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Sporting Dogs | Spring 2008 Out Here Magazine

Canine athletes require special dietary needs for peak performance

By Laura Sewell

There is, perhaps, nothing more beautiful to a bird dog owner than watching his faithful companion move lithely through the brush, sharp eyes intense, and nose high in the air as it closes in on its quarry.

Sporting breeds — often referred to as hunting and bird dogs — include retrievers, setters, spaniels, and pointers. They are bred to deftly find, flush out, and retrieve game for their masters. Many also participate in field trials, where they're judged in competitions that employ their highly developed senses of sight and smell.

Undoubtedly, few factors are more important to keeping a sporting breed dog at peak performance condition — season after demanding season — than proper nutrition. And because sporting breeds are like canine athletes, their nutritional requirements differ significantly from the average pet dog.

"If you're looking at a performance dog, it has a need for exercise. It requires it," says Dr. Amy Dicke, technical services veterinarian for The Iams Co., which produces dog and cat food under its own name, and the Eukanuba brand.

"They're training on a daily basis, and have a different expectation of what the day will bring," Dicke says. "A typical house dog hasn't been conditioned for that."

Consequently, a bird dog's diet must support its athleticism with dog food formulas containing increased levels of protein and fat, because these dogs get 30-35 percent of their calories from protein, and up to 60 percent of calories from fat.

Their diet also should include special ingredients to help meet their unique needs, says Dicke, who serves as a consumer relations adviser and nutritional consultant to veterinarians and breeders. For instance, unlike human athletes who might load up on carbohydrates before a big event, sporting dogs prefer to use fat as a major source of energy. So, their ideal food would include the nutrient L-carnitine to promote optimal fat metabolism.

Because performance dogs are constantly jumping and running, natural sources of cartilage-friendly glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are needed to support joint health. And such soluble fibers as fructooligosaccharides, also known as FOS, balance the dogs' intestinal environment before stomach stress takes its toll.

At mealtime, owners and breeders must look beyond the recommendations listed on a bag of dog food, Dicke advises.

"With a performance diet, ultimately every dog owner needs to look at the dog's body condition to determine whether to increase or decrease the amount of food," she says.

With proper nutrition, sporting breed dogs exhibit high energy and athletic endurance, good intestinal health, and lower levels of inflammation and injury. Without it, Dicke says, their capacity for performance generally decreases.

"That could lead to weight loss or injuries if dogs are too tired when asked to do something," she says.

Water intake, too, is important to consider. Active dogs should be offered water at least three times daily, she says. Amounts vary, but her rule of thumb is two liters per day for a 40- to 60-pound dog, with that amount doubling on a heavy exercise day.

Owners and breeders who give their sporting breed dogs a good dietary foundation can expect far better than just winning field trials, Dickey says. "We want to support (the dogs') overall well-being."

Brentwood, TN, writer Laura Sewell's golden retriever, Andie, just may be World Champion of finding and retrieving dirty socks.