Skip to main content

Feeding Hunting Dogs a Proper Diet

How to evaluate a healthy weight and diet for your canine athlete.

Feeding Hunting Dogs a Proper Diet

Proper nutrition and feeding can make all the difference for your gun dog, both in the quality and length of its life. (Photo courtesy of Mark Chesnut)

It was my first visit to a new veterinarian with one of my field-bred Irish setters, and I wasn’t looking forward to the possible confrontation. However, I needed an expert to do hip X-Rays for OFA certification purposes, and this vet was widely touted to be the best in the area, so I bit the bullet and made the appointment.

Other vets I’d visited considered my dogs to be too “skinny.” What they didn’t know was that my dogs did, indeed, eat plenty of the very best dog food available, but the high level of exercise they got kept them a little on the thin side.

Imagine my delight when my new vet walked into the room, took one look at my dog and said, “It’s wonderful to see a dog in perfect physical condition that is doing what it was bred to do!” She then added, “I’d estimate that 90 percent of the dogs I see are overweight, either somewhat or grossly so.”

Disaster had been averted. But I left there that afternoon with an important takeaway: If 90 percent of the dogs my vet sees are overweight, there must be a lot of dog owners that aren’t properly meeting their canine companions’ nutritional needs. And if dog owners in general have such an information gap here, it’s likely that some GUN DOG readers could use additional specific information on properly feeding their hard-working dogs.

To that end, I turned to Dr. Kurt Venator, chief veterinary officer for Nestle Purina. Venator holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Cornell University, and a PhD in Zoology – Behavior & Physiology from the University of Texas at Austin. In his current position, Venator speaks across North America on the topics of small animal nutrition and veterinary medicine. He works closely with U.S. veterinary schools in order to create partnerships that foster nutrition education and professional development for the veterinarians of tomorrow.

Venator happily agreed to sit down and answer some questions that we thought might be helpful to gun dog owners regardless of the breed or breeds they take afield.

Canine Body Condition Score

According to Venator, research clearly shows that dogs that are maintained at a healthy weight enjoy a significantly longer, healthier life.

“While gaining a few pounds might not make a difference to a human body, adding a few pounds to your gun dog’s body can add stress to bones and organs, and ultimately exacerbate medical conditions,” Venator said. “Maintaining your dog at an ideal body condition can decrease the risk of a number of health problems, such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and reduced exercise endurance and stamina.”

Venator admits that while monitoring your dog’s weight regularly is a good idea, it’s not always that easy to do. And it’s also not easy to know what your pooch’s ideal weight is, as it varies from individual to individual.

“There is a lot of variation both within and between breeds,” he said. “So, bottom line: It is often not easy to determine what is optimal for your gun dog from a weight standpoint alone. That’s where dog body condition scoring can make things easier and more effective at determining you dog’s ideal weight.”

Venator said that scoring a dog’s body condition allows you to assess the amount of fat your dog is carrying and is fairly easy without scales. Fortunately, it works for all gun dog breeds, large or small, short-haired or long.

Using the Body Condition Scoring Chart (shown below), follow several simple steps. The chart uses a scale of 1 to 9, with a score between 4 and 5 considered ideal. Scores below four are considered underweight, and above five are overweight.

The Body Condition Scoring Chart is an excellent reference for keeping your dog healthy. (Photo courtesy of Purina Institute)

To assess body condition, Venator suggests a rib check, profile check, and overhead check.

“Get your dog comfortable and run both of your palms across their ribcage, one hand on either side. Simply note how it feels and compare it to the chart,” he said. “Next, view your standing dog from a side-on angle. It’s best if you are level with your pet so you get the most accurate view. Lastly, look down at your standing dog from an overhead angle.”

Venator said that after that assessment, consult the accompanying chart to see where your dog falls on that gradient.

“Sporting and working dogs perform their best when maintained in lean body condition (4 to 5 on a 9-point scale),” he said. “Regularly monitor body condition (e.g., ribs, waist, and tummy tuck) at home/in the field and adjust food amounts as needed to keep dogs from becoming too thin or too heavy.”

“The amount of calories provided may need to be adjusted seasonally—during the off-season, during training, and during frequent activity.”

Feeding a Premium Dog Food

“Nutrition, when matched to the type of work or sport, can help highly active working and sporting dogs successfully perform to their genetic potential and training,” Venator said. “Optimal levels of protein and fat help fuel metabolic needs and maintain lean muscle. A gun dog’s main energy source comes from fat, not carbs. In fact, dogs burn fat at almost two-times the rate of humans.”

Venator said that VO2 max, or peak oxygen uptake, is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen a dog’s body can utilize during exercise. The greater the dog’s VO2 max, the more effectively your gun dog’s body can use that oxygen to generate energy.

Venator's suggested food for hard-working gun dogs is Purina Pro Plan Sport Performance 30/20, which optimizes oxygen metabolism for increased endurance. Other major dog food producers also have 30/20 formulas in their selection.

“Protein is a key source of energy and is also important for growth and development,” Venator said. “A diet with 30 percent protein helps build and maintain lean muscle mass, including during the crucial time immediately after exercise. The concentrated nutrition of a 30/20 formula helps to optimize oxygen metabolism—VO2 max—for increased endurance.”

Venator said a successful training strategy is to train the muscles to be better at burning fat and save the limited stores of carbohydrates for intense exercise when they are essential for performance.

“Increased fat metabolism and high oxygen capacity help to increase metabolic capacity and generate energy,” he said. “Therefore, a gun dog’s diet should not only be complete and balanced, but for a more optimized performance, it should contain a highly digestible source of fat and protein to ‘metabolically condition’ its muscles and metabolism for exercise, as well as provide energy that is readily available for hard work.”

The Trouble with Dog Treats

Many dog owners love to give their dogs treats. But it’s important to realize that too many treats can lead to an overweight dog pretty quickly.

“Excessive treating can play a major role in your gun dog being overweight,” Venator said. “Gun dog owners should both feed and treat responsibly."

“Remember that treats should be no more than 10 percent of your dog’s daily caloric intake. And although you or other family members may be tempted, don’t share human food or table scraps with your dog.”

Venator also suggested using designated measuring cups for portions to know exactly how much food your dog is getting at each feeding and being careful to not exceed the targeted daily food amount for your dog as described on the food’s packaging.

Feeding in the Summer and Winter

Venator said the key during changing weather is to adjust the amount of food based on the season and the climate where you live. “During the winter months, a dog needs nearly 7 percent more calories for every 10 degrees the temperature drops below the mild temperatures of spring and fall,” he said. “Likewise, in the summer, a dog needs about 7 percent fewer calories for every 10-degree rise above spring and fall’s moderate temperatures.”

The cold weather of winter changes the nutritional needs of hard-working gun dogs. (Photo by: John Hafner)

Surprisingly, Venators answer here didn’t deal with food, but water—the other critical part of canine nutrition.

“Dehydration can reduce performance in exercising and hard-working dogs,” he said. “Hydration is important in exercising dogs for two reasons: Exercise is a heat-producing activity, and water is required to help dissipate heat and to remove the byproducts of energy metabolism.”

Venator said it’s important for gun dog owners to realize that all exercising dogs require more water than dogs at rest do. And since dogs lose water quickly during panting, which is how they cool themselves. Replenishing hydration in a timely manner is very important. “The amount of water required by an exercising dog will depend on a dog’s body weight, the ambient temperature and humidity, efficiency of evaporative water loss during panting, and exercise duration and intensity,” he added.

Another big mistake Venator sees concerning feeding dogs is people not recognizing that there’s a key difference between gun dog and human energy metabolism. No, they’re not just furry little people.

“A gun dog’s diet is the foundation that supports performance,” he said. “High carbohydrate diets increase stamina in human athletes by increasing muscle glycogen, but high carbohydrate diets have the reverse effect in dogs.”

Lastly, Venator said that some gun dog owners don’t understand when the best time is to feed their dog in relation to exercise. “It is not recommended to feed canine athletes and hard- working dogs before exercise,” he said. “In most cases, a dog should be fed 30 to 60 minutes after exercise or a minimum of 10 to 12 hours before exercise. Ideally, a dog should be fed the night before exercise the next morning, as complete digestion takes 20 to 24 hours.”

Properly Feeding Older Dogs

We all want to see our older dogs do well and continue to enjoy the sport they love well into their teens. Good nutrition is an important part of the equation in making that happen.

“Nutrition can play a powerful role to help maintain health and optimal body condition, address age-related health issues before they occur, reduce the risk of weight gain or obesity, and possibly add more quality and longevity to a dog’s life,” Venator said.

Venator said that age-related changes in a dog's body may be occurring before external signs or behaviors are seen. These changes may include less efficient use of glucose for energy, which can affect cognitive health; slower metabolism, which can lead to unnecessary weight gain; and less efficient protein metabolism, which can result in loss of muscle.

“A good time to discuss the benefits of senior diets is when a dog reaches about 7 years of age because targeted nutrition can proactively address some age-related changes,” he said.

He added that while there are no established nutrient profiles for the senior dog life stage, several nutritional interventions have been shown to be beneficial. Purina studies show dietary medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) sourced from enhanced botanical oils can provide an alternative energy source for brain cells that may help support cognitive function in dogs as they age. Also, increased levels of high-quality protein and reduced levels of fat and calories can help maintain optimal body condition and lean muscle mass.

He also said that Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, and glucosamine from natural sources, help support joint health and mobility, while Omega-3 fatty acids also may help reduce inflammation. Additionally, antioxidants (e.g., vitamins C and E) and probiotics help support a healthy immune system, while probiotics and pre- biotic fiber help promote healthy digestion.

Finally, correct portions of food are just as important with aging canines as with those in the prime of their lives.

“As with younger dogs, aging dogs should be fed to maintain ideal body condition and preserve lean body mass for optimal health and longevity,” Venator said.

Feeding in the Hunting Season vs. Off-Season

Venator said that as a general rule of thumb, canine athletes and hard-working dogs should be fed a high-fat, high-protein performance formula year-round to help maximize training and conditioning, rather than swapping foods during the off-season.

If a hunting dog starts the season too thin, it can be hard to help it maintain a healthy weight without a rest period. (Photo by: John Hafner)

“It’s not uncommon for dogs in training or hunting to have twice the caloric need as a pet dog,” he said. “Use the body condition score to determine feeding amounts. Also, increase or decrease during the season as needed.”

Venator added that it can be hard to keep weight on a dog if you’re working it really hard. So, it’s advantageous to start the season at a good weight—not thin—or it will be difficult to catch up without rest.

“If you’re working your gun dog really hard, you may need to increase portion size substantially,” he said. “The feeding guidelines on the bag are created as a general guideline. If you are working a dog hard, you need to feed according to his body score, not bag guidelines.”

To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account