How you feed your hard-working hunting dog leading up to, during and after a hunt is critical for top performance
By Tom Carpenter
Every hunting dog owner has his or her own routine for feeding their companion year-in and year-out. Many of us have ideas about how that feeding strategy should or shouldn’t change when hunting seasons’ all-important days afield come around. Let’s climb out of theory and dive into the science and realities of the topic.
ENERGY BURNED, ENERGY NEEDS
What amount of calories and energy reserves does a hard-working upland dog burn over the course of a hunting day?
“It varies depending on a dog’s weight and metabolism, but there are some good benchmarks and guidelines to understand,” says Karl Gunzer, experienced dog trainer and Senior Manager of the Nestle Purina PetCare Team. “Let’s assume a 50-pound hunting dog and go from there.” That’s a good average between big and small hunting dogs, and a nice round number for adjusting math for your situation.
“That 50-pound dog will burn about 1,450 calories lounging around all day, 1,800 calories with moderate activity, and 2,200 calories in a hard, long day of hunting,” says Gunzer.
“Do the math from there with your own dog food,” suggests Gunzer. “Here’s an example. Purina Pro Plan Performance dog food has 475 calories in one cup of its chicken-rice formula. That 50-pound dog would have to go from 3 to 4-1/2 cups of food per day when hunting hard.”
A higher-calorie food, such as Purina Pro Plan with salmon, with 495 calories per cup, would take just a little less food; formulas with fewer calories require more food.
“It’s a pretty significant increase of food that’s needed,” says Gunzer.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR CONDITIONS
“You also need to consider the weather conditions at hand,” adds Gunzer. Cold air, and wet, damp or snowy days, increase your dog’s energy needs. “For example, for each 10 degree F drop in ambient temperature, you should increase the dog’s calories-per-day intake by about 7.5 percent,” says Gunzer.
“For example, if you’re feeding 4 cups a day at 50 degrees, a drop to 20 degrees would suggest a 22.5% calorie intake increase, or just about one more cup,” says Gunzer.
WHEN TO FEED
Should a hunter feed a dog extra well – increase their food intake -- the evening before a hunt, to build energy reserves?
“Absolutely,” says Gunzer, adding with a laugh: “100 percent. Without a doubt. No questions.”
The reason is simple. “Digestion can take up to 12 hours,” he says. “Feeding that dog an excellent meal the night before an upcoming day of hard hunting allows that food to digest. The protein, fat and calories can become available to burn.”
“Sled dog racers like to feed their dogs as early as possible the evening before a hard day on the trail,” notes Gunzer. “That gives the food even more time to digest and be available to burn up.”
“A high fat, high protein diet is best for an active hunting dog,” says Gunzer. “Carbohydrates need to be a part of the mix too. Purina Pro Plan Performance, for example, is 30% protein and 20% fat, the rest of the volume being moisture, micronutrients and carbohydrates. Research has shown that to be an excellent ratio for a performance food.”
WHEN NOT TO FEED (OR GO LIGHT)
You wouldn’t start out a hunting day on an empty stomach. Should your dog?
It may seem kind to feed your dog before hitting the field. Gunzer recommends otherwise.
“That can be a bad practice,” he says. “That morning food won’t digest properly. It will sit there in the gut, unavailable for the dog’s use, and drawing blood away from the dog’s muscles and to its stomach. It will weigh the dog down, and it could also cause torsion and bloating issues.”
“If the dog is on a morning feeding routine and you think they need it, be sure make that meal as light and early as possible,” he says.
FEEDING DURING THE HUNT: GOOD OR BAD?
An energy boosting snack, and lunch, are good ideas for active human hunters. What about canine bird chasers?
The recommendation is similar to breakfast time: Go easy, or better yet, don’t feed at all.
Hard-core realities aside, that’s a hard thing to do when you’re sitting there mowing a sandwich or sitting in a café. “Some expert trainers and longtime hunters will say that handful of kibble – maybe a quarter cup of the dog’s usual fare -- can be okay midday,” says Gunzer. “That may be more for your feelings though,” he adds.
“A bite or two of your sandwich probably won’t hurt and it may make you and the dog feel a little better,” adds Gunzer, “but it probably won’t improve performance.”
You should in no way, shape or form feed your dog a big meal when more hunting is coming again shortly. That could cause torsion or bloat, and it will definitely weigh the dog down, leading to decreased performance and often an upset stomach or diarrhea.
“Good hydration is more important,” says Gunzer. “Worry about that instead.”
AFTER THE HUNT
Your pooch was a hunting beast all day. He’s pooped. She’s going to get fed before you. Should you present more food than usual?
“Take the same approach you did before the hunt,” says Gunzer. “Absolutely provide the nutrition that dog needs to restore muscle tissue, build energy reserves back, and get ready for the next day. You’ve got to replace those calories the dog burned up.”
Gunzer offers up two important tips in this respect:
“I always recommend feeding wet food on the road and after any hunt,” he advises. “Simply add water to the dog’s food. That additional hydration is essential.” Warm water is nice for making gravy.
“Wait a minimum of one hour after the hunt to feed a good meal,” he says. “You want that dog to cool down, and its heart rate to slow. This reduces the chance for torsion and bloat.”
There’s plenty of science supporting the recommended strategies for feeding a dog on a hunting day – an extra-good meal the night before, little to no breakfast, only a tiny snack if any at all during the hunt, and a well-timed and robust dinner afterwards … and all of it with a focus on hydration.
But there’s also an art to it all, and that’s your deep understanding of your own hunting dog. Use the concepts here to build your own dog feeding strategies for those special days you and your companion share afield.