A nutritionist’s guide to fuelling your canine athlete

May 28, 2020
border collie agility

Keeping our dogs healthy and happy is a dog owner’s most important job. And dogs, though they might eat anything they’re offered, have specific nutritional needs to keep them that way. Particularly if they’re participating in high-intensity dog sports as a canine athlete.

Recently, we spoke to Sacha Packer, Canine Nutritionist at The Balanced Canine to hear her thoughts on the benefits of moving towards a fresh food diet for canine athletes, and how you can get started. 

How is nutrition in canine athletes changing? 

Until recently, fuelling the canine athlete has involved feeding “performance” or “premium” dry foods which may have as little as 25% animal proteins. Handlers may then add several supplements, often in synthetic form, to try and give their dog a competitive edge. 

Today, a fresh food diet (the dog’s original diet) is returning to favour. As we humans start to improve our diets by reducing processed foods and increasing our consumption of fresh whole foods, we start to understand that this form of healthy feeding is also relevant to getting the best out of our canine athletes. 

What are the benefits of feeding real food to canine athletes? 

This is a very open-ended question. To keep it brief, it reduces inflammation in the body which helps dogs recover from activity better, keeps their soft tissue and joints healthier for improved performance, reduces the risk/incidence of diseases such as arthritis, organ disease and cancers, and provides highly bioavailable nutrients to power them more effectively. 

Feeding high-quality proteins and fats keeps dogs lean with good muscle tone and gives them the energy to perform at their best. Feeding unprocessed foods helps the digestive system function better, a healthier digestive system not only relates to physical health and wellbeing but also mental health & wellbeing. In the era where we see more and more highly strung and/or reactive performance dogs being bred sometimes with people mistaking it for “drive”, we need to be managing dog’s mental health much more than we currently are. 

Gut health is a vital component of mental health and given dry food fed dogs have less diversity of gut flora; this is one very good reason to start reducing or eliminating this type of diet from our canine athletes especially from breeding dogs who pass on their gut flora (dams) to their offspring and their genetics that have been turned on or off by their nutrition. 

So, where should your average handler start? 

As a canine nutritionist, I understand that creating new habits should occur in small manageable chunks. If we ask a handler to do a complete switch to a 100% healthy whole foods diet, this can be very overwhelming and therefore fall to the wayside. Instead, I ask clients to start with removing around 20% of their dog’s dry food and replacing it with fresh whole foods. This is a fantastic start and has many health benefits as confirmed by a 2005 study by Purdue University when studying bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers. 

What types of food could you add to dry food diets? 

The type of foods handlers can add to their dogs dry food diets can include (but is not limited to): 

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy: natural yoghurt, raw goats milk
  • Bone broth
  • Cooked or blitzed/finely chopped plant matter 
  • Fermented vegetables & kefir (supermarket/health food store), 
  • Edible bones such as chicken frames, brisket etc., 
  • Human dinner leftovers that don’t include onion, sauces or excess fat. 

Healthy fats help fuel canine athletes, and these include many foods handlers may not have considered before or even thought were dangerous that include avocado flesh, soaked and smooshed nuts (not Macadamia or Walnut), coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, soaked chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, full-fat natural yoghurt, ground seeds such as pumpkin and sesame. 

These examples are only to be included in small amounts in your dog’s diet – your dog’s stools will tell you if you added too much. In this way, it’s a common-sense approach, and there are no specific rules. 

Should I feed my dog supplements?

Before handlers give a supplement, they should ask themselves why they’re giving it, and whether it can instead come from real food. 

Supplements are often in a synthetic form which the body isn’t guaranteed to recognise or use in the same way real vitamins and minerals are because nature works in synergy, not isolated components which supplements often are – we have enough studies now to show this is the case. The vitamin and mineral mix in dry foods is mostly if not completely synthetic. 

What about probiotics for dogs?

I would recommend that all dogs are on a probiotic. It doesn’t matter which one, but I do recommend that at the end of each pack that you rotate to another brand. This way, your dog gets opportunities to experience different strains in differing amounts. I would also recommend that dogs have access at every meal if possible to foods that are good for gut health. Ideally one of the following, ideally on rotation with other ones (variety is the spice of life, literally): 

  • Kefir
  • Natural yoghurt
  • Raw goats milk,
  • Fermented veggies
  • Raw green tripe
  • Bone broth 

For those who aren’t keen on DIY, don’t worry – you can buy these products commercially. 

Would you recommend joint formulas for dogs?

Yes! My other recommendation is that all performance dogs are on a joint formula that not only helps current joint disease but has protective/preventative qualities, such as Antinol. 

Puppies can be started on Antinol the day you bring them home, not only does it improve trainability in puppies, it supports their rapid growth by fighting inflammation and assisting with their gut health. 

Having a performance dog on a preventative product is important because this helps general recovery, and if they do hurt themselves, they already have an inflammation fighting superhero in their body to assist in the recovery process. 

I find that dogs on preventative products injure less as well as less seriously. It’s important to mention, though, that you must take care of the type of joint formula you provide. If it’s marine-based, some are high in purines which long term can damage organ function, also heavy metals are also a concern. Be sure to ask the company questions and ask them to prove their claims. 

Supplements, especially for performance, can help dogs prepare and recover better as well as assist in healthy muscle tone such as K9 Power’s Super Fuel but don’t think that this formula will magically create muscle tone on its own, dogs need to be worked on this formula or they will put on weight. 

Do you have any tips for nutrition on the day of an event? 

It’s important that canine athletes get breakfast, because they are going to need the energy to fuel themselves. However, avoid a big breakfast and try and give the meal very early so the dog is not still digesting when their body is needing all of its resources for the performance. A gruel of double dose Super Fuel can also be appropriate on the morning of the performance. 

Dogs will need to be refuelled through the day, dropped bars and lack of focus can sometimes be wholly attributed to a lack of fuel. Great fuel options include bone broth, boiled eggs and bananas. Many of my clients use my “Energy Ball” recipe which 2-3 balls can be given in-between runs. This recipe is available at my Facebook Group called “Fresh Food Feeding for Dogs – Kibble Feeders Welcome!”. 

Hydration is very important for performance dogs, bone broth and coconut water are good options for on the day to encourage dogs to drink. Dry fed dogs live in a constant state of dehydration as their meals are around 10% moisture vs fresh food fed dogs that are around 70% moisture. This means that the dog’s physical and mental abilities can be affected when they’re not keeping hydrated on the day. 

What if you want to go beyond 20% fresh food?

For handlers who are keen to reduce further or eliminate dry food, there are different ways to provide a fresh food diet, you can buy it or make it yourself. If you choose to make it yourself, you will need to invest some time into learning how; it’s not that much different to eating a healthy diet for yourself, overthinking is not necessary, the previously mentioned fresh food group is a good way to access information for free.

When we go beyond the 20% we need to make sure we are providing some form of balance and balance can mean different things: 

  • In ‘real life’ which is how we and the rest of the animals in the world eat, it means eating a variety of foods on rotation to achieve balance over time
  • In the commercial world, brands often use synthetic nutrients to balance every single meal to guidelines issued by different organisations. 

Pet shops with freezers stock many commercial balanced frozen patties that are often referred to as B.A.R.F which stands for Biologically Appropriate RAW Food, these brands can include but are not limited to: 

  • Prime100 
  • Proudi 
  • Dr Billinghurst
  • Big Dog 
  • Leading Raw

This is the more expensive route, but it is convenient. To be able to call their formulas “complete and balanced” brands typically have to use a synthetic vitamin and mineral mix. So this may be something you want to avoid if synthetics are not within your vision. 

Big Dog, for example, doesn’t use a synthetic vitamin and mineral mix. So of course, they don’t claim to be “complete and balanced”. This is fine, as you don’t need “complete and balanced”; this is simply a commercial tag line to show consumers that the formula meets the minimum guidelines of an organisation such as AAFCO. 

In general, these guidelines were created for dry food and cannot reasonably relate to fresh food that isn’t heat-treated with vitamin levels that have to be adjusted because of this. 

It’s a subject which I could write a whole article on, but in our Fresh Food feeding group, we have a novice’s guide that takes people through this information. When feeding a commercial brand, I recommend you do not stay loyal – feed different brands and flavours on rotation to ensure your dog is getting access to different nutrient profiles. 

In addition to commercial fresh food brands, there are also other companies that sell directly to the public such as Somerford Raw, Raw and Fresh etc. there are literally dozens of these companies in each state and you can find them by typing “Raw Food for dogs + your city/state” into Google. 

Many have delivery services not just for local deliveries but interstate as well. These companies often sell in bulk and are much more affordable than commercial brands. Rotating through these companies is a great idea for variety and accessing different nutrient profiles. 

What about if I want to DIY my dog’s food? 

If you would like to DIY, we recommend you use our B.A.R.F ratios as a guideline to create your own mix. 

DIY handlers will usually make batches i.e. 5-10 kilos and then the next batch will have different ingredients, this is important because the premise of fresh food feeding is feeding a variety of ingredients on rotation to avoid under or overdoing any one nutrient. A batch that lasts 1-2 weeks would be the ideal because if you’re only making monthly batches then your dog only gets 12 opportunities of variety per year. 

Our ratio recommendation is: 

  • 65% Meat & Raw Meaty Bones 
  • 5% Liver 
  • 5% Secreting organ such as Kidney 
  • 25% Plant matter & extras. 

How many bones is too many? 

Your dog’s stools will tell you if you’re giving enough or too many bones. Too little and the stool will be very soft, too much and it will be too hard or even crumble and turn white quickly. For me, I feed the ratios minus the bone at each meal and then every 2nd night I give them an edible bone for their entire meal, for my giant dog that might be a poultry carcass and for my other dogs that might be a beef neck slice or chicken feet. 

For those like myself who don’t excel at maths, I created an app as well as online calculators that will literally spit out how many grams of each you should feed (as a guideline) when you enter your dog’s weight.

The average dog on DIY is fed around 2.5% of their body weight; however some very active dogs may actually eat 6% of their body weight. Feeding guidelines are only guidelines — you can use them for 1-2 weeks and then reassess your dog’s condition and amend accordingly. It may take around a month to find what works well for your dog. 

The short of it

If we expect the best out of our canine athletes, then we need to put the best into them. 

The best has never been ultra-processed foods with synthetic nutrients. Elite human athletes wouldn’t fuel their bodies this way; therefore we need to rethink how we fuel our dog’s bodies. 

Small changes make big differences in dogs, so start at 20% and if that’s all you can ever manage, then that’s awesome! 

For more information on fresh food feeding, please visit Sacha’s free Facebook group: Fresh Food Feeding for Dogs – Kibble Feeders Welcome! For more specialised support, head to The Balanced Canine website.

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