drops the body’s water stores. This is why you must have water available at all times during training. Consuming small amounts of water frequently is better than allowing a dog to “tank up” with a large drink all at once. Filling the stomach with water, which is very heavy, and then returning to vigorous activity, may actually increase the risk of gastric volvulus and dilation (GDV), also called “bloat.” Signs of GDV include decreased activity, a distended abdomen, and non-productive vomiting. If you see these signs during training, or any other time, seek veterinary care immediately. GDV is a surgical emergency with a high mortality rate.

"The most important nutrient for performance dogs is often overlooked: water."

Identifying Nutritional Needs for Performance

In general, sprint athletes will tend to do better with a nutrient profile that favors carbohydrates and is lower in fat. This allows for the quick and easy conversion of food to energy. The overall energy density of this formulation may be a bit lower due to the lower fat content, but these dogs work in short, very intense bursts, and consequently do not need consistently high calorie intake. When choosing a formulation look for the following:

  • A dry matter carbohydrate concentration in the 40 – 50% range.
  • Fat composition in the low to mid-teens.
  • Dry matter protein concentration in the 22 – 28% range.
  • Calorie density ranging from 300 – 400 calories per cup as fed.

Intermediate activity athletes have highly variable nutritional needs. If the duration of their activities is relatively short - up to an hour or two - they will do well on a nutrient profile similar to the sprinters. For those whose activities last longer, a nutrient profile slightly higher in fat on a dry matter basis may be more appropriate, including:

  • A higher calorie density: 400 – 600 calories per cup as fed.
  • Fat concentrations in the 30 – 35% range.

Once we move into higher calorie density foods, portion feeding becomes critical in order to avoid unintentional weight gain.

Finally, true endurance canine athletes may actually need up to five or more times the calories of a dog at rest. It takes time to acclimate dogs to this high a fat profile, and this is not a nutrient profile that should be fed all the time, but rather during training and competing. On a dry matter basis, this nutritional profile achieves:

  • An energy density of 500 – 600 calories per cup as fed.
  • A dry matter fat concentration in the 25 – 35% range.
  • Carbohydrates in the low to mid 30% range.
  • Protein levels in the 30 – 35% range.

Working and performance dogs present unique challenges as we determine how best to feed them. Their nutritional requirements may vary widely. It is important to match the nutrient profile to the individual and the activity. When evaluating nutrient profiles it is critical to use dry matter data (data measured after all the water is removed from the food sample). This is the only way we can accurately compare one food with another, since the water content can vary so widely among different foods. Your veterinarian can assist you in making optimal nutritional choices for your canine athlete.

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