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Nutritional Requirements for Gun Dogs

Nutritional Requirements for Gun Dogs
Arterra Media Photo

Would you like to start a contentious name-calling fight on social media without even trying? All you really need to do is state your opinion about what kind of food to feed your gun dog.

As Dr. Kurt Venator, chief veterinary officer for Purina, put it, “Pet food has almost become akin to religion and politics in some ways—and there’s massive misinformation out there.”

Venator, who is also a practicing veterinarian with a Ph.D. in Zoology–Behavior and Physiology, was happy to share information with GUN DOG readers concerning myths and misconceptions about dog food and nutrition. He believes that often, bird dog owners tend to focus too much on the wrong thing when choosing a food.

“People want to focus on ingredients, and look at the ingredient deck on a bag of food,” Venator said. “Ingredients are important, but more important than ingredients are what we call the nutrients. So corn or corn-gluten meal, those types of things as ingredients can actually provide a lot of different nutrients. When people think corn or corn-gluten meal, they only think carbohydrates. They don’t realize that corn provides other nutrients as well.”

Venator said that it is important for gun dog owners to recognize that ingredients are selected for a pet food based on decades of science, and on an overall recipe.

“When we think of that recipe, we’re looking at things like nutrient content, palatability, and an important one that a lot of people don’t consider—digestibility,” Venator said. “Once the pet eats it, how much are they getting out of what’s gone through their stomach and intestinal tract?

“You have to really look at what the overall formulation is, what type of science the company is doing, what type of studies do they have.”

A Dog Owner’s Dilemma

Dr. Jill Cline is the site director for Eukanuba and Royal Canin’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center. Cline, who has more than 20 years in the pet food industry and is responsible for the North American arm of research for Royal Canin, believes many hunting dog owners don’t fully understand their dog’s nutritional requirements.

“If you compare working dogs to pet dogs, I think the main thing that is overlooked or often misunderstood is the number of calories that working dogs truly need,” Cline said. “Sometimes that is wildly overcalculated. That’s especially the case with people who have duck hunting dogs and who only hunt on the weekend with their Labrador retriever, which has a lower metabolism than some of the field-bred setters and flushing dogs.”

Overestimating how many calories a working dog needs often leads to overfeeding. And overfeeding results in a dog that is too heavy and unable to perform up to the level it should.

“If you look at some of the data that’s out there, it shows that some dogs that do sprint-type activities—for example, agility dogs or dogs doing just one retrieve at a time, when the activity lasts less than a few minutes at a time—the total number of calories that dog needs to do that activity is typically not more than the average pet dog,” she said. “Whereas when you have dogs that are doing activities that last two hours or so, or up to four hours, they generally have a higher calorie requirement than a pet dog. And it keeps adding up. If you have a dog that is working more than four hours a day, that dog has higher calorie needs.”

In fact, giving a dog more calories than it requires for the amount of work it does is detrimental for much more than just peak performance in the field. That’s where the concept of “ideal body condition” comes into play.

Venator points to a critical 14-year study back in 2002, in which 48 paired littermates were fed different diet amounts for their entire lives. One dog in each pair was fed 25-percent less food than its pair-mate from eight weeks of age until death.

“They actually found that the dogs fed to ideal body condition lived almost two years longer,” he said. “Think about that. If you could have your Lab live to 14 instead of 12, what a difference that would be. They also found that they lived a better life because there was a later onset of certain diseases, not only osteoarthritis, but also other chronic conditions as well.”

Ideal Body Condition

Venator said the really cool thing about the study, which was conducted by Purina, is that it resulted in a complete change in recommendations on how to feed dogs.

“Based on this study, we realized that ideal body condition from a scientific standpoint was actually less than what we thought it was,” he said. “So, we actually changed all the feeding recommendations across all of our dog foods to actually feed less, and not more, based on age and the type of food we are feeding.”

Brittany spaniel and hunter in field
Arterra Media Photo

In fact, according to Cline, if there’s one key to determining what food to feed your bird dog and how much to feed it, that key is ideal body condition.

“Research has correlated the way a dog feels when you run your hand over its ribs, along with what it’s profile should look like from above and from the side, with the percent body fat it has, Cline said. “That scoring system is a subjective measurement that is highly correlated with the percent body fat that a dog carries. Dogs that are in what I would consider appropriate body condition for sporting activities are between four and five on that nine-point scale.”

Cline said it isn’t difficult to do the assessment yourself, and it is wise to do so regularly. An appropriate body condition score is one of the most important factors in deciding how much food to feed. The information you gain can then be used to adjust the amount or kind of food you feed your bird dog.

“If you keep a log of all of the different training you are doing with your dog, I suggest you do your own body condition score for your dog once a month using this assessment tool,” Cline said.

“Run your hands along their ribs from their front legs to the end of their ribs. If it feels ‘ribby’ like the back of your knuckles when you make a fist, that’s a dog that needs more calories. If your dog instead feels like the palm of your hand, then that is a dog that has too much cover, and that will affect its ability to hunt well.

As many working dog owners have found, the amount of food a dog needs to maintain ideal body condition can vary depending on the time of year.

“If you’re gearing up for the season, you may start feeding them differently,” Venator said. “Then, during the season you need to make sure you provide them with all the energy they need. When the season’s done and they’re just hanging out around the house, you probably will want to switch your food to something else, or at least change the amount of food you are feeding each day.”

More Misconceptions

Cline said another misconception is that sometimes hunting dog owners think the protein-to-fat ratio is indicative of the energy content of a particular food.

“In fact, for protein levels, the actual number can vary greatly, and that number might not be indicative of how much protein is actually staying in the body of the dog,” she said. “You can buy a diet that is, say, 30-percent protein and 16-percent fat, but if the ingredients used to make that diet aren’t very digestible, or they’re overcooked because the plant doesn’t have the right recipe, then what happens is the diet becomes less digestible.

“What that means then is when you are trying to pick the right diet for your sporting dog, you need to look at more than just the protein and fat ratios. You need to look at the overall reputation of the manufacturer and how they develop their diets.”

Another common misconception, according to Venator, is that grain allergies are common in canines, leading many to push for grain-free diets. In fact, such allergies to grain are very uncommon.

“When you think about what makes dogs itch, there are three major things, and they really drop in terms of percentage,” he said. “The most common reason you have dogs itching across the country is what we call flea-bite dermatitis. The number-two reason dogs itch all the time is seasonal or environmental allergies. The technical word for that is atopy.”

Venator said the third category, which has drawn more focus over the past 10 years than it probably should have, is food allergies.

“In reality, if you look at the true percentage of dogs that are food allergic, depending on the study that you look at, it’s only about five percent of dogs that are truly allergic to food,” he said. “And the interesting thing, only about one percent of dogs are actually sensitive to grains. But if you look at what’s on digital and social media, you’d think it is much, much higher.”

Another misconception, according to Cline, concerns the amount of fat needed in a hunting dog’s diet.

“Dogs are different than people and cats,” she said. “Dogs are preferentially fat-metabolizers, whereas people are preferentially carbohydrate-metabolizers. What that means is the fat content of the diet is the driver on the amount of calories provided in the diet, particularly for working dogs, so high-fat diets mean higher-calorie diets for dogs that have jobs.”

Cline said that, in general, fat is highly digestible. So when you have a dog that is doing long-term activity, that’s the dog that needs higher-fat diets, not dogs doing sprint-type activities.

“Dogs only working for 90 seconds at a time don’t particularly need a 20-percent fat diet if that’s all they do,” she said. “But the dogs that are working two, three, five, seven hours a day need a lot more calories. And those calories come from fat, because that’s the most efficient way to provide calories for animals that are working very hard.”

Wrapping It Up

I went into this project excited to speak with two of the world’s foremost experts on pet foods. As it turned out, they are also two of the most pleasant people I’ve had the pleasure to interview. Unfortunately, I came away disappointed—not because I didn’t learn a lot, but because there’s not enough space to share all I learned with GUN DOG readers.

If I had one major takeaway from my conversations with Cline and Venator—and I think they’d agree with this assessment—it is to buy a top-quality dog food from a company with a good reputation for research and development. Secondarily, check your dog’s body condition regularly to determine how much to feed it to keep it in tip-top shape.

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