Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
Canine “athletes,” like human athletes, can have different nutrient requirements compared to average family dogs. But do those different nutritional needs mean it’s necessary to feed a special high-performance diet? Or could your athletic dog eat an adult maintenance food?
The answer is “It depends on the dog and the activity.” Read on to learn more about the factors that influence your dog’s nutrient needs and to determine if you should be feeding your dog a food designed specifically for sporting and working dogs.
Many factors affect daily energy requirements
Dogs are an incredibly diverse species in terms of body weight and size (think Chihuahua versus Great Dane). So it’s no surprise that the daily energy requirement (DER) for dogs covers a wide range of calories. But while you might think that a dog’s size accounts for a large part of the difference in DER, it’s actually differences in activity levels among dogs that’s responsible. Other factors that contribute to differences in energy needs include:
- Life stage
- Neuter status
- Skin and coat insulation
- Environmental temperature
According to Justin Shmalberg, a board-certified specialist in veterinary nutrition, sports medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the DER for pet dogs with an average activity level can be approximated by this equation:
(90 to 110 kcal) x (body weight in kilograms)0.75 Calories (kcal) every 24 hours*
*1 Calorie = 1 kilocalorie (kcal) = 1,000 calories
But what’s considered an “average activity” level? Good question.
Exercise, or activity level, can be grouped into types
We’ve all known a canine couch potato, the indoor pet dog who gets little or no daily exercise. These are the dogs with low activity levels, and if they aren’t overweight, they’re in serious danger of becoming overweight or obese. Canine couch potatoes do not need a performance-oriented dog food. Instead, they would benefit from a high-quality adult maintenance food and controlled feeding. And if overweight, such dogs would benefit from a weight management formula — and a low-intensity walking program.
Then there are those dogs who are active or receive regular exercise. These active dogs may compete in performance events as varied as obedience trials, agility and field trials. They may be working dogs such as police and military dogs, search-and-rescue dogs or assistance dogs. Or they may not compete or work at all, but run with their owners, hunt with their human companion on occasion or play regular games of fetch in the backyard.
Functionally, exercise can be split into three types based on intensity and duration:
- Sprint — high-intensity activities that are sustained less than 2 minutes (e.g., greyhound racing)
- Intermediate — activities of low to moderate intensity and lasting a few minutes to a few hours
- Endurance — low-intensity activities that last many hours (e.g., sled-dog racing)
Most canine athletes participate in intermediate exercise activities. While most of these activities are low to moderate in intensity and last only a few hours, the intensity and duration can vary widely.
Activity requires a dog to burn more calories than rest, but the key question is “How much more?” Studies indicate that the increases in energy used by working dogs are directly related to the distance traveled during that work. When the effects of exercise duration are considered, some activities will require smaller increases in calories than others. That’s because many canine sports require a consistent amount of exercise from canine athletes.
According to Dr. Shmalberg, short bursts of explosive activity, such as that seen in flyball or agility, require only small increases in energy. However, endurance activities such as field trials, hunting and cart pulling, require more calories given the greater distance and duration of travel. The National Research Council energy recommendation for racing greyhounds is 140 x (body weight in kilograms)0.75 kcal/day, and this recommendation may also be appropriate for dogs routinely engaging in, or training for, lure coursing, flyball, dock jumping and agility, according to Dr. Shmalberg. In other words, a high-quality adult maintenance diet may be sufficient for dogs competing in intermediate activities. For dogs participating in more intense, longer-duration activities, a performance diet may be a more appropriate choice.
Pet food companies have helped eliminate some of the estimations and calculations
The addition of a food’s calorie content to the package helps dog owners and veterinary professionals determine how much food to feed an active dog if they choose to perform their own energy requirement calculations. Of course, the feeding guide found on the food package also makes it easy to determine how much food to feed.
But there’s one more thing you will want to do: monitor your dog’s body condition. Routinely evaluating your dog’s body condition and tracking his or her body condition score along with body weight can help you determine if your dog is getting too much or too little food. And in the case of canine athletes, while you may want to keep them lean, they still need energy to perform and to recover from exercise. If your lean athletic dog is losing weight, you’ll want to talk with your veterinarian to rule out any potential underlying health concerns. If your dog is given a clean bill of health, then it may be time to consider a dog food formula specifically for sporting and working dogs such as Diamond Pro89 Beef, Pork & Ancient Grains Formula for Adult Dogs, Diamond Performance, Diamond Hi-Energy or Diamond Premium Adult.
So, can canine athletes and pet dogs eat the same dog food? Yes, they can. But it depends on a number of factors, including exercise intensity and duration.
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