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Winter nutrition for working dogs

Winter nutrition for working dogs

With winter looming on the horizon, care of your working dog over the colder months is important if you want them to be healthy, happy, and able to perform at their best next spring.

Over winter your working dogs' nutritional requirements will be different to what they need over the summer months.

Southland vet Hugh Hasselman from VetSouth, is interested in the health of working dogs. He says; “Dogs working hard on hill country, especially in poor weather, will often have much higher energy and nutrient requirements than their standard maintenance diet could possibly provide.”

Feeding working dogs a high fat, high protein diet when they are working in cold or wet conditions helps them maintain physical performance, regenerate muscle tissue, maintain red blood cell levels, and protect against injury.

“The incidence of musculoskeletal (bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments) injuries is significantly higher in working dogs that are fed low protein diets,” says Hugh. “Feeding a high quality, high protein diet has also been demonstrated to protect those dogs against significant falls in their red blood cell counts (anaemia), as can happen during periods of high workload.”

To ensure your working dog is getting the best quality protein, Hugh recommends reading the ingredients labels on bags of dog food. Some may state that they are high in protein, but if it is a plant sourced protein, this will have a lower bioavailability (be less able to be digested and absorbed) than animal protein. This means a lower amount of protein is available for the dog to use.

Many farmers use homekill to feed their dogs, but Hugh says there are known risks associated with eating raw meat and bones, such as dental damage, intestinal obstructions, gut infections, and constipation. The transmission of Taenia ovis (sheep measles) is also an important risk if meat is not adequately frozen or cooked.

While the combination of meat and a standard biscuit diet may be quite adequate for many dogs doing light work, or during the off season, it is unlikely to provide the correct amounts of protein (amino acids), fat (fatty acids) and energy for dogs in a period of heavy work.

Dogs that are fatigued from working on a winter’s day need to sleep and recover. However, rather than sleeping, they may need to spend a considerable amount of time chewing large portions of cold meat, bone and hard biscuits just to consume enough to keep warm and replenish their significant energy and protein demands.

Hugh says; “A better strategy would be to supplement homekill dog tucker with a premium energy dense (smaller volume) dog food, rather than the cheaper, cereal-based biscuits.”

Feeding a premium quality commercial dry dog food with ad-lib access to clean water best meets the “complete and balanced diet” requirements for your working dog’s health and performance. Hugh says that in recent years, many farmers have converted to feeding the premium diets that are now available and are seeing the benefits for themselves.

The timing of feeding and exercise is also important. There is strong evidence that feeding dogs within two hours after their day's work promotes muscle recovery, with a more rapid and complete replenishment of glycogen stores and the optimal uptake of protein to build and repair muscle cells.

So, kennel and feed them before you go in for your own evening meal.

Although it is not ideal to feed dogs close to the time of working, for some dogs that don’t eat well or struggle to maintain condition and stamina through periods of heavy exercise, a workable recommendation is to feed a small meal (one cup) of an energy dense diet at least two hours before work and then the balance of the ration within two hours of finishing work.

This protocol would also be recommended for Huntaway dogs that have had problems with bloating or have previously had a twisted stomach (GDV) so as to reduce the volume of food given per feed.

Top tips to maintain healthy dogs over winter

· Feed your dogs high quality food, even on days they have not worked, to maintain heat production, energy reserves and tissue repair.

· Ensure that drinking water is always provided and accessible during periods of work and when kenneled (bowls that are stable and not iced over).

· Check that their kennels are well positioned and insulated. Dogs that are too hot or cold will have to burn more energy to maintain normal body temperature, will be stressed and will have less effective sleep patterns.

· The provision of bedding can be difficult for a dog that destroys it, but dog coats at night are usually tolerated and can also be used through the winter season to reduce wind chill when being transported on farm.

· Maintain standard control treatments for internal and external parasites for optimal health and food utilisation.

by Carolyn Jones, VetSouth