Updated: Mar 23
Until recently, fueling the canine athlete has involved feeding “performance” or “premium” dry foods which may have as little as 25% animal proteins, handlers then sometimes add several supplements which often are in a synthetic form to try and give their dog a competitive edge. Today, a fresh food diet, the dog’s original diet is returning to favour as we (humans) start to improve our diets by reducing processed foods and increasing our consumption of fresh whole foods, we start to see that this form of healthy feeding is also relevant to getting the best out of our canine athletes.
What are the benefits of feeding real food to canine athletes? This is a very open-ended question but to keep it brief, we reduce inflammation in the body which helps dogs recover from activity better, keeps their soft tissue and joints healthier for improved performance, reduce the risk/incidence of diseases such as arthritis, organ disease and cancers just as an example and provides highly bio-available nutrients to power them more effectively. Feeding high-quality proteins and fats keeps dogs lean with good muscle tone and gives them the energy to perform at their best vs high carbohydrate kibbles that provide a cheap low quality source of short term energy that can increase inflammation in the body. Feeding unprocessed foods helps the digestive system function better, a healthier digestive system not only relates to physical health and well-being but also mental health & well-being. In the era where we see more and more highly strung and/or reactive performance dogs being bred sometimes with people mistaking it for “drive”, we need to be managing dog’s mental health much more than we currently are.
Gut health is a vital component of mental health and given dry food fed dogs have less diversity of gut flora; this is one very good reason to start reducing or eliminating this type of diet from our canine athletes especially from breeding dogs who pass on their gut flora (dams) to their offspring and their genetics that have been turned on or off by their nutrition. So where to start? As a canine nutritionist, I understand that creating new habits should occur in small manageable chunks because if we ask a handler to do a complete switch to a 100% healthy whole foods diet, this can be very overwhelming and may fall to the wayside. I ask clients to start by removing around 20% of their dog’s dry food and replacing it with fresh whole foods, this is a fantastic start and has many health benefits as confirmed by a 2005 study by Purdue University when studying bladder cancer in Scottish Terriers. The type of foods handlers can add to their dogs dry food diets can include (but not limited to): meat, eggs, natural yogurt, raw goats milk, bone broth, cooked or blitzed/finely chopped plant matter, canned fish, fresh fish, fermented veggies & kefir (supermarket/health food store), edible bones such as chicken frames, brisket etc., human dinner leftovers that don’t include onion, sauces or excess fat. Healthy fats help fuel canine athletes, and these include many foods handlers may not have considered before or even thought were dangerous that include avocado flesh, soaked and smooshed nuts but not Macadamia or Walnut, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, soaked chia seeds, ground flax seeds, full-fat natural yogurt, ground seeds such as pumpkin, sesame etc. These examples are included in small amounts in your dog’s diet - your dog’s stools will tell you if you added too much – it’s a common-sense approach, there are no specific rules. Vitamin D Dogs who always seem to get injured with muscle strains should be making sure they get enough vitamin D in their diets but DO NOT give vitamin D supplements unless under the guidance of your Vet as excess vitamin D levels in supplement form can be toxic. In terms of getting vitamin D via food, it is challenging to get to toxic levels from natural sources. Feed oily fish at least twice a week such as Salmon, Sardines, Mackerel etc. Whilst Beef liver is an excellent source of vitamin D, it should not exceed more than around 5% of the dogs diet as excess copper could become an issue.
Creatine For more energy in the tank, creatine is often turned to, the good news is that the amount of creatine is significantly higher in unprocessed feedstuffs than dry foods (2). Feed good amounts of fresh red meat and fish and your dog will be getting enough Creatine. Avoid human Creatine supplements due to the side effects.
Magnesium Magnesium is important for hormones and muscle performance and can easily be found in ingredients that make up a fresh food diet such as green leafy vegetables (kale & spinach), fruits such as avocado, banana and raspberries, nuts and seeds but not macadamia, vegetables such as peas, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, artichokes, asparagus, brussel sprouts and seafood such as salmon, mackerel, tuna. If you choose to give Magnesium as a supplement, chat with your Vet about dosage and split the dose into morning and night to avoid loose stools.
Supplements Before handlers give a supplement, they should ask themselves why they are giving it and can it instead come from real food. Supplements are often in a synthetic form which the body isn’t guaranteed to recognise or use in the same way real vitamin and minerals (from food) are because nature works in synergy, not isolated components which supplements often are – we have enough studies now to show this is the case. The vitamin and mineral mix in dry foods is mostly if not completely synthetic. I would recommend that all dogs are on a probiotic, it doesn’t matter which one but I do recommend that at the end of each pack that you rotate to another brand, this way your dog gets opportunities to experience different strains in differing amounts. I would also recommend that dogs have access at every meal if possible to foods that are good gut health which would mean including one of these, ideally on rotation with other ones (variety is the spice of life, literally): kefir, natural yogurt, raw goats milk, fermented veggies, raw green tripe (NZ K9 naturals if you can’t find it in its natural form) & bone broth – for those who aren’t keen on DIY, you can buy these commercially.My other recommendation is that all performance dogs are on a joint formula that not only helps current joint disease but has protective/preventative qualities such as Antinol. Puppies can be started on Antinol the day you bring them home, not only does it improve train-ability in puppies, it supports their rapid growth by fighting inflammation and assisting with their gut health. Having a performance dog on a preventative product is important because this helps recovery, and if they do hurt themselves, they already have an inflammation fighting superhero in their body helping them through their recovery. I find that dogs on preventative products injure less as well as less seriously. Handlers should take care of the type of joint formula they provide if it is marine-based as some are high in purines which long term can damage organ function, also heavy metals are also a concern. Be sure to ask the company questions and ask them to prove what they’re saying. Supplements especially for performance can help dogs prepare and recover better as well as assist in healthy muscle tone such as K9 Power’s Super Fuel but don’t think that this formula will magically create muscle tone on its own, dogs need to be worked on this formula or they will put on weight.
MSM Powder "MSM promotes blood flow to muscles that assists in the healing process and reduces painful muscle spasms. MSM also maximizes the benefits of exercise and fitness through inflammation relief and muscle recovery, sulfur playing a role in both collagen and keratin."(1)
Vitamin B Group + Ashwagandha To help both dogs and humans cope with stress. Check with your Vet before givingto check for suitability and advice on dosage. If you don't think your sporting dog experiences mental stress then you may need to take a step back and reassess. Manganese Support your dogs ligaments especially cruciate ligaments. Get it in food sources such as nuts and needs but not macadamia, beans & legumes, oatmeal, green left vegetables such as kale & spinach. Mussel meat is also a good option. Nutrition on the day It is important that canine athletes get breakfast because they are going to need the energy to fuel themselves, however, avoid a big breakfast and try and give the meal very early so the dog is not still digesting when their body is needing all of its resources for the performance. A gruel of double dose Super Fuel can also be appropriate on the morning of the performance. Dogs will need to be refueled through the day, dropped bars and lack of focus can sometimes be wholly attributed to a lack of fuel. Great fuel options include bone broth, boiled eggs and bananas. Many of my clients use my “Energy Ball” recipe which 2-3 balls can be given in-between runs. This recipe is available at my Facebook Group called “Fresh Food Feeding for Dogs - Kibble Feeders Welcome!”. Hydration is very important for performance dogs, bone broth and coconut water are good options for on the day to encourage dogs to drink. Dry fed dogs live in a constant state of dehydration as their meals are around 10% moisture vs fresh food fed dogs that are around 70% moisture so these dog’s physical and mental abilities can be affected when they are not keeping hydrated on the day.
Going beyond 20% For handlers who are keen to reduce further or eliminate dry food, there are different ways to provide a fresh food diet, you can buy it or make it yourself. If you choose to make it yourself, you will need to invest some time into learning how; it’s not that much different to eating a healthy diet for yourself, overthinking is not necessary, the previously mentioned fresh food group is a good way to access information for free. When we go beyond the 20% we need to make sure we are providing some form of balance and balance can mean different things from “Real Life Balance” which is how we and the rest of the animals in the world eat which is eating a variety of foods on rotation to achieve balance over time to commercial brands who often use synthetic nutrients to balance every single meal to guidelines issued by different organisations.
Pet shops with freezers stock many commercial balanced frozen patties that are often referred to as B.A.R.F which stands for Biologically Appropriate RAW Food, these brands can include but are not limited to: Prime100, Proudi, Dr Billinghurst, Big Dog, Leaps & Bounds & Leading Raw. This is the more expensive route but it is convenient. To be able to call their formula’s “Complete and Balanced” they typically have to use a synthetic vitamin and mineral mix so this may be something you want to avoid if synthetics are not within your vision. Big Dog does not use a synthetic vitamin and mineral mix, they proved via a feeding trial that their formula is “complete and balanced”. “Complete and balanced” this is simply a commercial tag line to show consumers that the formula meets the minimum guidelines of an organisation such as AAFCO, these guidelines were created for dry food and cannot reasonably relate to fresh food that is not heat-treated where vitamin levels have to be adjusted because of this. It’s a subject which we could write a whole article on, but in our Fresh Food feeding group, we have a novice’s guide which takes people through this information. When feeding a commercial brand, I recommend you do not stay loyal, feed different brands and flavours on rotation to ensure your dog is getting access to different nutrient profiles. In addition to commercial fresh food brands, there are also other companies that sell directly to the public such as Somerford Raw, Raw and Fresh etc. there are literally dozens of these companies in each state and you can find them by typing “Raw Food for dogs + your city/state” into Google. Many have delivery services not just for local deliveries but interstate as well. These companies often sell in bulk and are much more affordable than commercial brands. Rotating through these companies is a great idea for variety and accessing different nutrient profiles. If you would like to DIY, we recommend you use our B.A.R.F ratios as a guideline to create your own mix. DIY handlers will usually make batches i.e. 5-10 kilos and then the next batch will have different ingredients, this is important because the premise of fresh food feeding is feeding a variety of ingredients on rotation to avoid under-doing or overdoing any one nutrient. A batch that lasts 1-2 weeks would be the ideal because if you’re only making monthly batches then your dog only gets 12 opportunities of variety per year. Our ratio recommendation is: 65% Meat & Raw Meaty Bones | 5% Liver | 5% Secreting organ such as Kidney | 25% Plant matter & extras. Your dog’s stools will tell you if you’re giving enough or too many bones. Too little and the stool will be very soft, too much and it will be too hard or even crumble and turn white quickly. For me, I feed the ratios minus the bone at each meal and then every 2nd night I give them an edible bone for their entire meal, for my giant dog that might be a poultry carcass and for my other dogs that might be a beef neck slice or chicken feet.
For those, like myself who do not excel at maths, I created an app as well as online calculators that will literally spit out how many grams of each you should feed (as a guideline) when you enter your dog’s weight, you can find this in my Fresh Food Feeders Group. The average dog on DIY is fed round 2.5% of their body weight; however some very active dogs may actually eat 6% of their body weight and/or more fattier meats. Feeding guidelines are only guidelines, you can use them for 1-2 weeks and then reassess your dog’s condition and amend accordingly, it may take around a month to find what works well for your dog. The short of it If we expect the best out of our performance dogs, then we need to put the best into them. The best has never been ultra-processed foods with synthetic nutrients - elite human athletes wouldn’t fuel their bodies this way; therefore we need to rethink how we fuel our dog’s bodies. Small changes make big differences in dogs, so start at 20% and if that’s all you can ever manage then that is awesome!
For more information on fresh food feeding, please visit my free group: Fresh Food Feeding for Dogs - Kibble Feeders Welcome! --- (1) Reference 1 (2) Reference 2