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Canine Nutrition Series: Food for thought on importance of exercising your dog

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Welcome to our Canine Nutrition blog series where we introduce our first expert on some of the do’s an don’ts of your dogs nutrition. This week we are joined by  Dr. Audrey Harvey BVSc(Hons). Check out her PoochTo5K website where you’ll see how passionate she is about preventative health care, obesity management and the importance of exercising your dog. Poncho and I would love to join her running group, but the commute down under would be quite the trek – beyond an ultra marathon to say the least.

Prevention, management and exercise: “It’s good for their body, and it’s good for their mind. It’s also great for your relationship with your dog.” She also has an interest in dog behavioral problems and how to manage them. For additional information on Dr. Harvey, please check out the following links:

The following is the canine nutrition Q&A session between Dr. Harvey and myself:

Q. Roughly how many Kcal’s may a dog have per day?

A. The amount of Kcal’s an adult dog needs to just maintain its body varies with body weight. For example, a 20lb dog would need 360Kcal/day to keep its body functions working. A 30lb dog would need 500Kcal/day.

  • Let’s look at the calorie content of, for example, Eukanuba Adult Maintenance formula. It contains 404Kcal/cup. So, your 30lb dog really only needs a little over one cup a day to keep its body working. In reality, that figure refers to dogs who basically don’t do anything, and are on the equivalent of cage rest between meals, so that figure needs to be multiplied by up to two times to take into account the conditions you’ve mentioned in your next question.

Q. What factors into the amount allowed: Age, size, breed, activity level etc…

A. Obviously larger dogs need more energy for maintenance. Puppies need extra energy while they are growing, and because they only have a small stomach, commercial puppy food has more Kcal per cup than adult food. Again, using Eukanuba puppy as an example, it contains 417Kcal/cup, so these babies can get more Kcal in the same volume of food. Working dogs who are on the move all day need more energy. Interestingly, bitches who are at peak lactation need the most energy of any other dog, almost twice maintenance – milk production is really energy expensive.

Q. Is there a formula that dog guardians can use to help figure this out? Or should they speak with their vet?

A. The formula that’s most commonly used by vets is RER in Kcal = [BW^0.75]x70 where RER is resting energy requirements (cage rest between meals!) and body weight is in kg. From there, that figure gets multiplied by up to 1.8 to take into account any of the above factors. As a vet, if I wrote that on a piece of paper and gave it to a dog guardian and said, here’s how much you need to feed your dog, I’d not expect them to comply, it’s a bit confusing. Also, they may overestimate how much extra they need to give based on their dog’s activity level, age etc and feed too much.

I prefer to have a chat with a guardian and work out a rough guideline of how much to feed, then modify based on their dog’s condition over time.

Q. Should owners follow the guidelines on the bag/container of food, or is that unreliable?

A. In my experience with my own dogs over 20 years, I think the guidelines on bags of dog food are quite generous. I have never fed any of my dogs that much. I’d suggest that dog guardians start with the guidelines on the bag, and change it based on how their dog looks.

If they’re getting a bit curvy, cut back on the quantity. Every dog is different and these are only guidelines, so always look at your own dog’s body shape and response.

Q. Are the calculations the same for a dog running/walking a mile as it is for humans? For example, if you and I (humans) burn 100 calories per mile we run, would a dog burn the same walking/running? Is there even research on this?

A. Great question, and I haven’t been able to find anything out. I’d suspect it would be different, but I can’t back it up with science. The sled dogs that run the Iditarod eat a diet that’s up to 70% fat to fuel that activity level. Human ultramarathon runners do up to 100 miles – nowhere near the distance the dogs do but fuel that with fat and carbs. Dogs aren’t like people because they metabolise fat as their primary energy source, whereas we metabolise carbohydrates.

Q. Do you think that “free feeding” is an acceptable way to feed dogs?

A. Nope. I don’t like this for many reasons. Although it doesn’t happen with every single dog, I’ve seen a lot of dogs become overweight with this type of feeding. It’s also hard to know how much your dog is eating when all you need to do is fill up the bowl of kibble every other day, so you may miss any subtle loss of appetite that could indicate illness.

I personally prefer to work out how much to feed my dogs per day, and halve it. They are then fed twice daily, and I can see the food disappear. I know that they have a healthy appetite and that they are all getting their fair share.

Dinner time is also a great training time. I have four dogs and they all sit and wait until they are told they can eat. It teaches them to be obedient in the presence of a huge distraction – 3 other dogs and their bowl of tucker.

Q. Should dogs be on a specific feeding schedule? If so, all throughout his or her life? Or during certain periods only such as puppy/senior/lactating?

A. I personally feed my dogs twice a day, and if they get a Buster cube or any extras, that comes off their rations. Again I have no research to back it up, but I figure all the body systems work pretty much all the time, why should the gastrointestinal system do nothing for 23 hours then work its butt off for one hour… I also don’t subscribe to the theory that dogs are like wolves and should be fasted for a day or two every so often. I don’t think there’s any advantage to that at all, and it probably isn’t very nice for our dogs who have been domesticated for generations.

Q. I know the larger chested dogs are prone to bloat, but when is it better/worse to feed dogs related to exercise. Small amount say 1/2 hour before, then more afterwards or normal meal longer time before exercise? Or do dogs not have the same issues as we would?

A. Bloat is a huge problem for deep chested dogs. Exercise after eating or drinking is a high risk factor, so I’d skip food and excessive water intake before exercise. Avoid allowing a dog to gulp water after exercise, small frequent drinks are better, and wait an hour or so before feeding. That’s purely because it seems like an excitable dog is slightly at increased risk of bloat so if they are allowed to settle for a while after exercise, the risk may be reduced.

Also, if a dog is on twice daily meals, then it won’t be a big meal that’s scheduled for after exercise which also reduces the risk. Again, I can’t find any specific research but that’s what I do with my guys. I don’t have any giant breeds but my kelpie Guinness has  a reasonably deep chest.

Q. For dogs that do not have food allergies, is it okay for s/he to have a variety of kibble/wet food brands and not just the same one all the time? Is it okay to vary the protein base? What are your thoughts about a varied (but healthy) diet?

A. I do the same as you [vary the kibble, healthy and lean table scraps in food toys). Three of my guys don’t have any allergies (thank goodness!) and they get beef, chicken, lamb kibble, table scraps and treats. Guinness the kelpie I suspect has some sort of inflammatory bowel disease (he gets the runs when I take him for a run <G>) so he’s being trialled on fish and tapioca kibble.

Q. Raw vs traditional vs home-cooked? Is one better? Why?

A. Many vets are unsettled with raw feeding because of the risk of infection with bacteria such as Salmonella. These can be shed in a dog’s feces and may cause illness in other animals, children and people with compromised immune systems. Also, the American Veterinary Dental Association and the FDA over there (USA) are advising people not to feed raw bones because of the risk of tooth fracture and more.

Home cooked is fine if the recipe is developed in conjunction with a veterinary nutritionist, and there are several sites on the web where vets can create a nutritionally balanced home cooked diet for a dog. Here is one example Pet Diets.

Making a good home-cooked diet isn’t necessary a simple option. Many people work out a home cooked recipe based on what they find perhaps in books or on the web, or on advice from breeders, and they may not be suitable for a dog’s specific needs.

For example, puppies need a specific balance of calcium and phosphorus for optimal bone growth and even if the calcium quantity is right, the wrong balance can cause problems. Excessive calcium may be associated with orthopedic conditions such as osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD), a disorder of cartilage development in the joints of the limbs. It’s a problem in growing dogs and may need surgery. There’s also some evidence that excessive calcium and rapid growth contributes (to OCD).

I have always fed my dogs a traditional high quality kibble, with training treats and occasional table scraps. They have enjoyed good health and really no illness and have lived into their teens.

Q. Speaking of “table scraps”, are they acceptable? If not, why? If so, what are the parameters? High quality, healthy such as low fat/lean meats, raw/steamed veggies and whole grains?

A. I don’t have a problem with table scraps, everything in moderation. No cooked bones ever, and nothing too fatty. We see a lot of cases of pancreatitis in dogs after Christmas because they have been fed a lot of fatty leftovers, particularly ham and pork. My dogs get lots of different types of scraps, including meat, veggies, and even toast crusts!

Q. I had been told awhile back that cow dairy (cheeses mostly) and fat is not good for dogs. Is this a standard rule of thumb?

A. I think everything in moderation. Dairy itself I don’t think is an issue, unless a dog can’t handle the lactose. If anything it’s fattening and that needs to be taken into account. Fat, eg from meat, may cause pancreatitis so I trim that off any scraps for my dogs.

Q. Dog foods: are some better than others? If so, what should dog guardians look for in finding good quality foods?

A. Some definitely better than others, and you get what you pay for. Cheaper food tends to contain a higher proportion of cereals, and cereal protein isn’t as good quality for dogs as meat protein. The ingredients listed on the dog food packet are listed in order of quantity. Good quality foods will have meat and meat by products listed as the top two or three ingredients in the ingredient list, so you know they have a better amount of meat protein than a food with cereals at the top of the list.

Q. I believe many people equate “by products” as being “bad” – are they? Aren’t dog foods broken down in such a way that dogs are able to digest them better since their digestive tract is so short?

A. By products I understand are things like offal, tendon etc..anything that’s not muscle meat. I don’t see them as necessarily bad, not sure of the nutritional value of a tendon, it’s just collagen. I guess that’s protein though, isn’t it? Dog  foods are pretty thoroughly rendered, so they would be easier to digest than if a dog was just fed a chunk of tendon, I’d imagine.

Q. Supplements: Daily vitamins, minerals? Is this necessary if dog eats a healthy diet? When would they be required?

A. I personally have never used vitamins and minerals for my dogs, and I don’t recommend them for client’s dogs who are on a good diet.

>Q. Too many vitamins and supplements can affect kidneys and liver? A. Sure, too much Vit A isn’t good for example, but not sure how much of a vitamin supplement they’d need to take to get sick. One can look up references for the toxic dose of Vitamin A, and compare to the content of a well known vitamin supplement and work out how many pills are bad.

If they’re not on a good diet and may need supplements, I try and encourage them to change their diet rather than give them supplements. The only time I’d suggest a supplement is if there was a specific diagnosed deficiency, and that’s something to work on with their vet.

One supplement I have seen be very useful is a fatty acid supplement for dogs with dry skin or skin allergies. It can often ease inflammation and improve the condition of their skin and coat. If they want to try a fatty acid supplement, I don’t insist on a checkup but I tell them that on its own it may not have much effect, eg some dogs with allergies have secondary infections of the skin that really need antibiotics. I usually try and get them in for a checkup because they could well be wasting their money without a proper diagnosis.

Q. “Joint supplements” are becoming very popular and people are giving them to their dogs without consulting – is this a good choice?

A. I have no problems with joint supplements such as glucosamine, they can help, and they seem to be quite safe. If a dog is on any sort of medication, guardians need to let their vet know in case there is any interaction between the medication and the supplement but in most cases, there’s no problem with giving them a try.

Q. Best to confirm with Vet first before starting any medication? OTC, homeopathic or anything?

A. Absolutely. There can be interactions between drugs and alternative herbal treatments that can make a dog sick. Even a phone call to the vet to check is a good idea.

Q. Holistic medicine vs traditional? Both good? One better than another? Complementary?

A. If people prefer holistic medicine, that’s fine, as long as they don’t shun conventional medicine just for the sake of it. If a holistic medicine has been proven to be effective, that’s great. Herbal medicine fine (after all, lots of drugs are derived from herbs), physiotherapy fine.

Personally I don’t use homeopathy or reiki or such treatments on my dogs, but if a dog’s guardian wanted to use that for her companion, I’d help them find a suitably qualified colleague.

Again, everyone needs to be told what treatments of any type are being given because a herb may interact with a conventional drug, to the detriment of the dog.

Q. Interactive food toys: Good? Bad?

A. Awesome! Buster Cubes and the like are a great way of keeping boredom at bay, great for a dog’s mental health. Must make sure that whatever goes in the food toy is taken off a dog’s daily food ration, so they don’t take in too many calories.

Q. If owners wanted to feed meals out of the toys, can they be given spaced throughout the day instead of morning/evening only? A. Sure. I figure how your dog is fed has to fit your lifestyle too, and using toys when a dog is alone is a great idea.

Q. Are there some foods/supplements that can help prolong a dogs life?

A. None that are categorically proven to increase a dog’s life as such, but vit C and vit E are antioxidants, known to reduce cell damage. That helps. A lot of good dog foods now contain these vits.

Dogs may well be able to use human antioxidants, and it may be cheaper but ask vet to research dose and how effective they are in dogs.

The biggest thing a dog guardian can do to keep their dog around longer is to watch their weight. I was reading research recently that suggested that dogs who were lean lived up to 2 years longer than an obese animal.

Q. Allergies: seems that “food allergies” are commonly diagnosed but without actual testing. How is it best to determine a dog really has a food allergy? Actual testing? Or is a subjective diagnosis acceptable?

A. Allergy testing as such isn’t always accurate in the case of food allergies, often a food trial gives a better result. Dogs become allergic to foods they have been eating for some time, so the best way to diagnose a food allergy is to feed them something new.

Guardians need to choose a protein source their dog has never had before, and a carbohydrate source they’ve never had before, so they won’t be allergic to them. Alternatively, use a prescription hypoallergenic diet. The dog needs to eat this for 8 weeks, and nothing else must pass their lips! No treats, no table scraps, no pinching another dog’s food. This is so hard, and from what I’ve read, less than 20% of dog guardians follow through.

People don’t understand that they can’t give their dog anything else, and yes even a tiny treat can stuff up the food trial. This isn’t a balanced diet either, but for a healthy adult dog, it won’t hurt them to eat this for 8 weeks.

If the symptoms improve, then food obviously plays a big role in the problem. Guardians then add one single food source eg a new protein, for two weeks and watch for the return of symptoms. If they recur, that food is banned forever. If not, then it can go on a list of “safe” foods.

Over time, guardians develop a list of foods that won’t upset their dog, and a list of foods that are banned forever. This takes time and effort. I don’t really like to just stick to a subjective diagnosis, because a guardian might notice that beef makes their dog itch, but there may be other ingredients involved and things could be much better for the dog if the guardian went the whole hog and did the food trial.

Q. If they decided to obtain an actual allergy test, would they be able to forgo the food trial? Or the food trial is still the best way to go? A. It’s best to do a food trial with a suspected food allergy, it’s apparently more diagnostic with this particular allergy than allergy tests.

Q. Does feeding a dog a varied diet help prevent food allergies? A. I had a look in the vet only forum I read and there is apparently no real way to prevent food allergies, it’s more a genetic thing. So, the luck of the draw.

Q. Treats for training: Are there some that are better than others? Healthy vs “empty calories”? How can dog owners provide the same nutrition without adding extra calories if using foods to train their dogs? (Besides using the dogs kibble)

A. Obviously meat based, low fat treats are ideal but any treat has calories, so whatever a dog is given in treats, must come off their daily calorie allowance. Some people give their dogs small pieces of steamed carrot as a treat, no calories there, but some dogs may not like the vegetarian option.

I like to get some beef liver, slice it thinly and dry it in a slow oven, then cut into little cubes and use them as training treats. They’re nutritious and lean and the dogs love them. Liver isn’t something that should be a huge part of a dog’s diet but in small amounts for training it’s great. The one problem with liver is vitamin A, there’s a lot in it.

I did read about some trainers using sultanas (raisins) as treats. They can make dogs very sick, so that’s a no-no.

Q. Food that are “bad” and “poisonous” for dogs – there are lists all over the internet. How accurate and extreme are the items listed? Onions/garlic – what if they are cooked and in a sauce? Or is it raw only? Chocolate – pure baking chocolate more than milk, yes? But overall a no-no. Grapes? Just the skins or everything?

A. Garlic and onions are dangerous, but 15-30g of onions per kilo bodyweight is needed to poison your dog. That’s a lot! My dogs get leftover spaghetti bolognese or chilli con carne with some garlic and onion, and I’ve never seen a problem.

Dark chocolate more so than milk which is more toxic than white. Half of a 250g block of baking chocolate is enough to be dangerous to a 10kg dog. I prefer to keep my chocolate to myself, lol, but if people really want to give their dogs something, try carob.

I’ve read that 10g sultanas (raisins) per kg body weight can be enough to be deadly to a sensitive dog, and there’s no way of knowing if your dog is okay with grapes/sultanas until you feed them. My dogs don’t get grapes or sultanas! I think the thing is to be aware of the risks and make a sensible informed decision.

Q. When is it time for a dog owner to seek assistance from their vet?

A. Whenever they are concerned about anything to do with their dog’s physical and mental well being, and sooner rather than later. Lots of problems are easier to manage if they’re caught early in the piece, and sometimes it’s not a big job to get things back on track. Sometimes a bit of reassurance too is good for a dog guardian and can set their mind at rest.

To read our introductory post on Canine Nutrition, and to continue following the blog series on the do’s and don’ts of what to feed your dog, watch for our subsequent weekly posts. You can sign up to receive them via RSS feed or direct email on our inquisitive canine blog website.

3 Responses

  1. Hi,
    In the formula, RER in Kcal = [BW^0.75]x70, can you tell me is (BW^0.75)calculated as BW x 0.75?. If not could you explain this further please.
    Many thanks.

    1. Hi Mark – thanks for reading our post and joining the conversation. Yes, you have it correct. Multiply BW (body weight in kilos) X 0.75 first, then X 70. But remember, as Dr. Harvey points out, you’ll want to discuss with your dog’s vet to finalize Kcals needed. Hope this helps clarify!

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