Huskies training for the Iditarod are big eaters, consuming a whopping 10,000 calories a day. And no wonder: The dog teams propel themselves 1,151 miles from Anchorage to Nome in subzero conditions over tundra, through mountain passes and across rivers — often in whiteouts. 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, so it’s important to adjust his nutritional intake accordingly so he is getting the proper diet.
Feeding an Athletic Dog
Performance dogs need a nutrient-dense food — they simply can’t eat the volume necessary to fulfill their caloric needs. And your dog also must consume the food in small portions. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down Thanksgiving dinner right before running a marathon.
“Feeding calorically dense food is key to maintaining optimal body weight for dogs participating in endurance exercise,” explains Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn., and a regular expert blogger for Exceptional Canine.
Dogs that compete in sporting competitions regularly or are even just 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-fiber dog food is easier to digest and means less bulk lingering in the digestive system,” says Dewhirst.
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 synthesize 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 fiber. A fermentable fiber, 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 you’re 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 herding sheep year-round –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. For instance, sled dogs only need about 800 calories a day when they’re relaxing in their kennels in the summer. If you feed a high-performance food to a sedentary dog, it’s a recipe for 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, says Dewhirst. “Both are signs of a deficient diet,” she advises.
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 the Iditarod.