Our dogs are so important to us, and we want to take care of them in the best possible way. But what is the best possible way as regards an agility dog’s nutrition and hydration? The variations in seasons and even during a competition day or weekend, bring challenges that differ from dogs in general. So how can we take care of our best friend’s nutrition and hydration in the best possible way? We interviewed Sanna Attola from SLN Import (Acana, Orijen), Laura Strömberg from FitDog and Mikko Griinari from Nutrolin to find out.
How do the nutritional needs of an agility dog differ from other dogs?
According to Sanna, although it is important to remember that dogs are individuals, in general there are some differences in the nutritional needs of an agility dog vs. other dogs: “Agility dogs need considerably more energy than normal dogs. They need to be able to perform many short runs during long competition days. Also, their stomach should be empty when running, but they still need energy.”
Another challenge that both Sanna and Laura bring up, are the differences in nutritional needs during training and competition seasons, as well as off-season.
Good nutrition with high quality proteins - an important foundation
All interviewees emphasized that the quality of nutrition is something that should not be ignored. “The most important point is the quality of the food: whether you choose kibble or raw food depends on your dog and lifestyle. There are good options for both feeding strategies. If the dog’s basic nutrition is not good, no amount of dietary supplements can save the situation”, says Laura.
“Dogs need proteins, fats and carbs in correct proportions to get energy into the muscles so that they are able to perform and recover. This varies individually, but I would say 20% fat, 60% protein and 20% carbs. Of course, also vitamins and trace elements are needed. To simplify, dogs get energy from fats; proteins build the muscles and help in recovery” Sanna lists.
Mikko pinpoints that there’s a lot of variation in the quality of proteins. “It’s not just about the amount of protein; there’s so much variation in the quality, much more variation than in the quality of fats or carbs. The quality correlates, to some extent, with the price of the food. And good quality protein is something you don’t want to save on.”
Basic nutrition according to the dog’s individual needs
During competition and active training seasons, stronger food is often needed, but this depends on the dog: “If the dog isn’t skinny, performs and recovers well without special agility food, it doesn’t need it. Agility as a hobby doesn’t automatically mean a need for agility food - dogs are different”, Laura reminds us.
How to take care of your dog’s nutrition and hydration during an agility competition or training
A competition day, or a longer event, can vary a lot, and same goes for training sessions and training camps. Here, however are some good basic tips on how to make sure that your dog has the best possible starting point for performing well in every run and for recovering well from each performance.
Agility dog nutrition during a competition or training
Sanna Attola recommends that the dog gets some high energy food on the morning of the competition: “The portion should be considerably smaller than normal, for example ¼ of the normal meal and it should be something easily digestible, such as egg yolk, curd and fatty meat. This meal should be given at least 2, but preferably 3 to 4 hours before the first run. If given later, there’s a risk of twisted stomach.
Between runs, Sanna recommends a snack, that has a lot of energy in a small package, such as freeze-dried medaljongs by Orijen. Mikko points out that if you give snacks in between the runs, they should not contain carbs, since carbs increase the insulin level of the dog and can make him weary. Instead, he recommends snacks that consist mainly of protein.
“Only after the competition day is over and the dog is cooled down properly, a bigger meal with supplements should be given”, Sanna says.
Do all dogs need supplements? According to Mikko, with training we increase the capacity of the dog’s muscles to store glycogen, and with nutrition we supplement the glycogen levels of the body. At the same time we also lift the levels of the protection mechanisms of the body, such as the antioxidant system, the capacities the dog needs in competition season. “So it’s actually the dogs that are not carefully prepared and compete once in a while that might need supplements the most.“
But what supplements? Mikko has a lot of knowledge about the role of fatty acids and antioxidants. “After runs, we need to support the recovery of the dog by giving it carbs to restore the glycogen storages. To support the recovery of tissues, it’s good to feed the dog omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as vitamin E and astaxanthin, which work in different mechanisms and for this reason support the recovery extremely well.”
But how do fatty acids and antioxidants support the recovery of an agility dog? Mikko explains that strenuous exercise may produce small damages in the musculoskeletal system. Inflammation is the natural mechanism of the body to repair the damages. So the inflammation, according to Mikko, is good, but it needs to be controlled so that it will eventually come to an end. This is where omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants play an important role. They attenuate and control the inflammation.
Mikko points out that during physical exercise oxidative stress also has an impact on the dog’s body. When energy is produced, oxidation products and oxygen radicals are formed which increase the overall level of oxidation in the body. Although the body has its own and very effective antioxidant system, the level of oxidation may increase above the capacity of the natural antioxidant mechanisms resulting in oxidative stress. This is the reason why we may need to provide additional support by giving the dog antioxidants. If oxidative stress is not controlled, it can oxidize important biomolecules and cause damage even on a DNA level.
If the dog has some, even minor, accident in his history, Mikko recommends glucosamine and chondroitin together with omega 3 fatty acids to support the recovery of joints after performance. This is to prevent the minor injury leading to something more serious.
Hydration of an agility dog during competition or training
“A dog needs to have fluids in his body when training or competing. If he doesn’t, he most probably gets tired and slower”, Laura explains. “When a dog feels thirsty, his body is already a bit dry. Dogs don’t plan ahead and for this reason the handlers need to take care of their fluid balance -and also, at the same time, avoid the risk of twisted stomach.
Fluid balance is better maintained if you start hydrating your dog in advance. According to Laura, hydration needs to be started a day before the competition. The dog should drink more water than usual, preferably energy fueling drink. The ideal energy form in the drink depends largely on the intensity and the length of the performance.
On the morning of the event, the dog is once again given some hydration. The energy fueling drink should also be taken to the competition. There it’s offered often, but in small portions in between the runs to avoid twisted stomach, and to make the fluids stay in the body longer.
After the event, right after the last run, it would be good to give your dog some recovery drink. The cells in the dog’s body are most receptive for 30 minutes after the performance. Laura explains that recovery drinks have a lot of carbs in them, so it affects the blood sugar level, and gets the dog weary, so it’s important not to give it in between the runs. “Recovery has been studied a lot and studies show that recovery drinks affect next day performance significantly, so it is especially important in two day events.”
The 3 most common mistakes concerning an agility dog’s nutrition and hydration
Based on the interviews, here are the most common mistakes in agility dog nutrition and hydration:
The dog doesn’t get enough hydration
The hydration has to be started a day before the competition, especially during summer time. This affects performance significantly.
Food is given too close to the performance
There should be 3 to 4 hours between feeding the dog and the first run or training session. Otherwise there’s a risk of twisted stomach.
The dog is given high energy food because it does agility
Not all dogs that do agility need high energy food. Dogs are individuals with different needs and you need to keep an eye on your dog (not only eyes but fingers - body condition scoring is the best tool to determine whether the dog’s energy intake needs to be adjusted): does it need more energy?