Nutrition for Working Dogs

Richard Hill, MA, VetMB, PhD, DACVIM, MRCVS
Waltham Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

What factors are important?

1) Type of Exercise: Endurance vs. sprinting – most working dogs are endurance athletes

2) Training: Slow increases in exercise and slow adjustment to new nutritional needs are best. Being a “weekend warrior” and suddenly increasing exercise and diet can result in
injuries and digestive upset.

What is unique about the exercising dog?

1) Dogs do not get heart attacks and do not need to worry about increased fat

2) Dogs burn fat twice as fast as people do

3) All dogs’ muscle fibers burn fat whereas some muscle fibers in horses and people do not
4) Stamina improves when dogs are fed a high fat diet (50 percent energy). This is theopposite of people who need increased carbohydrate for stamina

Effect of diet on stamina in Beagles on a treadmill (Downey et al. 1989)

Dietary Protein
(Percent Energy)
Dietary Fat
(Percent Energy)
Time (Minutes) to
Distance (Miles)
20% 30% 100 15
20-40% 50-70% 140 20

5) Dogs sprint faster when fed increased fat
6) Dogs “tie up” less when fed high fat diets

How much protein?
7) Dogs require at least 30 percent energy as protein for endurance exercise to prevent anemia
8. Dogs do not require more than 24 percent energy as protein for sprint exercise

Types of pet foods:

9) Dry foods are formed by an extruder and are mostly low fat (~25 percent energy as fat) because the extruder requires a low fat mixture. These are fine for dogs which are couchpotatoes but do not contain enough fat for working dogs undertaking endurance exercise.

More expensive dry diets have fat sprayed on after extrusion and tend to contain more fat(40 percent energy as fat). They are packaged in special grease proof bags and are greasyto the touch. These should provide the staple diet for a working dog. It is enough on its own if the dog is not working. It is not necessary to feed diets designed for large breed dogs.

10) Canned foods contain 75 percent moisture and are more expensive but usually contain more fat and protein. The analysis on the bag cannot be compared with that on a dry food because the amount of water is greater in canned food. For a rough comparison, multiply the analysis on the canned food by four to compare with that of a dry diet.

Working dogs which are normally fed dry food should be supplemented with canned food when they are working. Foods designed for growing dogs mostly contain increased protein and fat.

11) Soft-moist and soft-dry (e.g. Kibbles and Bits) are intermediate but mostly low fat and
are not suitable for working dogs
Note that high fat is here defined as > 40 percent energy which is equivalent on the label to
> 5 percent fat for a canned diet, > 13 percent fat in a semi-moist diet and > 18 percent fat
in a dry diet. High protein is defined as > 30 percent energy which is equivalent on the
label to > 9 percent in a high fat canned diet of > 33 percent in a high fat dry diet.

Differences between pet foods
Differences between pet foods are often small. Foods with difference names do not necessarily
differ in composition. Some terms such as “premium” and “super-premium” have no definition
and do not guarantee better performance. The major differences are:

12) Dry vs. canned: Canned usually contain more fat and protein than dry diets.
13) Generic vs. proprietary: Generic diets are usually made with poorer quality ingredients
and are not necessarily tested on animals. Proprietary (popular & premium) brands made
by national manufacturers are made with better ingredients and are usually tested on
animals. “Generic” diets are inexpensive private label of a local or regional
manufacturer. Pet food is well regulated but there is no policing of label claims within
the state of Florida. It is therefore better to use a food which is sold nationally.
14) Life stage and therapeutic diets: These sometimes have different compositions and
should be used only with a veterinary recommendation.

Supplements and treats
15) Unbalance balanced diets. Do not feed supplements. Treats should comprise < 10
percent of the diet
a. Too much meat can result in thin bones and fractures
b. Too much liver can cause stiff neck and joints
c. Too much calcium can cause joint problems
16) Some treats and supplements may be beneficial
a. Chews: may be beneficial for dental hygiene
b. Antioxidants may be beneficial especially in dogs which are not properly trained
or are eating a lot of extra fat. Some manufacturers are including increased
antioxidants. If feeding a diet without increased antioxidants, 10-15 IU/kg
vitamin E (as alphatocopheryl acetate) may be given daily of 100 IU/kg every
week by mouth. Vitamin C may also be beneficial but the dose is less clear. It is
probably best to give vitamin C immediately before exercise as it does not last
long in the blood and 100-200 mg may be sufficient for the average medium to
large sized dog.
c. Glucosamine or green lipped mussel powder may help dogs with arthritis but
should only be used in consultation with your veterinarian

d. Fish oil may reduce inflammation of the feet in dogs working in snow. Somediets already contain fish oil and should not be supplemented.

Human food
17) Not complete and balanced so must have supplements such as vitamins and minerals
added if more than ten percent of the diet. This is not recommended unless diet has been
formulated to be balanced by a professional with nutritional experience.
18) Uncooked meat represents a likely source of infection especially in young, pregnant,
infirm animals or stressed animals such as working dogs.
19) Bones, especially spiky bones such as the vertebrae found in chicken necks can get
lodged in the esophagus. Too many bones can also cause constipation.
Neutraceuticals and herbs
Quality, consistency, absorption, potency and efficacy are uncertain. Toxicity and therapeutic
index have not been established. Some may prove beneficial in the future but are not currently

How much to feed?
Adjust food intake to maintain optimum body weight and condition. Do not feed too much. The
slim-line model is best. Ribs should be felt but not seen. There should be a waist visible from
the side and from above. The recommendation on the back of the packet can provide a guide but
there is much individual variation. There is some evidence that lean dogs perform better than
heavier ones. Lean dogs also live longer and have fewer joint problems.
Weigh your dog every two weeks and keep a record. Always use the same scale and do it before
a meal but after urinating and defecating at the same time each day and not after exercise.
Sudden changes in body weight are an indication of dehydration. Slow changes will give some
indication of whether you are feeding too little or too much. Also keep a record of body
condition score. Take a photo for comparison so you can see how things change over time.
Your dog should have a body condition score of 5 on the 9 point Purina scale.
A working dog such as a Collie working sheep needs almost twice as much food as a couch
potato pet dog. A racing sled dog has the most extreme work out and may need twice as much
again. When starting training, add 1⁄2 16 oz can for each 8 oz cup of dry food normally fed. Over
three days, reduce dry by half and double canned food. Then increase canned food as necessary
to maintain weight, body condition and stamina.

When and how often to feed?
There is little data on this subject. The custom of racing sled dogs is probably the best one to
follow: dogs race for 4-6 hours then take a rest for 2-4 hours during which a high fat and protein
snack is fed. Dogs then race for an additional 4-6 hours before eating a full meal. Exercise
markedly affects stomach and intestinal function. It is wise, therefore, not to exercise until 2-4
hours after a large meal.

Dehydration must be avoided. Offer water continuously during exercise. Pet dogs on average
need 50 ml/kg per day (2-5 pints per day for a 45-100 lb working dog). Working dogs may need
4 or 5 times that amount (1-3 gallons/day). Adding three level tablespoons of table sugar to a
liter of water may help water absorption and will increase the recuperation of dogs at rest stops.

Salt and other electrolytes
There should be enough salt in the food. Salt may improve water absorption in dehydrated
animals. A recipe for oral electrolyte replacement solutions is provided below which can be used
if a dog becomes dehydrated but a recent study showed no benefit of such a solution over plain
water in working dogs. Giving sodium bicarbonate (a “shake”) before exercise also has been
shown not to be beneficial in dogs.

Oral rehydration recipe (level spoonfuls):
To one liter of drinking water add:
3 tablespoons of table sugar or 1 1⁄2 tablespoons of glucose
1⁄2 teaspoon of table salt
1⁄4 teaspoon of salt substute
1⁄2 teaspoon of baking soda
Use immediately.

Gastric Dilatation Volvulus: “Bloat”
20) Predisposing factors suggested by epidemiology (Glickman et al.):
a. Large size
b. Large depth to width ration for body conformation
c. Male gender
d. Being underweight
e. Eating only one meal per day
f. A faster rate of eating
g. Fearful or nervous temperament
h. An event perceived by the owner as “stressful” to their dog
21) Reduced risk:
a. Table scraps or canned food included with a dry dog food
b. Happy and easy going character
22) Recommendation:
a. Feed twice daily
b. Add some canned food to dry diet
c. Avoid stress associated with eating
d. Do not allow to be underweight
23) Feed a national brand pet food that says on the label that it has been tested using AAFCO
approved feeding and is complete and balanced.
24) Feed a high fat dry food for maintenance. Add a canned food during periods of work.
25) Feed enough to keep dog lean.
26) Do not feed supplements such as meat, bones, calcium or vitamins
27) Give 100 IU/kg vitamin E once a week by mouth. Give 100 mg vitamin C one hour
before exercise and repeat every 6-8 hours during exercise.
28) Keep treats to a minimum (<10 percent of the diet). Most of the diet should be pet food.
29) Give a dental chew once daily.
30) Make sure access to water at least every half hour during exercise.
31) Feed at least four hours before exercise and after exercise.
32) Rest dogs after 4-6 hours work: give sugar water and a high protein high fat snack.

Dog Owners and Breeders Symposium
July 28, 2001
University of Florida
College of Veterinary Medicine