Dietary needs of our gun dogs are affected by several basic factors. Age and activity are the most significant common variables. Other less common variables include reproduction, active disease processes and temperature extremes.
As most people know, the main components of the diet include fat, protein, carbohydrates and micronutrients. Fats provide most of the energy component for the diet of dogs. The more active the dog the higher the need for fat in the diet. Less active senior dogs require lower fat amounts.
Carbohydrates provide a portion of the energy component. Different types of carbohydrate sources break down at different rates. Our young and very active dogs need faster rates of breakdown than slower senior dogs or dogs that need to be in a weight loss or weight control plan.
Protein is needed to growth, maintenance, and repair of muscle. Protein should be high quality from animal sources.
Dogs at peak maximum performance could handle foods with 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat. These would be the highest levels available in common commercial diets. Some diets for sled dogs may be even higher in fat due to their extreme activity and duration.
Typical diets with 22-26 percent protein and 12-16 percent fat would be great for most hunting dogs that are not running almost every day of the week. The numbers can be reduced even more for inactive and senior dogs.
How your dog responds to a particular diet is crucial. Some diets are not very digestible for certain dogs. Some diets may make claims for a certain percentage protein but the protein may be low quality and not available for use by the dog.
Any foods that you purchase should note that they follow the AAFCO guidelines. This is the Association of American Feed Control Officials. They have created guidelines for balanced pet foods. They are not involved in regulation or enforcement. Individual states take care that aspect of the industry.
AAFCO creates the nutritional standards that pet food companies should follow and most states' regulations follow these closely. Your brand of food should have the following statement: "Animal feeding tests substantiate that this diet provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of dogs."
The reason I bring this up is that I continue to hear stories from clients about a "great" new food that is just as good as a name brand food but half the cost, with supposedly the same ingredients, and it always comes from out of state, made by some company that hasn't been heard of before. I wonder if this food does meet the AAFCO guidelines.
There is no way to cheat the system too much. Quality ingredients cost money. Quality ingredients are typically more digestible. Low quality, cheap ingredients may not be. Usually you get what you pay for.
There are a few nutritional risks to hunting dogs. Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar is caused by the dog not having enough energy stores to keep its blood sugar in the normal range during intense exercise. Many of these dogs are on the lightweight to thin side, although not always.
Hypoglycemia can begin as weakness and progress to seizures if not treated. In the field simple sugars from syrups can be given but this is a temporary fix. Canned food would be better. A more complex, stick-to-your ribs meal of dry food does the best job of producing a consistent normal range blood sugar for the dog during exercise.
Feeding in the afternoon after a hunt or in the evening once a day should be the best case scenario. But some dogs can't work within this system and they have hypoglycemic events. These problem dogs need food several hours before a run and then every hour or two during the hunt to hold off hypoglycemic events.
Chronic weight loss during the season can happen to dogs that have the good fortune to hunt a lot but aren't concerned about eating well every day. Over several weeks they lose weight and then may need to be rested for a significant amount of time to recover their energy. Owners of these dogs need to do everything they can to encourage eating, but must be cautious of using too much fat as this can cause an upset GI tract and more problems.
Obesity is also a nutritional risk to many hunting dogs. Don't use the hunting season to get your dog to lose weight. Plan ahead and gradually get the dog in shape and down to its perfect weight before the season so heat stroke and painful joints and muscles are less likely.
For overweight and obese dogs the first and most valuable step is to see how much the dog is actually getting to eat per day and compare that to the guidelines on the bag. Many times the dog is being overfed.
The next step is to reduce calories and possibly increase exercise. I do feel most dogs can be brought into their ideal weight by limiting their intake, without drastic changes in activity. It takes willpower on the owner's part and that isn't always present.
Pregnant bitches should eat the highest quality puppy food you can afford during the second half of pregnancy and through lactation. This should not be a Large Breed puppy food, which has lower calories per volume. It won't provide enough energy to the female.
Puppies should also eat the high quality puppy food. Don't skimp. If you need to save money on dog food try to do that after the development is complete. For large breed dogs, puppies may continue growing until 14 to 18 months. These puppies should get a high quality Large Breed puppy food. This food, if balanced properly, has the correct amount of limited energy and Calcium to Phosphorus ratio.
These values help prevent developmental bone problems in rapidly growing large breed puppies. No supplements need to be given.
In the past and possibly now, mistakes have been made by trying to feed large breed puppies with adult food to slow their growth. This logic is incorrect today. Many commercial food companies have a great large breed puppy food that is perfectly balanced, and this should be utilized.
We ask a lot of our gun dogs, especially during training sessions and hunting season, and we owe it to them to provide the best possible nutrition we can.