As a dog owner, one of the greatest responsibilities you have is choosing what food to put in front of your dog. There are lots of considerations — meals need to be nutritious, palatable, digestible and, importantly, affordable over the long-term.
High-energy breeds and very active dogs present a few more factors to consider. An active dog, such as a working dog or hunting dog, has different nutritional requirements to other dogs because he uses more energy. As with finely tuned athletes, the more running, jumping and expending of energy a dog does, the more fuel he needs to take in. The trick is finding the right type of food for your dog and feeding an amount appropriate to his activity level.
A breed thing
We know that some high-energy breeds are always on the go, but should that affect what we feed them? Not necessarily, says Dr Rachele Lowe from Sydney’s Mosman Vet. “Some of the typically high-energy breeds include Border Collies, Kelpies, Jack Russell Terriers, German short-haired pointers and Siberian Huskies. These dogs will only need a higher energy diet if they are exercising a lot,” says Dr Lowe.
“Most dogs in suburban situations that get once- or twice-daily walks will only require the average daily calorie requirement for their ideal weight, no matter what breed they are.”
How much is enough?
The biggest concern with active dogs is knowing how much to feed them. According to vet Dr Karen Hedberg, this is governed by a few important factors:
* Metabolism. The larger the animal, the lower the metabolic rate. This means he burns fewer calories in order to keep his body’s basic systems going — and the lower the metabolic rate, the less food a dog needs to maintain his weight.
* Activity level. The more active a dog is, the more food he needs. The type of activity is also taken into consideration. For example, heavy sledding work has very different requirements to obedience work.
* Temperature level. How hot or cold it is outside makes a difference. Active dogs in the cold have much higher caloric requirements.
* Age, pregnancy and lactation can add variables as well.
How can you tell if an active dog isn’t being fed enough? “The principal signs are weight loss and fatigue,” says Dr Hedberg. “In Australia, one must consider excessive heat, so electrolytes become important in the working dog as well, or any dog doing long hours in the heat.”
Feeding a dog too much, or feeding it a diet that is too laden with fat, can lead to health problems too, the most concerning of which is obesity — and it’s something that all dog owners need to stay on top of.
“The easiest way to determine if your pet is putting on weight is to look to use a scoring method,” says Dr Raj Gopal from Atwell-Aubin Grove Vet in WA. “Ideally we want him to be a three on the Body Condition Score (BCS). This means that, when we look at him from the side, he has an obvious waistline and little abdominal fat. It is important that owners can look at their dog and see visible ribs, spine and pelvic bone, but when you run your hands over your dog they should not easily be felt.”
An active dog needs a food source with carbohydrates, proteins and fats for energy, as well as a constant supply of fresh water. The ratio of each ingredient depends on the activity level of the dog. Finding the right food for your dog is fairly straightforward, with a number of vet-recommended pet food manufacturers producing meals for various activity levels.
Taking into account the energy requirements regarding the amount of work or activity being performed, the length of time and temperature, Dr Hedberg suggests owners of very active dogs feed a high-performance, high-energy food with added semi-lean mince.
The ratio tends to be generally three-quarters dry food to one-quarter fatty meat. “The higher the activity levels the higher the meat and fat requirements,” she says.
A diet that consists of purely dry dog food is also acceptable, adds Dr Lowe. “There is nothing to indicate that there is any problem giving 100 per cent dry food, as long as the food is good quality and balanced.”
Which food will you choose?
As with everything in the dog world, there are a lot of alternatives depending on personal preference, the health issues of your dog, its breed and activity level. There is not one single diet that works well for all dogs, whether they be active, sedentary or somewhere in the middle. It can involve a little bit of trial and error.
“When feeding a dog, regardless of its level of activity, one should always look at the dog and see how it is coping on its current diet,” says Dr Hedberg. “Is it maintaining a good weight or gaining or losing? The activity level and metabolic level of each dog should be assessed and then fed accordingly.
“My advice is always to feed according to need and the desired end body weight, and to always go by the dog in front of you.”
Should I make it myself?
The topic of home-cooked meals is divisive amongst vets and nutritionists. Most agree, though, that natural homemade meals can be a good option — if researched thoroughly.
“Home-cooked diets can provide enough energy for good performance, but the higher the requirements and the longer they are required, the more complete the diet has to be,” says Dr Hedberg.
In these situations owners need to take into account extra vitamins and minerals. “In other words, you need to know more about what your diet covers and does not cover,” she says.
Sillince monitors their weight and their food intake closely. “We do this by condition scoring,” Sillince says. “It’s easy to test their condition score weekly. Then we just add a little extra food to the wet food bowls, or cut back by about 5 to 10 per cent.
“By adjusting in small amounts often there are no big changes to their meals — no diets, no feasts and no major changes that might cause diarrhoea. Because they are so active, weight changes can happen really fast, so that’s the reason we monitor pretty closely.”