A Nose For Food

High-fat diets help dogs find more birds.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Almost 20 years ago, I became convinced that superior nutrition is linked to better scenting ability. And knowing the impact that proof of this would have on dog owners during hunting season, I discussed the possibility of a study with the head nutritionist of a prominent dog food company. Eventually, tests did begin and differences were noted, but suddenly, without explanation, everything halted.

Perhaps the differences weren't dramatic enough. Perhaps the dogs simply lacked enthusiasm for scenting chemicals under controlled and quite foreign laboratory conditions.

Testing in the Field
More recently, nutritionists at another company, Iams, devised a different and very practical scenting study that addressed the whole dog under natural conditions. The results were spectacular. Dogs fed a premium-performance food made 55 percent more finds (points on singles or coveys) than those on a maintenance food product. That's almost one more per hour.

The study, designed by Iams nutritionist Gary Davenport, was conducted by fellow nutritionist Eric Alton on a southwestern Georgia quail-hunting plantation where a maintenance product had been used for two years with satisfaction. Performance foods are highly digestible, high-density nutrition with greater percentages of protein and fat than maintenance foods-in this case, 31.2 percent protein to 26.1 percent, and 21.4 fat to 17.2 percent.

Twenty-three English pointers were arranged into two groups based on age and gender. The dogs' handlers, who would note the numbers of birds pointed and flushed throughout quail season, as well as attitudes such as fatigue or flagging interest, were not told which diet their dogs ate. The veterinarians who would examine blood and body condition were also blind to diet. To ensure that the dogs tested were well rested, pointer braces were hunted in rotation.

More Than Just Scenting
Interestingly, many blood values, such as triglycerides, red and white blood cells and calcium, were slightly lower for the maintenance-diet group, but always within normal range. Spokesman and veterinarian Martin Coffman says this variation wasn't considered significant, but body condition was. By the end of the season, dogs on maintenance had lost coat condition and weighed about 7 percent less than those on performance. This suggests that something more than scenting ability was involved. The dogs on higher fat and protein felt better, hunted more enthusiastically and demonstrated greater stamina.

"Dogs burn up carbohydrates four or five minutes into a hunt," says Coffman. "After that, they're burning fat for energy. More dietary fat fuels dogs longer. A lot of people think that feeding a high-fat diet makes a dog run hot. Not true. Fat takes fewer calories to burn, so it actually burns cooler."

The study bore this out. During 13 of 14 heat-stress days (based on a temperature-humidity index), dogs on high-fat diets outperformed those on the lower-fat diets. It also proves that hunting success depends upon how we fuel the whole dog-nose, brain and body.

Contact: For a copy of the study, call 800-675-3849.