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What is the Best Nutrition for Hunting Dogs?

What is the Best Nutrition for Hunting Dogs?

An American Brittany eating dog food after a hunt for birds in the west.

A look into a Eukanuba study on hunting dog nutrition with sport dog veterinarian Dr. Joe Spoo

Nutrition is an area that seems to either be overlooked or over-analyzed by most bird dog owners. Since hunting dogs are canine athletes in the truest sense of the word, though, nutrition should be an area of top concern for all dog owners — and even more so for those running these high-class athletes. You can find a pup out of the best bloodlines in the country and send him to one of the top trainers in the world. But if that dog is not fed a diet designed for optimal growth as a puppy and top performance as an adult, you may be preventing that pup from reaching its maximum potential.

Feeding these performance dogs whatever food was cheapest that week would be the equivalent of using regular unleaded in a top-fuel dragster. The other side of the spectrum is the current trend towards what has been termed BEG (Boutique, Exotic ingredients, Grain-free) diets. I would equate this to slapping a solar panel on top of that dragster and expecting it to continue to run consistently low ETs.

While I think it’s easy to understand why the cheap end of the dog food spectrum may not be the best choice, there is more of a struggle for owners to understand why the expensive end of the spectrum may also be problematic. The short answer is that many of these BEG or RAW diets are being formulated by marketing teams rather than being developed by veterinary nutritionists through science. Consumers are being told a story about what they should feed rather than being allowed to come to their own conclusions through carefully compiled facts gathered through proper research.

So what fuel is best for these canine athletes?

Researchers at Eukanuba (Davenport et al., 2001) set out to answer that very question. Their study looked at the effects of diet on the hunting performance of English pointers used on a quail plantation. The dogs were divided into two groups; both were fed quality diets. One group was fed Eukanuba Premium Performance dog food; the other group was fed a premium adult maintenance food. The performance of each dog was evaluated throughout the season by the trainer/handlers, who were unaware of which diet each dog received. Veterinarians, also blinded to the diets, evaluated blood parameters and physically examined the dogs.

The findings of the study are eye opening. All the dogs remained healthy and consumed their typical amounts of food throughout the season. However, that’s where the similarities ended. Dogs fed the performance diet were able to maintain or gain body weight and condition throughout the season. The other group lost weight and the dogs’ condition declined as the season progressed.

The performance-fed dogs out-performed the dogs on the other diet in the field as well. They had more total finds per hunt and located more birds per hour of hunting. The dogs fed the performance diet stayed in superior shape and performed better than their counterparts which were fed a high-quality maintenance diet.

The main difference in the performance diet versus the maintenance diet was substantially higher fat content. Fat is a highly available energy source and is the preferred fuel for endurance in the performing dog. This is quite different from what we are used to as human athletes. We get hung up on our own needs for carbohydrates; it is the reason there is always a pasta feed the night before marathons. Dogs, on the other hand, have a very low requirement for carbs and an increased need for fat fuel.

The performance diet also had an increased level of high-quality protein. Like human athletes, dogs undergoing aerobic training need more protein than other dogs to maintain and repair muscles and to replenish the metabolic systems of performance. The dietary levels of fat and protein in the performance diet also may have contributed to better adaptation to temperature extremes, especially the heat stress encountered in the early parts of hunting season as well as during summer training.

It is not necessary to feed performance diets year-round if your dog does not perform year-round. If you do switch between a performance food and a quality maintenance food, it is recommended to transition gradually over a 3-4-day period of mixing the old and new food. Studies also indicate it is important to switch to the performance diet at least eight weeks before the training/hunting/trialing begins to allow the body time to adjust to utilizing the increased amounts of fat. If you work your dog year-round, the performance diet is a recommended diet to be fed all the time; just be sure to adjust the amounts based on the activity levels as they change throughout the year. And be conscious of gradual weight gain.

What it boils down to is that hunting dogs have unique nutritional requirements. Through careful selection of food you can help your canine partner achieve his best in the field. When making that selection it’s important to consider: are you making your choice of food based on science and research or on marketing?

There are a few key items to look for when evaluating a food. The first and foremost is a good-quality, animal-based protein and fat source, as dogs utilize these sources of protein better than plant sources. This does not have to be a complicated, exotic selection; in most healthy, normal canine athletes, chicken is still a good protein source.

Next you will want to see a good mixture of carbohydrates (i.e., rice, corn, sorghum, etc.) which will help provide for steady blood sugar levels. Over the years, grains have been given a bad reputation, and undeservedly so. When used for valid reasons (i.e., to maintain blood glucose levels) they can be an important, nutritious component of the formula.

Currently in veterinary medicine there is concern for dogs fed grain-free diets and the development of dilated cardiomyopathy. Again, it is important to understand the formula you are feeding and whether it was designed based on research or marketing. 

One overlooked area is the fiber source in your dog’s food. Beet pulp is a good fiber source and has been called the silver bullet of dog intestinal health, which translates into good quality stools. Stool quality isn’t only important at cleanup time; it is a good indicator of how the dog’s intestinal tract is working and can be an important regulator for hydration status.

Working dogs are athletes and need to be fed in a way to maximize their performance. Feeding a performance diet isn’t going to bring the birds out of the woodwork and make your hunting that much easier. However, it may mean the third rooster in the bag on the last day of a late-season Dakota pheasant hunt — or nailing that last water triple on the second day of a field trial.

Feeding a premium diet designed for performance is about making those good dogs even better.  Just a little “food for thought.”

*Davenport, GM; RL Kelley, EK Altom, and AJ Lepine. 2003. Effect of diet on hunting performance in English Pointers. Veterinary Therapeutics 2(1). 10-23

View Comments (6)
  • Very interesting and confirms what I always do leading up to the season. It does make a difference. Thanks Dr. Spoo.

    • Thanks for the info! However, one study in 2003 seems a bit limited in scope and antiquated. I’d be interested in a more comprehensive literature review. Ideally one with an avoidance of brand sponsored (e.g., Eukanuba in this case) research. Thanks!

      • We all would. Unfortunately in veterinary medicine this type of research is limited due to funding and interest. There is a considerable body of evidence related to sled dogs and greyhounds and not much on the rest of our working dogs. As a new, and relatively small specialty, within veterinary medicine those of us in the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation are working to expand this knowledge base but it won’t happen overnight. As we speak I’m working with a handful of colleagues to try to begin to build the baselines for our various categories of hunting dogs. As it stands, though, we have to look at existing work (which is sometimes dated), in the field experience and sometimes extrapolation.

        • It is logical and very true what you say Joe Spoo since sled dogs are ultramarathon dogs and the energy for them is provided by fat. We need for them a considerable increase in fat without an increase in protein. Greyhounds need little fat and lots of protein and Pointing dogs require less fat than sled dogs keeping the protein. Joe, could you mention some percentages ? I can mention some but it is only what I have read and observed in a limited universe of my own dogs (in Pointing dogs a little less than 40% fat and 30% protein. Retrievers 30% fat and 30% protein in hard work).

  • Excellent article and with 20 years in the pet food industry and 40 years hunting and hunt test and breeding Brittanys…TOTALLY agree.

  • What about raw diets? I know that it is impossible for us to get an analysis of what we feed since the ingredients change so how do we do?

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