A dog’s dinner

Do you really know what you should be feeding your gundog?

All dogs need to get these basic nutrients from their diet:

Water: Needed for all body functions. Losing just 15% of body water can be fatal!

Protein: An important energy source and essential for muscle and bone growth and repair. Protein is the source of essential amino acids which the body can’t make and some of these are vital for normal behaviour and learning.

Fat: The most concentrated source of energy, essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.

Carbohydrates: These are not essential for dogs but provide an alternative energy source.

Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals which have numerous functions throughout the body. Some also have antioxidant properties which fight damage due to wear and tear.

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Fibre: Soluble and insoluble fibres help dogs feel full and help maintain gut health.

All commercial and many home prepared diets will provide all these, so what else is important when deciding if your gundog’s diet is right for him?

Well, if your dog looks well and enjoys his grub, if it fits your budget and he can manage a full day’s work, there is no need to change the diet because a shiny advert or a friend suggests it! Common reasons to change a diet include poor performance, over-excitability, weight loss or gain or collapse during work. In all of these cases there are things to consider before changing your dog’s diet, such as metabolic diseases, fitness, neuromuscular problems, training level and environmental conditions such as temperature, as well as the feeding regime (how often per day).

Studies have shown that dogs which run in short bursts (e.g. lurchers or retrievers) need 25% of their daily calories from protein and 30-50% from fat, while endurance dogs (e.g. a hunting dog working all day) need 30-40% from protein and over 50% from fat! Unlike people, dogs have muscles adapted to burn fat so a high carbohydrate diet will not increase their stamina.

Some tricky maths shows that a typical 24-25% protein, 13-15% fat as fed working dog kibble provides the right ratio of calories from fat and protein for dogs that work in short bursts, but may not provide enough fat and protein for those that hunt all day, several days a week. Additional fat (animal fat, fish oil or vegetable oil) will help them maintain stamina and condition. A diet based on raw meat with veg and minimal carbs should provide enough protein and fat for all working gundogs but requires more work from the owner to get right.

Comparing dog foods can be very confusing due to poor packaging information. The most important calculation to make is to find the dry matter percentages of fat and protein: if a wet food is 80% moisture and 10% protein, the dry matter protein is 50%. If a dry food is 10% moisture and 25% protein, the dry matter protein is 28%.

Many people simply look at the ‘as fed’ percentages and think that tripe, for instance, is a low protein food, which couldn’t be more wrong! (See the table below.)

If choosing a commercial diet, look for those which contain mostly animal muscle rather than veg protein or ‘animal derivatives’ (feet, feathers, beaks). They may provide protein but are less easily digested and may not provide sufficient essential amino acids. Foods with a higher meat content are more expensive per bag but you usually need to feed less, so they can end up being more economical.

At the end of the day, dogs are adaptable omnivores that can survive on just about anything, but a working gundog is an athlete and will only perform at his best if fed the best quality diet.