An exact definition of a "hunting dog" can be hard to narrow down. Everyone knows what a hunting dog is, but not everyone has the same idea of what that dog does, because different hunters demand varying levels of performance from their canine partners.
A couch-potato pet that hunts only occasionally has entirely different nutritional needs than, say, a retriever owned by a waterfowl guide, a setter working for a shooting preserve or a coonhound or spaniel lucky enough to have an owner that is able to hunt several times each week.
Dr. Brian Zanghi earned his PhD in animal nutrition from the University of Kentucky and works for Nestlé Purina PetCare Company. He uses his two male black Labs for waterfowl hunting and hunt tests. Baxter is 16 years old, and Aspen is 16 months old. Zanghi said that, while nutritional needs of hard-working hunting dogs, which he refers to as "performance" dogs, vary with age, the basis for sound diet is high levels of fat and protein rather than carbohydrates.
"If you have a hard-working hunting dog, it is important to feed a performance food year-round, and not just prior or during hunting season," Zanghi said. "It helps the body adapt to high exercise levels and increases athleticism. Performance diets provide elevated levels of protein and fat with reduced proportions of calories derived from carbohydrates to support increased caloric demand and elevated protein turnover. Fats are fuel for the body because dogs preferentially use fats for energy during physical activity. By feeding a food with a higher proportion of fat, you are metabolically priming the dog's muscles for an improved level of performance and endurance."
Carbohydrates in dog foods come from rice, potatoes and similar staples. However, the percentage is not on product labels because the industry method for determining the amount of carbohydrates relies on established formulas based on the amount of fat and protein as a percentage by weight. Each pound of food has a certain percentage of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, fiber, carbohydrates and water. Labels show crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, ash (calcium, phosphorus and other minerals), fiber and moisture, with the highest percentage listed first and the lowest, last.
Protein and fat derive primarily from chicken, beef and lamb. While lamb was once an alternative for dogs with skin or digestive sensitivities, that role is now filled by duck, venison and especially salmon or whitefish.
Performance foods labeled for puppies have 28 percent protein and 18 percent fat and, for large-breed puppies, which have lower metabolism, 28 percent protein and 16 percent fat. Foods for adult non-working dogs have 26 percent protein and 16 percent fat.
Adult performance foods for hard-working adults like Zanghi's Aspen have 28 to 30 percent protein and 18 to 20 percent fat. Foods for older adult dogs like Baxter have lower-fat meats like turkey to lower protein to 25 percent protein and fat to 8 to 12 percent for maintaining optimum weight.
"Notice that adult performance foods have two fat and protein ranges," Zanghi said. "The lower percentages are for dogs that are weekend warriors. The higher percentages are for dogs that hunt several times each week."
Dogs do not self-regulate food intake because they evolved to eat everything in front of them. Therefore, owners should feed a specific amount once or twice daily and increase or decrease the amount according to activity level.