Diets For Active Dogs

May 3rd, 2008

Tireless labourers and fine-tuned athletes, working dogs have high activity levels that require a different diet to the average pet dog. Caroline Zambrano discovers the importance of a quality diet for your active dog.

Working dogs have a higher energy level that requires a quality diet to keep them going all day. Dogs Life caught up with visiting French veterinary nutritionist Dr Geraldine Blanchard about diets suitable for active dogs.

Dogs working tireless hours with great speed and stamina require the right food and enough of it to supply all the necessary nutrients, said Blanchard, who has about 10 years experience in practical nutrition and has performed international research in canine nutrition.

A diplomat of the European College of Veterinary Comparative Nutrition (ECVCN), created in 1998 as a body of veterinarians specialising in nutrition, Blanchard is visiting the Centre for Companion Animal Health at the University of Queensland. She is setting up Australias first clinical nutrition counselling service for cats and dogs at the universitys Small Animal Clinic and Veterinary Teaching Hospital in St Lucia.

Based on the service she developed at a university in France in the past 10 years, the counselling service at the University of Queensland will also benefit overweight pets, Blanchard said.

Professor Jacquie Rand, director of the Centre for Companion Animal Health, told Dogs Life it was fantastic to have someone of Blanchards caliber visiting the centre and sharing her knowledge. The centre is committed to studies that improve the health and welfare of companion animals and enrich human-animal relationships, Rand said. The centre is renowned internationally for its work in diabetes and obesity.

International pet-obesity crisis

Blanchard led a study published two years ago on more than 600 healthy dogs in the urban population of France. Results showed 39 per cent of dogs were overweight. In Australia, studies show nearly 50 per cent of dogs are obese.

Pet obesity is an issue all around the world, Blanchard said. This is the first reason why people contact a nutrition service. In France, the nutrition consultation service began at the National Veterinary School of Alfort about 20 years ago as a small operation, and expanded to provide daily nutritional support to hospitalised patients. Today, the service is available in the four veterinary teaching hospitals around the country.

Patients benefit greatly from nutrition advice available at the vet hospitals, Blanchard said. In consultations, we often see people referred by vets because the dogs have two diseases at the same time such as obesity and cardiac problems, kidney and skin problems, or any combination.

The reason for this is that commercial foods are mainly designed for one stage of life or one medical problem, not for two conditions occurring at same time, Blanchard explained.

Diet for active dogs

Visiting a pet nutritionist helps people to better understand how to feed and manage a diet suitable for their dog, whether it is active or not. An active dog working on a farm or running races excels to its full genetic potential with the support of a quality diet, Blanchard explained.

Working canines need the recommended increase in water and energy, she said. You must feed your active dog a high-quality diet one that is highly digestible, complete and balanced.

Highly digestible diet test

With so many diet options to choose from whether its a commercial or natural diet how do you know which are highly digestible? Blanchard has a simple but smelly test to do in your own backyard, although it is more suitable for dogs eating low-quality (as oppose to high-quality) commercial food.

Here’s the test: apart from high-fibre diets designed to treat overweight dogs, when a dog eats 100g of dry matter of food (dry food or canned food, but calculated on dry matter basis) that is highly digestible, the amount of stool does not exceed 40g.

With that in mind, weigh your dogs faeces collected from a 24-hour period and then calculate the amount of dry matter ingested daily from the amount of food ingested and its content of dry matter. So, for instance, if your working dogs entire stool weighs 50g per 100g of dry matter of food eaten, the diet is not highly digestible and needs modification. If the stool weighs 40g or below per 100g eaten, you have passed the test.

But this test does not give you any idea if its balanced or complete, Blanchard reminded Dogs Life.

A high-energy diet

When choosing a diet for an active dog, it has to be rich in energy (calories), which means high energy density, because exercising increases the energy requirements. The problem is, it is not easy to estimate how much you need to increase it by, Blanchard said.

For instance, if you compare a pet dog to a racing dog, like a Greyhound, the amount of energy needed for racing is increased by 5 per cent per race.  It’s not a question of breed, but a question of work, Blanchard said. These racing dog needs to receive 15-50 per cent more energy than a non-active dog.

If you consider a sled dog in Alaska, its energy requirement increases by 20-100 per cent at training or in 20-100km races, and up to 700 per cent for very long races, such as 100km per day, for 10 consecutive days.

With active dogs, you also have to look at the form in which it receives calories, she said. To provide more calories within a reasonable amount of food, she suggested decreasing carbohydrates and increasing lipids (fats), as one gram of lipids contains more than twice the energy of carbohydrates.

To meet the nutritional needs of your active dog, you may also need to increase the calcium and phosphorus levels in the diet, Blanchard said. You should consult your veterinarian or nutritionist about appropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus for your pet, she said. Too much and too little can both cause serious health problems. Only small increases of other nutrients, like protein, minerals and vitamins A and D, are required.

Lastly, she suggested dividing the daily amount of food into two to three meals or more, rather than one main meal per day.

Because every dog is different, each requires individual diet advice, Blanchard said. You must check with your vet first before making any changes to your dogs diet, she insisted, warning of more serious conditions that can occur due to poor nutrition.

Problems from poor diet

To maintain a healthy body, a dog needs a diet that is suited to its activity levels, but Blanchard said it is also important to understand that just because a breed is considered active, does not mean that an individual dog is. An activity is not defined by the breed; its defined by the intensity and duration of an effort, she explained.

For instance, guide dogs might be considered active, but they usually exercise very slowly and their requirements are not those of an active, exercising dog. Real active dogs are sporting (such as agility and hunting), working (such as sheepdog and police) and racing/sled dogs, all in training or competing.

Owners of truly active dogs may feed a diet that is not appropriate to their dogs way of life or work. A dog which is not active, but fed as an active dog, may be overfed and become overweight, Blanchard said. On the other hand, an active dog fed a diet designed for pet dogs may need to eat much more food than is appropriate to cover its energy requirements. This can lead to diarrhoea if the food is fully ingested or weight loss, in case its not.

Apart from this problem, the first nutritional risk in active dogs is acute gastric dilatation, which can happen if you feed your dog just before exercising. Blanchard said it is reasonable to feed your dog a minimum of three to four hours between the last meal, which will preferably be small, and the beginning of exercise.

Dehydration is a big issue

Another problem that active dogs can face is dehydration, Blanchard said. Your dog must drink enough water, especially in hot weather and when it eats dry food, she said. During long efforts, like a hunting day, water must be offered regularly. After exercise, water must be offered first.

Obesity is an issue for pets, but so is dysorexia for active dogs, which is low appetite that can result for a number of reasons.

An active dog can be overtrained, tired, stressed or dehydrated, and as a result may not want to eat any more or enough, Blanchard said. To provide enough water, a high energy density diet and sharing the daily amount in several small meals may help, as well as a slowdown in training when necessary.Stress can also cause the problem of acute diarrhoea in active dogs, such as those racing or sledding. This can be an issue because diarrhoea can lead to dehydration, Blanchard said. The dog will need water and electrolytes, the details of which has to be advised by a veterinarian, depending on the situation.


Electrolytes exist in the blood as acids, bases and salts (such as sodium, calcium, potassium, chlorine, magnesium and bicarbonate). It is important to maintain the bodys balance of them because they affect the amount of water in the body, blood pH, muscle action and other important processes that keep the body going.

When dogs sweat, they lose electrolytes, which must be replenished by drinking lots of fluids. This is especially important for dogs with diarrhoea or after a race, Blanchard said.

It is important to give your dog water after exercise, but not too much and it should be at room temperature. You can feed a small amount of food about 30 minutes to one hour later, she said.

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