Feeding Canine Athletes

Modified from an article by Philip W. Toll, DVM, M.S. and Arleigh J. Reynolds, DVM, Ph.D.,
The Winter 1998 issue of Sports Medicine Program Newsletter.

Athletic performance depends on genetics, training and nutrition. A deficiency in any one of these factors limits performance: therefore, each factor must be assessed in light of the type of exercise done by the individual. This article describes the nutritional needs of different canine athletes and takes an initial look at key nutritional factors. A subsequent article will describe how nutrition can be optimized to meet those needs.

Selecting an appropriate food for a canine athlete begins with assessing the animal and its current food and feeding method. Comparing the nutritional content of the current food to the key nutritional factors for the canine athlete allows decisions to be made about the adequacy of the food for that individual. If the current food is appropriate(key nutritional factors in balance with the athlete's needs) then that food can continue to be fed. If discrepancies exist between the key nutritional factors for the animal and the content of the food, the food should be changed or "balanced" to meet the athlete's needs.

A dietary history should be taken and include analysis of all foods and supplements fed, with their nutrient profiles and timing of feeding relative to exercise. A complete physical examination is crucial because disease affecting any body system can impair performance. Body condition, as determined by the body condition score(BCS), is an indication of fat mass and is the best measure of the appropriateness of the food dose. If dietary energy intake is less than energy needs, fat mass declines and BCS decreases. Conversely, if intake exceeds requirement, fat mass and BCS increase. A BCS of three out of five is normal for most pets and for many canine athletes. However, a much leaner body composition is desirable for some canine athletes(e.g., racing greyhounds and sled dogs).

Functionally, exercise can be divided into three types based on intensity and duration: !. Sprint: High-intensity activities that can be sustained less than two minutes; 2. Intermediate: activities lasting a few minutes to a few hours; and 3. Endurance: activities that last many hours.

Most canine sprinters are sight hounds. Racing greyhounds are the most notable example. Metabolically, weight-pull dogs also fit into this category. Some racing sled dogs that participate in shorter, high-speed events are referred to as sprinters. However, they fit better in the intermediate or endurance categories from a metabolic and nutritional standpoint because their events may last several hours.

Most canine athletes participate in intermediate exercise activities. Most of these activities are of low to moderate intensity and last only a few hours. Intensity and duration of exercise vary widely within this category. For example, most guide dogs work at a low level of physical exertion for variable lengths of time throughout the day, whereas a search and rescue dog may work at a much higher level for many consecutive hours. Dogs that work at a relatively high-intensity level for an extended time, such as sled dogs, have much greater metabolic requirements and are true endurance athletes. Canine athletes should be categorized as either full-time or part-time athletes.

The hallmark of exercise is increased metabolism; therefore, providing the right amount of energy from the right sources is central to feeding canine athletes. Energy for exercise comes from fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Fat provides approximately nine kcal of metabolizable energy per gram of dry matter or about 2.25 times the amount provided by protein and carbohydrate. Under most conditions, the energy contribution of protein during exercise is small; therefore, fats and carbohydrates are the primary energy substrates for exercise. The following points summarize nutritional needs of canine athletes based on activity.

  • Anaerobic metabolism of glucose and glycogen is the dominant energy generation pathway for sprint performance. Thus, dietary carbohydrates should provide most of the energy for sprint athletes.
  • Dietary carbohydrate and fat recommendations for intermediate athletes are highly variable. Dietary fat content should be increased as the amount of work increases. However, part-time athletes during the off season should be fed as other dogs.
  • Endurance athletes require very high levels of dietary fat to meet their energy needs.

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