As we demand more of our dogs during hunting season, their nutritional needs increase, too.
Coming into colder weather and faced with the hard work of hunting season, I feel it is a good time to discuss how energy requirements affect feeding to maintain good health, proper body condition and endurance for a productive hunting dog.
Our gun dogs' nutritional needs vary from day to day, in contrast to house pets, whose lifestyle and environment remain pretty constant. Hunting dogs are subject to continual changes in weather and activity.
These variables can have a profound effect on your dog's nutritional needs. Beyond size and each individual's metabolic rate, exercise, environmental temperature and stress are key factors.
Where to begin?
It's good practice to keep your dog trim throughout the seasons. When viewed from above, a properly fed and conditioned gun dog will exhibit an "hourglass" figure, and from the side we should see some tuck-up in the flank area. Seeing this body condition along with a clean, shiny coat, clear eyes and a generally healthy appearance is our best indication of proper feeding and health care.
For a quick rib check, stand over the dog, place your thumbs together in the middle of its back and extend your fingers down over the ribs. You should easily feel the backbone and ribs as you slide your hands down the dog's back.
My goal for the remainder of this article is to point out some of the variables affecting your dog's caloric requirement, so you have an idea of how and when to adjust your dog's food intake to provide for optimal performance, health and comfort.
Regardless of breed, all dogs need nutritional adjustments based on varying activity levels and seasonal changes.
Digestible calories supplied in your dog's food can be thought of as fuel, the source of energy to support exercise. As activity increases or decreases, food/caloric intake should correspondingly increase or decrease.
Studies at Nestle Purina PetCare show that an average 50-pound dog at rest during the summer requires around 1,450 digestible calories per day, while that same dog during moderate work or training will require 1,800. During hard work, like hunting, he might require as much as 2,160 calories per day.
So we see, with increased activity from rest to hunting, our dog's caloric needs can grow by nearly 50 percent. In other words, if we're feeding that 50-pound dog a premium food delivering 1,800 digestible calories per pound, or around 460 calories per cup, we go from around three cups to more than 4.5 cups a day.
Feeding to support the hard work of hunting is only the beginning. The cold, wet conditions prevalent in many parts of the country during hunting season create additional demands on your dog's daily diet.
Further studies from Purina show that dogs require about 7.5 percent more calories for each 10-degree drop in temperature. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? This means a dog living outdoors during the winter could easily use 45 to 50 percent more calories just to stay warm.
For example, an area with an average summer temperature of 80 degrees and average winter readings in the 20s gives us a 60-degree drop and a 45 percent increase in caloric needs.
The combined effects of winter temperatures and the hard work of hunting could result in our dogs' caloric and nutritional requirements nearly doubling, potentially bringing our cups per day to almost six using the same product delivering 460 calories per cup. This is where we begin to understand the need for "super premium" products delivering in the range of 535 calories per cup.
Yet another contributor to caloric needs is mental stress. Here, we think of the pressures that we place on our dog and that it brings on itself during training, traveling and hunting.In a gun dog's life, things are constantly changing. They're hauled to and from hunting areas, and they often overnight in strange kennels adjacent to dogs they're unfamiliar with. In these situations, some dogs simply don't get enough rest while traveling, and as the days go by there is accumulated stress.
I'm not aware of any means of calculating specific increased nutritional needs based on stress, but be assured there is an effect.
Your dog's daily caloric/energy needs can increase upwards of an additional 80 or 90 percent as the year progresses. So my point is not that we should measure dog food by the chunk, but that we understand our dogs' needs change and that we're aware of those required adjustments in hopes of keeping our dog fit throughout the yearly cycle.
Using these examples, we can easily see how moving up to a more nutrient-dense or super-premium dog food can really benefit us, where we not only have the obvious advantage of higher caloric content, requiring less food volume per serving, but our dogs benefit in endurance and lean muscle mass, plus faster recovery after work.
This helps explain why Nestlé Purina PetCare and other companies now provide super-premium products for hard-working dogs in the range of 2,000 calories of metabolizable energy per pound.
You know whose products I recommend, but most importantly, you should seek out a reputable company that bases their formulations for active dogs on live animal feeding studies. I also recommend you choose a premium or super-premium product designed specifically for active dogs, providing 1,800 to 2,200 calories per pound in a complete and balanced formula, along with all the other key elements that support health and endurance.
I'll close with the following suggestions:
€¢ If you're considering changing brands of dog food to better fit these guidelines, the feeding directions on the bag will get you in the ballpark. Then it's up to you to adjust t
o your individual dog's needs. You should see changes in your dog's coat in as soon as two to three weeks, but be aware the total biophysical conversion can take around six weeks.
€¢ The current recommendation is feeding our working dogs once a day in the afternoon or evening, particularly before a day of hunting or contesting. This allows time for complete digestion and emptying so our dogs aren't faced with discomfort or the added burden of a loaded stomach and lower tract. I know this thinking goes against intuition, but trust me: Your dog should feel and perform noticeably better. Studies show that a dog fed this way, working with an empty colon, has up to twice the endurance.
€¢ After activity, give your dogs enough time to rest, calm down and cool off. They're less likely to gulp food or water, thereby avoiding discomfort, digestive upset and the chance of a distended or twisted stomach.
€¢ If a dog's diet is changed, it should be done gradually--over a period of several days--by mixing the old food with the new. Vomiting, diarrhea and other stomach issues can occur when an abrupt change is made.
€¢ Normal adult dogs usually consume all the food they require each day within a 20-minute period. Uneaten portions can be removed after 20 minutes.
€¢ Pregnant or lactating bitches, growing puppies and hard-working dogs may require two or even three daily feedings in order to obtain the nutrients needed to maintain normal body condition and stamina.
€¢ Recent findings show the roly-poly puppy isn't the picture of health as once thought. An overweight puppy has a greatly increased chance of health problems throughout life, including various joint problems.