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Going Pro: Carbohydrates Play a Role in Working Dog Nutrition, Too

Welcome back to “Going Pro,” our recurring column that’s dedicated to the nutrition, health and performance of working and sporting dogs.

Energy derived from fat, carbohydrates and protein fuels your dog’s performance, whether your dog is sprinting around an agility course, tracking a lost individual or searching cargo for explosives. But the canine body’s preferred energy source — dietary fat or carbohydrate — depends on the type of activity being performed. Yet even hard working dogs benefit from carbohydrates in their food. Read on to learn more about the role of carbohydrates in working dog nutrition.

Working dogs may or may not need more energy from their food

While some dog owners believe a high-protein, moderate- to high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet is ideal for all working and sporting dogs, that’s not always the case. Your dog’s signalment (e.g., breed, age, gender and reproductive status), the type of activities your dog performs and the characteristics of the food itself determine whether a particular energy-dense performance food is right for your working or sporting dog.

As we explained in this post and this one, working and sporting dogs’ nutritional requirements vary widely and are determined by the duration and intensity of activity performed. In turn, the type, duration and intensity of physical activity also influences what ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrate of the dog food will benefit your dog. Some hardworking dogs need a diet designed specifically for athletic canines. Others can be well-maintained on a high-quality adult maintenance dog food.

How carbohydrates contribute to performance dog diets

To appreciate how dietary carbohydrates add value to working and sporting dog nutrition and performance, you’ll find it helpful to know more about this nutrient category and its various roles in the body.

First and foremost, carbohydrates are used for energy, including energy for exercise, or “work.” While certain amino acids from protein can be converted to energy during exercise, fat and carbohydrates are the preferred energy sources for working dog muscles.

Fat, in the form of free fatty acids, is the preferred fuel for muscles when dogs perform low-intensity aerobic (requiring oxygen) exercise, which is the activity type associated with endurance activities like search-and-rescue missions, sled pulling and hunting. In fact, dogs get approximately 70 percent to 90 percent of their energy for endurance-type work from fat metabolism. Although only a small amount of energy is obtained from carbs, some glycogen metabolism is always necessary for ongoing free fatty acid metabolism during aerobic activities.

As exercise intensity increases, as it does during sprinting, working canine muscles shift to more anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism and draw on muscle and liver glycogen stores for energy. A dog’s body uses dietary carbohydrates to help maintain and replenish glycogen stores.

Although dogs don’t have a dietary requirement for carbohydrates, they do have a metabolic requirement for glucose. One of the simplest carbohydrates, glucose is the carbohydrate form that circulates in blood and is the primary carbohydrate used by the body’s cells for energy. In fact, a constant supply of glucose is necessary for the central nervous system to work properly.

Glucose is used during aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. What glucose isn’t used immediately for energy can be stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. It can also be converted to and stored as fat. When blood glucose levels are low, glycogen in the liver and muscle can be used to supply fuel to cells. And glycogen present in heart muscle provides a valuable emergency source of energy for the heart.

Carbohydrates supply carbon skeletons, or chains of carbon atoms, that are used as “backbones” of other compounds that the body needs, such as nonessential (dispensable) amino acids. Among the essential substances made from carbohydrates are:

  • Heparin, which keeps blood from clotting
  • Chondroitin sulfate, which is found in joint cartilage, bones, blood vessels and connective tissues
  • Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the main component of chromosomes in nearly all cells that’s responsible for carrying genetic information
  • Ribonucleic acid (RNA), the messenger that carries instructions from DNA for controlling protein production in cells
  • Immunopolysaccharides, carbohydrates capable of stimulating antibody production (e.g., blood group antigens)

Dietary carbohydrates have a protein-sparing effect. In other words, when adequate carbohydrates are provided through food, protein remains available to provide indispensable (essential) amino acids, repair and build tissues, and support a healthy immune system rather than being used for energy. Although dogs can use certain amino acids to produce energy, the process is less efficient than using dietary carbohydrates because the body needs to process and remove nitrogen waste after breaking down amino acids.

Complex carbohydrates contribute dietary fiber that supports healthy gastrointestinal tract functions. Dietary fiber isn’t considered an essential requirement for dogs but it does encourage growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon, helps promote regular bowel movements and regulates colon pH. Bacteria in the large intestine (colon) are able to break down certain types of fiber even if dogs don’t directly digest dietary fiber. Fiber fermentation produces short-chain fatty acids that are an important energy source for the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract.

Pet food ingredients that provide carbohydrates

The chief carbohydrate source found in most commercial pet foods is starch, the energy storage form used by plants. Ancient grains such as sorghum, barley, quinoa and millet, along with grains such as rice (brown and white), corn and wheat, are ingredients used in pet food to provide carbohydrates in the form of digestible starch.

These same ingredients also contribute indispensable amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins to pet foods.

What’s in your dog’s food bowl?

The next time you’re choosing a food for your working or sporting dog, you’ll want to carefully consider his or her energy needs. Dogs who regularly participate in endurance activities will benefit from a high-protein, moderate- to high-fat, low-carbohydrate food that provides more energy from fat sources. However, a balanced diet that provides moderate amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate may be a better option for service dogs and canine athletes who compete in sprinting and/or moderate-intensity activities lasting for 30 minutes or less at a time.

Of course, any time you have questions about your performance dog’s nutrition, talk with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can not only evaluate your dog’s body condition, but can determine how much energy (calories) your dog should be consuming daily.


RELATED POST: Debarking Pet Myths: Canine Athletes and Pet Dogs Can Eat the Same Dog Food

RELATED POST: Do Sporting and Working Dogs Need Different Nutrition?

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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