Dietary Fuelling of Performance Dogs (Booklet Preview)
Canine athletes need to be in top-notch shape in order to compete well during events. This means that they also need to be in fine form before performances because these animals are exercised quite heavily during practices prior to the events themselves. Energy expenditure is higher than the average dog, and maintaining that kind of energy can come with a price. Feeding the canine athlete should be done with an understanding of how certain nutrients can benefit both performance and the health of the dog. Although show dogs may or may not also be athletes, they, too, must be in solid physical shape before being able to impress judges. Structure, energy level, and alertness are considerations. Some show dogs are under more stress than others. While one dog might take travel and other dogs in stride, another may become more anxious and stressed. Their energy expenditure may not be on the same level as that of a canine athlete, but these dogs are working in their own right and deserve special attention to their diets.
Positive results are dependent on a number of factors, not the least of which is energy requirement. This translates to calories. We can provide calories by feeding a higher fat diet, and many dog owners prefer this method. However, consider the fact that although dietary fat provides about double the calories of protein or carbohydrate per gram, it does not help the dog to feel particularly full. Yes, the dog may indeed be able to run hard and fast, but how focused would you be if you were feeling hunger while participating in a sports event?
For example, you might ingest your required calories per day by consuming three chocolate bars, but chances are that you would feel true hunger as the day wore on. I would suggest that a lack of focus due to hunger is what lies behind some of the sports injuries we see. In fact, some of the dogs I’ve worked with seemed accident-prone until their diets were changed to provide more volume of food rather than more calories alone.
Volume of food should involve a thoughtful plan. That is, we want to keep the dog slim, and the stomach empty enough so as not to cause discomfort or worse. We also want the dog to feel satisfied enough to focus on the job at hand. Some dogs turn off food when they’re working hard or are under stress while others seem to want and need more volume of food than ever. Let your observations become a guidepost. The dog that needs calories but can’t handle a large volume of food may be a good candidate for a higher fat diet. The one that seems distracted or shaky on the course may very well need a higher volume of food.
A side note about dietary fat: The causes of pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas) are debatable. Dietary fat alone may not be the culprit, but it can certainly take a dog that is prone to this disease over the edge. Be careful when adding fat to the diet. Consider genetics (certain breeds are predisposed to pancreatitis), medications that can cause a problem (prednisone is one of them), and the general health of the gastrointestinal tract.
What Kind of Fat?
Unlike people, dogs don’t seem to have a list of “bad fats” or “good fats.” Both omega 6 and omega 3 are required. Many diets derive their omega 6 fatty acids from plant-based oils, and most are pro-inflammatory. This sounds bad to some people, but keep in mind that a moderate amount of inflammation is a natural response to injury and an important part of general health and the immune system. We certainly don’t want to ignore omega 6 fatty acids (they’re called essential fatty acids for a reason, after all) and we can choose non-inflammatory versions. Primrose oil and borage oil are examples of this. Most canine diets rely on animal fat and/or plant-based oils to provide needed fat. Popular choices include safflower, canola and sunflower oils. Olive oil can also be a consideration. Omega 6 fatty acids help red blood cells carry oxygen.
Omega 3 fatty acids are non-inflammatory. In fact, they help to reduce inflammation and hasten post-exercise recovery. The best source of omega 3 fatty acids is fish body oil. Do not confuse this with fish liver oil (e.g., cod liver oil.) The latter provides large amounts of vitamins A and D, and should be used only as required to produce a balanced diet. Of the fish body oils available, I’m partial to wild salmon oil.
Unlike other forms of salmon oil, this product is derived from fish caught in the wild. Farmed fish contain high levels of heavy metals and/or PCBs. If the label doesn’t state “wild,” the oil has been expressed from farmed fish. Give consideration to the vitamin content of any fish oil. Even wild salmon oil contains some vitamin D, and different brands can have varying amounts. Know what you’re feeding. Although the label may not state vitamin D content, ask the supplier how much is in their oil. Move on if they can’t answer the question because all fish oils contain some.
Flaxseed oil provides omega 3 fatty acids, but the body needs to convert the original omega 6 found in it before arriving at omega 3. People do this most efficiently; dogs are not quite as good at it. Use flaxseed oil if your dog is intolerant of wild salmon oil; otherwise, I find that wild salmon oil can’t be beat.
Coconut oil has been touted to cure just about everything from poor hair coat to gastrointestinal issues, but it is not the miracle worker some articles would have you believe. In the case of working dogs, it does have some merit because it contains shorter chain fatty acids which are absorbed into the blood faster. The reason for this and how it may benefit dogs performing certain types of work will be explained below.
Where Does Muscle Energy Come From?
My work involves formulating diets for many performance dogs, and the question of what the best diet might be comes up often. The answer depends on what the dog is expected to do, when s/he is required to do it, and the duration of the activity. In working with owners of these dogs, I ask that they keep a log so that I can review it and see how improvements might be made. To address the question of energy, you need to understand both metabolism and the actions of certain nutrients, so let’s get to it. What I am about to tell you should be considered in conjunction with feeding a properly balanced diet. Acting on the information below without also feeding a diet that provides all the protein, fat, vitamins and minerals in the amounts your dog needs is like shooting without aiming.
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