Nutrition and the Canine Athlete

ACVIM 2014
Ann Wortinger, BIS, LVT, VTS (ECC, SAIM, Nutrition); Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), Allen Park, MI, USA; Wamego, KS, USA


Just like people who are athletes, training and nutrition can play a major role in the canine athletes’ success. But nutrition cannot overcome deficits in genetics and training. Matching nutrition to exercise type allows a canine athlete to perform to its genetic potential and level of training.1 In general, all working dogs have increased energy requirements over those of an adult dog during time of normal activity.2 The type of work being done and the intensity of work may require modifications in the nutrient composition of the food and the feeding schedule.2

Exercise requires transfer of chemical energy into physical work. ATP (adenosine
triphosphate) is the sole source of energy for muscle contraction.1 ATP is formed from metabolic fuels stored in muscle (endogenous) and from other body stores
(exogenous). The energy is converted to ATP using either aerobic pathways using
oxygen, or anaerobic pathways that can work without oxygen.1 The proportion of each pathway used is determined by duration and intensity of exercise, conditioning and nutritional status of the animal.1


The two primary fuels used by the body for working muscles are muscle glycogen and free fatty acids. An intermediate athlete would receive ~ 70–90% of their energy from fat metabolism, and only a small amount from carbohydrate metabolism.2 Dogs rely more heavily on free fatty acids for energy generation at all exercise levels than do people.1 Feeding a higher fat diet to endurance and intermediate trained athletes prepares the muscles to efficiently mobilize and use free fatty acids for energy. It also exerts a glycogen-sparing effect that can help prolong glycogen use during work.2


Provided sufficient gluconeogenic precursors are available in the diet, no dietary
requirements for carbohydrates exist except during gestation and neonatal
development.1 Adipose tissue supplies glycerol for glucose production (breaking down triglycerides) and fatty acids for oxidation to supply energy, whereas muscle catabolism releases glucogenic amino acids, lactic acid and pyruvate for glucose production by the liver.1 Carbohydrates fed to athletes should be highly digestible to decrease fecal bulk in the colon.


Amino acids provide ~ 5–15% of the energy used during exercise; most of this energy
comes from the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine). All of
these are essential amino acids and cannot be synthesized from other amino acids;
they must be included in the diet. Muscle and organ meat-based proteins have the
highest level of essential amino acids, and are also the most digestible and most
bioavailable. Amino acids are not stored as proteins in the body but are deaminated (broken down) to ketoacids. These ketoacids are either oxidized for energy or converted to fatty acids and/or glucose and stored as adipose tissue (fat) or glycogen.1


Water is used as a solvent for biological solutes; it acts as a transport medium for
nutrients, wastes and heat, absorbs physical shock and lubricates various internal and external surfaces.1 Heat is the primary byproduct of muscle contraction and the
respiratory tract through panting is responsible for dissipation of this heat.1 Because
evaporative heat loss is the primary way dogs dissipate heat, ensuring adequate
hydration is crucial for the maintenance of normal body temperature.1 Depending on the type of work done and environmental conditions, water losses can increase by 10–20 times normal during exercise.2


Many breeders, exhibitors and trainers believe stressed dogs must also receive
supplements of certain vitamins and minerals. There is no evidence to suggest that
working dogs have increased requirements of these nutrients.2 If a diet is nutritionally balanced and the dog is consuming enough to meet its energy requirements during work, then additional supplements should not be necessary.1

Diet Requirements

A diet needs to be highly digestible to limit the total volume of food consumed at each meal. An ideal diet would provide increased levels of high-quality protein to meet anabolic requirements and enough non-protein energy nutrients (fats and
carbohydrates) to meet energy requirements. The food needs to be calorically dense and palatable, highly digestible and practical, so that the dog can physically consume enough to meet their caloric requirements.1

Feeding Plan

Look at where the dog is housed (inside/outdoors), medications they may be taking,
dietary history; amount fed, type of food fed and timing of meals in relation to
exercise/training and the nutrient profile of the diet, exercise and training history
(amount of exercise done, frequency and performance of exercise).1

Compare the current diets key nutritional factors, determine the amount to be fed and the timing of the meals, estimate energy expenditure using body condition scoring and exercise level.

Timing of meals is important to allow the most availability of nutrients to the athlete.
Ideally, 1 meal at least 4 hours before exercise, 1 meal within 2 hours after exercise and if necessary due to the duration of exercise small amounts during. The largest meal should be given post-exercise. It is also very important to allow access to plenty of fresh clean water to prevent dehydration.1

Recommended Caloric Distribution for Canine Athletes

  • Calories from protein: 30–35% ME
  • Calories from fat: 50–65% ME
  • Calories from carbohydrate: 10–15% ME2


As with any other species, excellent nutrition cannot overcome poor genetics or inadequate training for dogs. Improving nutrition can help to provide that little extra boost for an excellent animal that has been trained and conditioned to perform to its full potential. Improving nutrition can also allow these athletes to perform for a longer period of time and sustain fewer injuries, which is in everyone’s best interest.


  1. Toll PW, Reynolds AJ. The canine athlete. In: Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P,
    eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 4th ed. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing; 2000: 261–283,
  2. Case LC, Carey DP, Hirakawa DA, Daristotle L. Performance and stress. In: Canine and Feline
    Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals. 2nd ed. St Louis, MO: Mosby Publishing;
    2000: 259–273.