Fooding for Life

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Fooding our Canine Athletes
From a nutritional perspective, high-performance dogs include canine athletes, pregnant bitches and lactating dams. You might wonder why pregnant and lactating dogs rank along with athletes as high performance? As we’ll elaborate on in this article, pregnancy and lactation place extreme nutritional demands on a bitch’s body - more than at any other time in her life.

Athletes and Moms …

From a nutritional perspective, high-performance dogs include canine athletes, pregnant bitches and lactating dams. You might wonder why pregnant and lactating dogs rank along with athletes as high performance? As we’ll elaborate on in this article, pregnancy and lactation place extreme nutritional demands on a bitch’s body – more than at any other time in her life. A pregnant or lactating dog must supply all the nutrients for herself as well as her litter of pups – whether those pups are receiving these nutrients through the mother’s placental wall during pregnancy or via her milk during nursing. So, yes, pregnancy and lactation are even more nutritionally taxing than catching a Frisbee or running agility!

Let’s take a close look at each category of high-performance dog and discuss how to apply the principles of functional nutrition for optimum health and performance, as defined by Dr Dobbs and Diana Laverdure in their book titled “Canine Nutrigenomics – The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health“.

Canine Athletes

Canine athletes require a nutrient-dense diet to support the additional stress placed on their active bodies. For starters, since physical activity increases metabolism, additional energy (calories) is critical to fuel the active dog’s lifestyle and enable him to perform at his peak. But before you start feeding your dog like a “jock,” be sure to objectively assess his activity level. Is he an agility, search-and-rescue, herding or farm dog, a rigorous jogger or hiker? While your canine companion might enjoy the occasional romp on the beach or brisk weekend hike, that doesn’t qualify him as an athlete.

If you overestimate your dog’s energy needs, you’ll feed him too many calories and he’ll end up overweight and unhealthy. Once you’ve determined that your dog really is an “athlete,” the next step is to determine the type of activities he participates in – those that require short bursts of high-intensity energy or endurance sports that require longer-range stamina. This is important because the body uses three different systems to metabolize energy, and the type of activity your dog performs will determine which energy system his body will use. This, in turn, will determine whether his calories (i.e., “fuel”) should come primarily from fats or carbohydrates.

The three energy systems are [ref]Biochemistry. 5th edition, Section 30.4, Fuel Choice During Exercise Is Determined by Intensity and Duration of Activity (NCBI Bookshelf)[/ref]:

  • Adenosine triphosphate–creatine phosphate (see: Wikipedia) (ATP-CP) system (also called the phosphagen system or one enzyme system): This system uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate (CP), which are stored in the muscles, to supply just enough energy for a brief, high-intensity activity such as a single vertical jump. It fuels the body for only about five to 20 seconds;
  • Glycolytic energy system (see: Wikipedia) (also known as the Anaerobic system): This system takes over when the ATP-CP system stops and supplies energy for up to about two minutes. It uses the process of glycolysis to convert glucose from carbohydrates into ATP (energy) and is important for strength and power activities;
  • Oxidative energy system (see: Wikipedia) (Also known as the Aerobic system): This system is the most complex and takes over where glycolysis leaves off, providing the sustained energy required for endurance activities. The oxidative system is an aerobic system, meaning that it uses oxygen to convert substrates into energy. The oxidative system provides the long, slow energy burn dogs need to delay fatigue, increase stamina and fuel endurance activities.

If your fur kid participates in endurance sports, his or her diet should contain a high percentage of fat because he’s drawing from the oxidative energy system. Dogs in general have a greater capacity to burn fat for energy than people do, both at rest and during exercise. In fact, research shows that even without extra conditioning, dogs on high-fat diets have more energy to burn than dogs fed a normal-fat diet. When sedentary dogs are conditioned in addition to eating a high-fat diet, their ability to burn energy increases even more. Of course, we recommend providing your fur kid with age and health-appropriate exercise opportunities to avoid weight gain. Besides, exercising with your fur kids, even if it’s a walk around your neighborhood, offers excellent socialization and mental stimulation for them, as well as deepening the bond that you share.

While it’s not unusual for huuman athletes to “carb load” before a marathon run, this philosophy does not work for our canine athletes. Dogs also generate less body heat when burning fat, enabling them to remain cooler, which is especially important in warmer climates. And, since fats contain more than twice the kcal (calories) per gram of food than carbohydrates or protein, dogs can eat a smaller portion of a high-fat diet and still obtain the energy they need. Sled dogs, the ultimate endurance dogs, thrive on a high fat diet. You will need to figure out where your dog falls on the “endurance scale” to determine his optimum fat requirements.

Endurance activities also increase a dog’s need for high quality animal protein, which provides the amino acids necessary to repair and rebuild muscle tissue and is also necessary to prevent anemia that can result from training (known as “sports anaemia”). In one study, sled dogs fed a diet containing 28% protein showed a decline in haematocrit (packed red blood cells), but those fed a diet containing 32% or greater of protein did not.

If your fur kids participates in activities that require shorter bursts of energy, their dietary needs will differ because they’ll be using the ATP-CP system and the glycolytic system. Dogs in this category are not in motion long enough for their bodies to access the longer-duration oxidative energy system. These athletes require a diet that emphasizes a high percentage of carbohydrates, which fuels glycolysis, along with protein. Bear in mind, however, that if your fur kids repeats these short bursts of activity, his or her body will eventually begin using the oxidative system and require the addition of more fat to delay fatigue during later competitions.

Note: Don’t expect immediate results when you change your dog’s diet; it can take between four to six weeks for the body to adapt, especially when switching to a higher-fat diet.

Another factor to consider is that environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and even wind conditions affect the amount of energy a dog burns during exercise. Be sure to account for these variables and adjust your dog’s caloric intake accordingly. If your fur kids trains outside during the winter, for example, you’ll need to increase his or her energy to compensate for the extra calories burned trying to stay warm.

Pregnant Bitches

Gestation (pregnancy) in dogs lasts between 56 to 66 days and averages 63 days. Since puppies in the womb don’t grow much during the first four to five weeks of pregnancy, pregnant bitches don’t require extra energy or nutrients during this time and should continue to consume the same amount of their regular high quality maintenance diet. In fact, overfeeding a pregnant dog during the first four to five weeks can result in undesirable weight gain and lead to complications during delivery. A pregnant dog might also lose her appetite around the third week of gestation, which is normal and typically doesn’t indicate a problem. However, if she continues to refuse food after a few days, consult your veterinarian.

The critical growth period for puppies in the womb occurs after week five until parturition (delivery); during this time, the puppies will require additional nutrition to ensure optimal pre-natal development. Gradually increase the pregnant dog’s food consumption during the last three to four weeks of pregnancy, so that by the time of whelping she has gained 15 to 25% of her normal body weight. Depending upon her size and the size of her litter, she’ll need to eat about 25 to 50% more than her maintenance diet to achieve this weight increase.

As long as you feed your pregnant dog a diet properly balanced for gestation, additional calcium supplementation is usually not required, and may even prove harmful.

Although little research has been conducted in dogs, studies of dairy cattle indicate that consuming a high-calcium diet during pregnancy can increase the incidence of eclampsia (also known as “milk fever”, post-partum hypocalcemia, puerperal tetany or parturient paresis), a condition exhibited during lactation. Milk fever occurs when the body cannot adequately mobilize calcium reserves from the bones to replace the calcium that has been diverted to milk production. The resulting low blood calcium levels can result in weakness, loss of appetite, tetany (muscle spasms and cramps), convulsive seizures and heart failure. Small breed bitches with large litters are most often affected, typically at peak lactation (two to three weeks after whelping).

Over-supplementation of vitamin A should also be avoided, as it can increase the likelihood of cleft palates. In smaller breeds, folic acid deficiency has been linked to the formation of cleft palates, although proof of the association is unclear.

Omega-3 fatty acid (EPA and DHA) supplements from fresh fish or fish oil and other marine sources are especially important for both pregnant and lactating dogs because the physiological stress of these conditions reduces the status of these nutrients. The greater the number of puppies in the litter, the more the nutrient status is reduced.

A lactation diet is a good choice to food your pregnant bitch during the last three to four weeks of gestation; it will provide the additional energy, fats, carbohydrates, proteins and nutrients your dog will need to sustain a healthy pregnancy as well as ensuring she is nutritionally prepared to produce lots of high quality milk for her puppies.

Lactating dams

Lactation places enormous physical demands on the dam (mother), since the nutrition she consumes must contain enough energy and nutrients to meet her own needs, as well as enable her to produce milk of sufficient quantity and quality to meet the needs of her growing puppies. In fact, lactation places more nutritional demands on a dog than at any other time in her adult life, and in some instances even exceeds the nutrition required by growing puppies. Since the number of suckling puppies determines a lactating dog’s milk production, the more puppies a dam is nursing, the greater her nutrient requirements (as we discuss below).

Puppies typically wean naturally from their mothers at about eight weeks. Feeding an inadequate diet to a lactating dog will result in health problems such as weight loss, anemia and / or diarrhea. A diet supplying only marginal nutrition may also cause her to overeat in order to meet her nutritional needs, which will overwhelm her GI tract, resulting in diarrhea. Diarrhea is potentially dangerous for a lactating bitch because it can cause dehydration, drain her of essential fluids and impair her ability to produce enough milk. Agalactia (absence of milk) or mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands, may also occur.


The most important factor regarding the metabolic and nutrient demands of a lactating dam is her energy requirement; no other stage of growth or production requires as much energy. A lactating bitch can easily require four times the amount of calories as the same size dog in a maintenance stage. It’s no wonder, considering that she produces as much milk as a dairy cow, averaging more than 8% of her body weight in milk per day! When formulating a lactation diet, it’s extremely important that the energy density of the food is sufficient.

If the food doesn’t contain adequate calories by volume, the dog won’t be able to eat enough to meet her energy requirements and a variety of problems will occur, including undesirable weight loss and the inability to produce sufficient milk to feed her litter. The more puppies being nursed, the more energy a lactating dog requires, with energy requirements greatest during peak lactation (weeks three to four). We’ll discuss how you can pump up the energy content of her diet below, when we discuss fat.

Also be sure that the lactating dog’s diet is highly palatable (so that she wants to eat) and highly digestible (to ensure that she’s able to absorb a maximal amount of nutrients from it).


Did you know that milk is 78% water? Lactating dams need a plentiful supply of water (see our article on Water) to produce enough milk to meet the needs of their young. Offer your lactating dam fresh, clean water at all times so she can drink freely as desired.


Protein is particularly important during lactation, since a dam’s milk has more than twice the protein of cow’s milk and even more protein than goat’s milk. This makes sense when we think about how quickly puppies grow (much faster than calves!). Protein requirements for lactating dams rise even more than energy requirements. Lactating bitches typically require nearly double the amount of essential amino acids than an equivalent size dog in maintenance and, in the case of the amino acids leucine and valine, nearly triple. Therefore, high quality protein must comprise a large portion of the total energy in the lactating dam’s diet.


A high fat diet is essential to provide the enormous amount of calories lactating dams require for adequate milk production. Remember that fat is the most energy dense ingredient, delivering more than twice as many calories in the same amount of food as carbohydrates and proteins. A lactating bitch can easily require five times as much fat as the same size dog in maintenance.

In addition to providing important health benefits for lactating dams, supplementation with omega-3s from fresh fish or fish oil or other marine sources can increase the fatty acid content of the mother’s milk, enabling EPA and DHA to be passed along to the nursing puppies. You’ll recall from our article on Puppies and Kittens, that puppies require omega-3s for normal physical and cognitive development.


Dogs do require glucose, but as we previously mentioned and discussed in the article about The Carb Debate, they don’t have an actual requirement for dietary carbohydrates. As long as dogs consume an ample amount of protein, they can synthesize glucose in the liver and kidneys. Studies on bitches in gestation and lactation, however, have produced conflicting results, stirring a debate within the canine nutrition community as to whether dietary carbohydrates are necessary during these more stressful times. For example, lactating bitches do require extra glucose to synthesize lactose, the sugar in dam’s milk. As advised by Dr Dobbs and Diana Laverdure, in their book titled “Canine Nutrigenomics – The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health“, take a safe approach and including 10 to 20% of your lactating dog’s daily calories from carbohydrates. Be sure to feed only good carbohydrates as we discuss throughout our blog.

Foods for lactating bitches

The following foods provide excellent sources of nutrients for lactating bitches:

  • Eggs (preferably organic, free-range) supply high quality protein and nutrients;
  • Liver, such as chicken liver, contributes vitamins A and D and other important nutrients;
  • Low-mercury fish, such as sardines, and fish oil supply omega-3 fatty acids and other important nutrients;
  • Novel animal proteins (e.g., venison and rabbit) supply high quality protein and nutrients;
  • Oatmeal (gluten-free) provides a healthy source of carbohydrates that benefits the GI tract;
  • Plant based oils, such as borage oil, coconut oil, hemp oil, olive oil, primrose oil, pumpkin seed oil and sunflower oil supply healthy calories and essential fatty acids;
  • Kelp provides iodine.

Additional Articles and Videos

Good reference articles and videos further reading available at:

  • Dr Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure, “Canine Nutrigenomics – The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health” (Amazon);
  • The Nutritional Requirements of Exercising Dogs, by Richard C. Hill, J. Nutr. December 1, 1998, vol. 128 no. 12 2686S-2690S: Nutrition.Org
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