How to Select the Best Diet for an Athletic Dog

Use these tips to give your high-energy, high-performance dog the nutrition it needs.

By: The Exceptional Canine Editors

Huskies training for the Iditarod — the dog-sled race across Alaska — are big eaters, consuming a whopping 10,000 calories a day. And no wonder: The dogs propel themselves 1,852 kilometres from the city of Anchorage to Nome in sub-zero conditions — over tundra, through mountain passes and across rivers in whiteout conditions. Mushers know that, without the right nutrition, the dogs don’t have the stamina to do well in the race.

Even if your dog never braves the wilds of Alaska, he still might require what is known in the dog-sporting industry as a performance food. If your athletic dog exercises regularly, he burns a lot of calories. It’s important to adjust his nutritional intake accordingly so he is getting the proper diet.

Feeding an Athletic Dog
Dogs who exercise a lot need a nutrient-dense food — they simply can’t eat the volume necessary to fulfil their caloric needs. And your dog also must consume the food in small portions. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down dinner right before running a marathon!

“Feeding calorically dense food is key to maintaining optimal body weight for dogs participating in endurance exercise,” explains Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian and a regular contributor to Exceptional Canine.

Dogs that compete in sporting competitions regularly or are even weekend warriors require extra protein, carbohydrates and fat — and it’s essential that food is easy to digest. Your dog shouldn’t quickly process a food that requires a lot of effort to digest — he won’t be able to absorb the nutrients he’s eating!

“A low-residue, low-fibre dog food is easier to digest and means less bulk lingering in the digestive system,” Dewhirst says.

Performance diets should take these needs into consideration. Look for these ingredients in a food made for athletic dogs:

  • High-quality, animal-based protein: Chicken, fish and lamb provide essential amino acids to build muscle, repair tissue and synthesise hormones.
  • Quick-energy carbohydrates: Your dog’s body will efficiently process finely ground cornmeal, barley and grain sorghum.
  • High-quality fat: “Fat” is not a bad word when it comes to keeping an athletic dog healthy. Look for chicken and fish fat sources in your dog’s food. These fats are sources of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which offer many health benefits. Fat is a more efficient energy source for dogs, explains Dewhirst, so a high-performance dog needs food with a higher fat content.
  • Fermentable fibre: A fermentable fibre, like beet pulp, helps your dog efficiently absorb nutrients and keeps his digestive system working smoothly.

Know When to Feed Your Dog Performance Food
Understanding when your dog needs a high-performance food is central to his good health and success in whatever physical feat he’s working to accomplish. Experts recommend introducing a performance diet eight weeks prior to an event that would demand a lot of your dog. Gradually mix in performance food with your dog’s usual food over a three-day period to avoid upsetting his stomach.

If your dog exercises regularly — either jogging with you or going for extended walks regularly — there’s no reason to ever stop feeding him a performance food. But a dog that isn’t exercising doesn’t need as many calories. Feeding a dog that doesn’t need the extra energy can lead to weight gain.

Dewhirst recommends asking your veterinarian to formulate a proper calorie count for your dog based on his metabolic energy requirement. Watch for weight loss or poor performance in your athletic dog, Dewhirst says, as both are signs of an improper diet.

Feeding your athletic dog well is just as important as teaching him about the work he’ll do. If you prepare his body properly, he’ll be able to reach the goals you set, whether that means finishing a 5K or racing across the ice during the Iditarod.


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