What follows is meant to be a reflection on personal preferences and is purely informational in nature. I in no way claim to be a vet or a canine nutritional expert, and this is not meant to be a comprehensive feeding guide. Please consult with your vet to help you make the best nutritional choices for your dog’s specific needs.
Shortly after 2-year-old Bella came into my life and we started on big adventures together, I became pretty passionate about pet nutrition. Around that time, my adult cat was suffering from irritable bowel disease (IBD) and it was getting worse (warning: I’m about to talk about cats for a minute, but hang in there). Lucy had suffered from IBD for years, and after several vet visits, I was finally told that her digestive system problems needed to be resolved or her outlook might not be good. She had a couple of bad teeth that need to be removed, including a big canine with exposed nerves, but the vet was unwilling to put her under anesthesia until her health improved. I left that vet visit feeling like I had been given an ultimatum, along with a quote for thousands of dollars worth of ultrasounds and bloodwork, and a $40 bag of “prescription cat food,” in which the main ingredients were corn and chicken-by-products.
After walking out of the vet’s office with what I felt deep down was kitty poison in a 5 lb bag, I felt helpless. I’d tried grain free kibble, limited ingredient diets, expensive wet foods, everything. Maybe I was wrong and just needed to give this prescription food a shot. Feeling sorry for both Lucy Cat and myself, something told me that I needed to try one last resort before I fed Lucy what every fiber of my being was telling me not to feed her. I headed to a local pet food shop in my neighborhood. I was hooked up with some samples of raw food for Lucy, and we were off.
It took about two days for Lucy to have literally no more symptoms of IBD, and after about 4 years of horrible bouts of digestive woes, she has been symptom-free for the last four years. My husband, a pretty huge skeptic of raw food (It’s too expensive! You are just giving into yuppie pet food trends!), is now one of the biggest believers in feeding raw after Lucy’s miraculous recovery. Lucy has also successfully had her bad teeth removed, and Pat’s only current gripe is the borderline manic energy that our kitty now possess.
Ok, so what the heck does this have to do with adventuring with your dog? Although Lucy is a cat, she taught us a lot about the power of feeding raw. If changing Lucy’s food could do so much for her, how could it help Bella perform her best on the trail? We as human athletes know that we need to properly fuel our bodies to reach our full potentials. So why would we settle for cheap dog food for Bella? What we feed Bella is always changing and evolving, but we wanted to share the foods and supplements we have come to trust after years of research and experimentation. As with humans, there are a lot of trends and emerging when it comes to canine nutrition. While the multitude of products and feeding philosophies can be confusing, we personally love that more modern research and care is being put into the health of our canine counterparts.
Controlling inflammation is something that most athletes face in some form or another at some point in their lives, and canine athletes are no exception. Bella was diagnosed with a perfect storm of multiple shoulder tendinopathies as well as medial shoulder instability this year, which we’ve been actively treating for 6 months now through all sorts of therapies and treatment modalities. We’ve learned that while inflammation in itself isn’t a bad thing (it signals the body to start healing), chronic inflammation without healing is painful and problematic. Bella was prescribed NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for 6 weeks… with no real positive long term results. These drugs can cause liver, stomach, and gastrointestinal problems with extended use, so we knew it wasn’t something we were going to continue with long term.
Instead, we currently use Hemp My Pet CBD oils to help manage Bella’s inflammation, pain, and even the anxiety produced from her 6-month-long exercise restriction. Following a round of PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections in her shoulder, Bella was not allowed to use NSAIDs at all, as the injections intentionally initiate inflammation in order to promote rapid healing and ultimately restore efficient blood flow to her tendons. Her orthopedic specialist approved our use of CBD with Bella after several days and informed us they have seen great results in patients using CBD products. We like Hemp My Pet as a company, as they use strictly organic farming methods and grow all of their hemp in the US, creating only the highest-quality human grade formulations for pets. You know what you get with their products, as they grow only a specific medicinal strain of hemp and accurately control the amount of CBD in their products.
After a long mountain run (or more recently, after increasing the intensity of Bella’s at home physical therapy), we like to give a homemade golden turmeric paste or Canine Matrix’s Maximum Recovery mushroom supplement to help aid in bringing down inflammation and to promote recovery.
Soft Tissue Healing and Joint Support
Tendons are notoriously difficult to heal. While we started Bella on a more herbal-based glucosamine supplement when she was four, we have recently shifted to whole-food supplements to help her shoulder heal and to also support her joints as she ages at the recommendation of several specialists. Her orthopedic specialist asked that we begin adding at least 1500 mg of EPA + AHA daily to promote tendon healing, and suggested that we use the high-quality brand Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet to achieve this goal. We use the liquid at home, and the soft gels when traveling. This is a non-stinky fish oil made from wild sardines and anchovies. We have also started feeding New Zealand Green-Lipped mussels, in the form of a freeze-dried treat and also in ground form to support joint and tendon health.
Bella’s physical therapist recommended the Standard Process brand of supplements, which follows the whole-food philosophy and creates only the highest quality products. We are currently using Standard Process Ligaplex II daily to support Bella’s tendon and ligament healing. It’s worth noting that both Bella’s Nordic Naturals and Standard Process supplements are currently paid for by our Pet Insurance, as they were both specifically recommended by veterinary professionals. Another great reason to consider pet insurance for your dog!
One of the many benefits of including at least some raw in your dog’s diet is that meaty bones do an excellent job of scraping off plaque and tartar, which can cause serious health problems if left unchecked. We brush Bella’s teeth at night about once or twice a week, which softens any deposits, and we feed a raw bone every other week to scrape off what is left. This method has allowed us to keep her teeth white and shiny without any veterinary intervention. At seven years old, her teeth are looking great! Softer, frozen-and-thawed (rather than dried bones) are easier on teeth and less likely to cause cracking as your dog ages.
Nutrition on the Road
You don’t have to sacrifice great nutrition when on the road with your dog. We add in air-dried or freeze-dried raw to Bella’s meals when we travel, and oftentimes also include dried pumpkin to help ease any digestive upset brought on by traveling. Adding prebiotics such as In Clover Optagest is another great way to support your dog’s digestive system when on the go. Additionally, I suggest always packing extra food in case you undercalculate meals on a trip (I made this mistake once) or otherwise get held up on your adventure (think weather, mechanical problems, change in itinerary, etc…)
We often get asked if we filter Bella’s water when backpacking. The answer to that is no, but we do get her vaccinated for leptospirosis annually. Leptospirosis is a bacteria that dogs can ingest when drinking from rivers, streams, and puddles in the wilderness.
Packing Bella’s meals for a backpacking trip requires even more consideration. Here’s what we packed for Bella during our 100-mile backpacking trip on the Colorado Trail.
Each meal for Bella consisted of:
- 50% Ziwi Peak Air-Dried Real Meat Dog Food
- 25% Primal Pet Freeze Dried Real Meat Nuggets
- 25% Earthborn Holistic Kibble
We based percentage measurements off of each brand’s recommended measurements for a 60lb dog and divided her daily portion evenly for breakfast and dinner.
- We chose to feed primarily Ziwi Peak food, because it follows a whole-prey feeding philosophy, has high-quality nutrients, is reliably sourced, convenient to hike with, and is easily digestible. Air-drying the meat preserves nutrients very well. Because this food is so high quality and high in nutrients, you don’t have to feed your dog as much volume-wise, reducing weight and volume of the food (Added benefit? This means less dog poop to manage on the trail!).
- The Primal Pet Nuggets also have superior nutrient value, and the freeze-dried form lightens each meal weight-wise significantly. Feeding exclusively these nuggets would be prohibitively expensive for Bella, and would also be way too excessive in terms of volume we’d have to carry for a 60 lb dog…meaning, even though it may be very light, it wouldn’t fit in the space of her pack because we would have to pack so much of it.
- We feed Earthborn Holistic kibble as Bella’s “base” food at home (she also eats some frozen raw with her kibble), so we knew it would make her food mix more economical, while also keeping some consistency in her diet. Earthborn Holistic kibble is high-quality and reliably sourced, and we already know Bella digests it well.
Getting Started on Raw Feeding
If you are interested in integrating raw foods into your dog’s diet, it can be daunting to know where to start. If you have a good local natural pet food store, they can be a great resource to help you find raw foods for dogs in your area. We’ve found that Small Batch frozen foods in bulk are the highest quality yet most economical option for us to afford feeding a 60lb dog raw food on a regular basis. We’ve also started feeding whole, frozen sardines available at our local natural pet store, and high-quality chicken eggs (shell and all!). Real Dog Box is a fun service we use that delivers a new variety of air-dried raw meats to your door each month and can help you experiment with different types of raw meats with your dog. We’ve found that by introducing Bella to a variety of foods and rotating the supplements and meats that we feed her, her digestive system has become much more tolerant of novel foods. Additionally, rotation helps to fill in any nutritional gaps that one type of food alone might not fill. It also makes life a lot more exciting and fun for your dog!
We don’t feed 100% raw…we also feed Earthborn Holistic kibble for part of Bella’s meals. Recently, there has been a lot of press around grain-free diets potentially causing heart problems in dogs. While personally, we don’t think there has been a lot of scientific evidence behind this, we choose a high-quality kibble that isn’t overly heavy on legumes and other starches like sweet potatoes. All grain-free kibbles are definitely not created equal or safely sourced, do your research! We also give heart-organ meats as treats (known to have good amounts of taurine) to support heart health, just to be on the safe side. Our current favorite for training treats is Campfire’s Hearty Bites, which are made of 100% beef heart and sized perfectly for training and positive reinforcement.
What you feed your dog is certainly a highly personal decision in the end. We do what we feel is the best for Bella and will give her the healthiest and life possible. There is a lot of confusing nutrition advice out there, but we hope that our experiences give you some “food for thought” and at the very least get you inspired to be more involved and creative with your dog’s nutrition. We’ve found that keeping up on the most recent research available, asking trusted (and forward-thinking) professionals for advice, and keeping an open mind are the first steps in providing your dog with a long career out on the trails, and great nutrition for life!