To perform their best in the field and on the job, working and sporting dogs must maintain an ideal body condition and healthy weight. But what is an “ideal body condition” for a canine athlete? We’ll answer that question and explain how to quickly assess your dog’s body condition at home.
Less is more for canine athletes
An ideal body condition score (BCS) for performance dogs hasn’t been determined. However, the veterinary healthcare team at Penn Vet Working Dog Center recommends keeping your dog’s BCS between 4/9 and 5/9 on a 9-point scale to minimize injuries and to maintain optimal health and performance.
Canine sports medicine specialists, veterinary nutritionists and professional trainers agree that dogs perform better and live longer when they are kept lean, eat less food and weigh slightly less than is usually seen as “normal.” But what’s considered ideal body condition for a racing greyhound will be different than what’s right for a police K9 or a sled dog.
Research supports this approach to working and sporting dog nutrition.
In a study of racing greyhounds, dogs were on average 0.7 kilometers per hour (0.43 miles per hour) faster when they weighed 6 percent less and ate 15 percent less food than when they were fed free choice. The dogs had a BCS of 3.5/9 when they were fed slightly less food; when fed free choice, their BCS was 3.75/9.
In addition, a well-known lifetime study of Labrador retrievers found dogs fed 25 percent less food than their paired littermates lived an average of 1.8 years longer. The dogs that consumed more food were overweight, but not obese, with an average BCS of 6.7/9 compared with an average 4.6/9 BCS for food-restricted dogs.
A more recent study looked at the effects of extra body weight at middle age on the life spans of 50,787 pet dogs representing 12 popular breeds. Regardless of breed, overweight dogs had a greater risk of death and a shorter median life span than dogs of normal weight.
Assessing your dog’s body condition at home
Body condition scoring provides a convenient way to estimate your dog’s body fat and, in turn, can be used to determine how much food to feed your working or sporting dog.
Typically, dogs with an ideal BCS of 4/9 to 5/9 should have:
- An obvious waist behind the ribs when viewed from above
- A tuck in the abdomen when viewed from the side
- Ribs that are easily felt but not seen
You can determine your dog’s body condition by using the following approach:
- Evaluate the fat layer over the ribs. With your thumbs placed near your dog’s spine, run your hands along your dog’s sides. If you can feel the ribs using only slight pressure, but not see them, your dog is likely at an ideal condition. But if you need to apply pressure to feel the ribs, then your dog is likely overweight or obese.
- Look for an easily identifiable “waist.” When you look down from above, do you see an hourglass shape with a waist between the end of the rib cage and hip joints? Does your dog’s belly slope upward or tuck up from the ribs to the back legs when viewed from the side? If you aren’t seeing a waist and/or upward tuck, chances are your dog is overweight.
- Check for a flat back and/or “love handles.” Overweight and obese dogs may look like they have a wider-than-normal back, and fat deposits over the hips or tail head can be obvious. If you think you could use your dog’s back for a table, then your dog is most likely overweight.
You can also ask your veterinarian or a veterinary technician/nurse to show you how to perform body condition scoring.
Regular monitoring of your dog’s body condition is one of the most important things you can do to help keep your canine athlete in lean condition. Body condition scoring can tell you if your performance dog is getting too many or too few calories so you can adjust the amount of food he or she gets fed.
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