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Nutrition Advice for Active Dogs

by Lauren Samet

Your dog is considered very active if they take part in sports or work regularly. Examples might include activities like herding, sledding, agility courses, search and rescue or other vigorous exercises. To keep your dog as healthy as possible when they’re being pushed physically, it’s important to feed them a balanced diet filled with key nutrients. We’re here to help, with some dietary advice for your little athletes.

Sprinting versus Endurance

Think sprinting dogs and you think of greyhounds. This breed is able to sprint over a distance of less than one kilometre relying mostly on anaerobic energy (these are sources that don’t require oxygen, for a quick burst of high-intensity energy). Any dogs involved in activities such as flyball, fetch and retrieving also require the quick energy bursts needed for sprinting. Sprinters rely on glycogen stores in their fast-twitch muscle fibres for these quick bursts of energy. Without these stores, speed can suffer.

For endurance exercise, such as moderate work at distances of over 1km, sled dogs are some of the top canine athletes. They are worked to build a level of fitness that means they can run at speeds of 10mph for 10-14 hours per day! This can include pulling the weight of a sled, often in low temperatures, which subsequently requires yet even more energy. Search and rescue dogs are in a similar situation; they work for hours at a time in unfavourable conditions to scale mountains and other difficult terrains. For endurance dogs, aerobic energy is most commonly used, which requires oxygen and energy reserves.

Did you know?

A short sprint for a greyhound is approximately 300 metres in the racing industry. Some of the fastest dogs are able to complete the race in around 17 seconds at an average speed of 40mph!

A Balanced Diet for Active Dogs 

A balanced diet for active dogs essentially includes the same ingredients as their more sedentary cousins, the only difference being the quantities. If you are unsure about the energy requirements for your dog’s breed, weight and exercise levels, a useful guide for approximation can be found on the Pet Food Manufacturers Association website here (the PFMA’s Energy Calculator).

The macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, fibre and protein) each have their place in a dog’s nutrient requirements. A lot of research exists into the “ideal” proportions of each for working dogs, but it is worthwhile considering any possible bias that may exist in the sources you acquire information from. Much of the information available publicly can be contradictory, and even the science in this area throws up different results depending on the breed of dog, activity, length of exercise and diet provided. Books have been written on diets for optimal active dog performance, so it is recommended to seek information that is directly applicable for the breed and type of working dog you have.

There is some debate over whether dogs use glycogen (a glucose storage molecule derived from carbohydrates) as successfully as humans do; the dog’s metabolism is different to the humans. Dogs metabolize free fatty acids at twice the rate humans do, making dog muscle better adapted to using fat as an energy source than human muscle (Hill, 1998). 

It’s thought that moderate to high-fat diets which include carbohydrates are the most efficient at providing energy for sprinting dogs. Sprinting dogs require protein in their diet too, but increased levels (36% rather than 24% of energy) have been associated with slower racing speeds (Hill, 1998). Conversely, endurance dogs perform better with high fat/high protein diets, and lower protein diets have been associated with the risk of anaemia. The National Research Council recommends working dogs be fed a diet containing approximately 30-35% crude protein (CP), while a moderately active dog only requires about 21-26% CP. Protein assists with muscle condition and tissue repair, therefore a digestible, quality source is essential for high performance in a working dog’s diet.

Fat is the most energy-dense of all macronutrients and is therefore great for working dogs. If you decide to supplement your dog’s diet with added fat then do your research, as some breeds digest certain fats better than others. It’s best to consult breed-specific literature as well as talking to your veterinarian before supplementing complete diets with extra fats. 
IMPORTANT: as fat is so energy-dense it is important not to overfeed for your dog’s activity requirements. Excess weight gain is not a working dog’s friend: it can put a strain on their joints, as well as being detrimental to other aspects of performance, like heat regulation, speed and cardiac health.


Often overlooked by pet owners when choosing dog food, digestibility is arguably more important than the 1-2% differences in fat, protein and carbohydrates some complete diets may vary by. A food’s digestibility is measured by the proportion of nutrients in the food that are bioavailable to the dog (i.e. can be absorbed in the dog’s intestine to reach the bloodstream). The digestibility of your dog’s food boils down to its ingredients, their quality, how they are processed and how well your dog can digest them. Digestibility is therefore indicative of a food’s nutritional value and quality. 

Manufacturers can carry out digestibility trials on the foods, but it is rarely quantified on the packaging. Owners can get an idea of their dogs’ food’s digestibility by monitoring the volume and consistency of stool their dog produces (for example, if they are an average size for the dog, firm and moist and do not contain recognizable food components). Highly digestible foods result in regular and consistent defecation, but usually less frequently. In contrast, foods that are lower in digestibility can cause diarrhoea and/or flatulence. Highly digestible foods should allow for optimal growth and body weight at the daily feeding quantities recommended. 


Just as they are for humans, antioxidants are great for dogs to prevent free radical and ROS (reactive oxygen species) damage. This can occur on a cellular level when the body is put under physical stress. During high-intensity exercise, the concentration of oxidation products increases and the body’s antioxidants are sent to deal with the free radicals. Therefore, over time, the concentration of antioxidants in the blood can start to drop.
Having a higher concentration of antioxidants in the body, to begin with can help avoid depletion, ensuring concentrations are large enough to counteract free radical build-ups during prolonged activity. 

Vitamin E is one of the most famous nutritional antioxidants, often added to pet food in the form of tocopherols to assist with food preservation. Vitamin E is essential to dogs regardless of activity levels but has been recommended for active dogs in the past if their diet is reliant on meats, fish (or other foods high in fat) that are stored for long periods.

Don’t Forget the H2O

Yes, water is a nutrient! And often the most overlooked one for active dogs. Water is crucial for active dogs, replacing moisture lost through respiration and panting and allowing efficient cooling of the body. Dehydration can lead to serious illness over long periods, not to mention poor athletic performance. Dogs with thicker coats and those working in warmer temperatures require regular access. Little and often is better for active dogs than long drinks every few hours, as this can cause vomiting when proceeded or preceded by intense exercise.

What to Avoid

What should be avoided with any dog, especially those which are active is: overfeeding (including treats and table scraps), feeding before or after strenuous exercise (best to give it at least an hour either side of a work out to avoid stomach issues), and sudden changes in food (which may lead to stomach upset or diarrhoea).

Support Mobility

Healthy joints are key to an active dog’s performance. To support them, many owners choose to feed their dogs supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin. Omega 3 fatty acids and curcumin are also commonly fed, due to their links with supporting the reduction of inflammation. Vitapaws offer a range of supplements for active dogs to support joint health including:

•    Curcumin for Dogs
•    Glucosamine, Chondroitin and Vitamin C for Dogs

The majority of information in this article is based around that provided by:
National Research Council (2006) Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10668.
Other sources include:
Case, L. P., Carey, D. P., Hirakawa, D. A., & Daristotle, L. (2000) Canine and feline nutrition: A resource for companion animal professionals (2nd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby
Comblain, F., Serisier, S., Barthelemy, N., Balligand, M., & Henrotin, Y. (2016) Review of dietary supplements for the management of osteoarthritis in dogs in studies from 2004 to 2014. Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 39(1), 1-15.
Hill, R. C. (1998) The nutritional requirements of exercising dogs. The Journal of Nutrition, 128(12), 2686S-2690S.