The Best Dog Food for Active Dogs

What is the best dog food for active dogs? How does the type, duration and frequency of activity influence the nutritional needs of your dog? Should all active dogs even be on the same diet composition?

We will be covering these questions and more today.

Probably one of the biggest drivers of choosing the appropriate food for your dog if they are healthy other than life stage (aka puppy vs. adult vs senior), and breed (small, medium, large) will be activity level.

Ideal Dog Food for Active Dogs range based on several key factors:

  • Duration of Activity (how long the dog is active)
  • Intensity of the Activity (walking, jogging, sprinting)
  • Frequency of the Activity (several times per day, daily, weekly, monthly)

Ideal Composition in Dog Food for Active Dogs

The first thing you need to understand when you look at a dog’s metabolic needs based on activity level in comparison to a human’s metabolic needs is that: dog’s aren’t humans.

I know this might seem obvious. Of course they aren’t humans! But many people assume that since people who are highly active need to carb-load before long races, and focus on grams of protein to help build muscle – that dogs need the same things. But dog’s are different.

The Role of Protein in the Active Dog’s Diet

There seems to be some debate around the ideal amount of protein within an active dog’s diet, however all sources agree as to the role of protein in the diet for a canine athlete. Protein’s main function within the diet is to:

  • Repair Skeletal Muscle
  • Formation of New Muscle Tissue
  • Increased Need for Transport Proteins for Energy-Generating Pathways
  • Increased Blood Volume (need for more plasma protein)
  • Tissue Protein Synthesis
  • Small amount of energy (10-15%) from Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine – essential amino acids.
It is generally not recommended to use protein as a fuel source within a working dog's diet. The main reason for this is because the body has to work very hard to breakdown protein, and convert it to glucose or fatty acids to use it as energy. This conversion process requires additional byproducts (urea) to to excreted via urine. And protein is not as energetically dense as fat - making it a less optimal energy source.

An Active Dog’s Metabolism: Carbs vs Fat

The nutritional needs of active dogs depend on the frequency, intensity and duration of the activity. We find that more short-term exercise (even if intense) tends to not influence metabolic needs as much as activities that last a longer duration.

But we also find that well-conditioned dogs tend to utilize fat as fuel better than non-conditioned dogs. Meaning that if the frequency of the work is reduced, your dog is not as good at burning fat as fuel. So if your dog is a “weekend warrior” their metabolic needs are likely not much different due to the reduced frequency.

Generally speaking for active dogs the first 3 minutes of exercise rapidly uses glucose stores in the muscles as a quick energy source (glycogen/glycolysis). After 3 minutes to about 90 minutes dogs utilize carbohydrate oxidation as the primary energy source. Then after about 90 to 120 minutes metabolism starts to shift to using fat as the primary fuel source. The fat oxidation provides an seemingly “unlimited” energy source for dogs which is why you see some dogs able to run or walk for 6-8 hours without seeming to tire.

What this means is that depending on the type and duration of activity that your dog is doing – the metabolic needs will change.

Metabolism of Healthy Athletic Dog starts with Glucose (carbohydrate metabolism) then shifts to Fat Metabolism as the primary fuel source after about two hours.
Image From: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, page 328
Dog Food For Active Dogs - Sprinting Dogs with Less than 30 minutes of activity per day.

Activity: Less than 30 minutes

Activities that fall into the category of sprinting are those that have high to moderate intensity, but very short durations. The total activity time is typically less than 10 minutes of high intensity, with training or conditioning of less than 30 minutes per day.

  • Racing Greyhounds
  • Agility
  • Flyball-Frisbee
  • Recreational Running
  • Weight-pulling
  • Lure -course racing
  • Hiking or Walking Less than 2 miles

Macro-Composition Needs for Active Dogs

with Less than 30 minutes of Activity per Day:

  • Protein: 24-30%
  • Fat: 30-40%
  • Carbs: 30-45%

Other Nutritional Factors:

  • Low Fiber, Highly Digestible (>80% dry matter)
  • Feed Small meals prior to racing, and larger meals at the end of the day.

Research on Dog Food for Active Dogs – Sprinters

A 2001 research study on racing greyhounds found that dogs fed a lower protein diet (24%) had better performance than dogs who were fed a higher protein (37%) diet. As the percent fat between the two diets was similar (33% fat), researchers believed that protein is just not am adequate form of energy for dogs in comparison to carbohydrates.

This research suggests that higher protein may not be ideal for dogs who undergo sprinting activities, as it cannot be broken down as a easily accessible energy source. According to the National Research Council protein needs may need to be increased up to 10% when dogs are fed a calorically restricted diet.

A 1992 study on racing greyhounds found that high fat inclusion (75%), with low carbohydrate (6%) negatively influenced performance of racing greyhounds in comparison to a moderate fat (31%), moderate carb (46% ) diet. (National Research Council: Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats)

Further research in 2000 on racing greyhounds evaluated two diets to compare how fat content influences performance in racing greyhounds. It found that a moderate fat (32%), moderate carb (43%) composition had better results than a low fat (25%), high carb (54%) composition.

This research combined suggests that there is a sweet spot for carbohydrates and fat for sprinting dogs around 30% fat and 40% carbohydrates on a caloric basis. However exact optimal values are still unknown. Most researchers and nutritionists seem to agree that well conditioned dogs may be able to do well with higher fat inclusion within the diet - up to 40%, while limiting carbohydrates to 30% of calories.

Dog Food for Active Dogs – High Intensity, Low Duration Activities

Most commercial pet foods will be adequate for dogs within this first level of activity on a macronutrient basis as typically dog foods tend to be over 25% protein, and about 30% fat. However not all foods on the market today are what we would consider “highly digestible“. Some foods may actually be higher in fat that needed for this particular category of activity according to our current recommendations based on research.

Kibble Dog Food For Active Dogs

Purina Pro Plan Sport 27/17

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 27%
  • Fat: 40%
  • Carbs: 33%

497 kcal/cup

Eukanuba Performance 26/16

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 25%
  • Fat: 37%
  • Carbs: 37%

355 kcal/cup

Open Farm Turkey Ancient Grains

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 28%
  • Fat: 34%
  • Carbs: 38%

425 kcal/cup

Fresh Dog Food for Active Dogs

Nom Nom Turkey Flare

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 31%
  • Fat: 35%
  • Carbs: 34%

92% Digestible
42 kcal/oz

PetPlate Dog Food: It's about time

Pet Plate Tail Waggin’ Turkey

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 27%
  • Fat: 32%
  • Carbs: 41%

93% Digestible
38 kcal/oz

Just Food For Dogs Chicken

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 26%
  • Fat: 32%
  • Carbs: 43%

94% Digestible
36 kcal/oz

Dog Food For Active Dogs - Moderate Activity between 30 minutes to 2 hours, like hunting dogs.

Activity: 30 minutes to 2 hours

Activities that fall into the category usually have both high and low intensity activity (or a combination) and activity usually lasts for a longer duration. This means dogs start to go from being “sprinters” to being “endurance” athletes. Some activities that fit into this category are:

  • Flyball-Frisbee Trials
  • Recreational Running
  • Military Work
  • Service Dog Work
  • Search and Rescue
  • Field Trial Hunt Tests
  • Hiking or Walking from 2-10 miles

Macro-Composition Needs for Active Dogs

with between 30 minutes to 2 hours of activity per day:

  • Protein: 30-32%
  • Fat: 40-55%
  • Carbs: 20-45%

Other Nutritional Factors:

  • Low Fiber, Highly Digestible (>80% dry matter)
  • Feed Small meals prior to racing, and larger meals at the end of the day.

Research on Dog Food for Active Dogs – Moderate Activity

We actually have very limited research on the nutritional needs of dogs within this category. It is generally accepted that dogs needs for protein and fat will increase as duration and intensity of activity increases. However because of the high variability of activity in this category it’s hard to control for factors to create controlled research studies.

One research study comparing Quail Hunting Dogs on two different diets found that dogs on a diet composed of 28% protein, 43% fat, and 29% carbs performed better and maintained weight better throughout hunting season than dogs on a diet of 25% protein, 37% fat and 37% carbs.

This suggests that dogs undergoing moderate exercise do best on the classical "30/20" diet.

What we do know is the caloric needs of dogs within this category start to increase well-above established requirements for neutered dogs. Dog’s who are moderately active may need to consume 2 to 5 times the amount of calories as the typical “pet” dog. With this higher energy needs comes the need to either feed more often, or to feed a more calorically dense diet.

Calculating Caloric Needs: [(wt in lbs/2.2) ^0.75] x 70 = Resting Energy Requirement

We multiply this RER by 2-5 to get the needs of our moderately active dogs.
  • Food can be broken up into 2-4 meals per day.
  • Choose more calorically dense options, at >40 kcal/ounce, 400 kcal/cup, or 500 kcal per 12.5 oz can.
  • Bring Water for during Activity, offer as needed

Dog Food for Active Dogs – Moderate Activity

The most common diets for dogs within this category will be those formulated for performance for highly active dogs. You will likely see “30/20” on the label, with ensures a certain dietary composition that is appropriate for most dogs in this category. For fresh food options you will need to convert gaureenteed analysis values to a caloric basis in order to compare between diets.

Kibble Dog Food For Active Dogs

Purina Pro Plan 30/20

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 28%
  • Fat: 45%
  • Carbs: 27%

484 kcal/cup

Eukanuba 30/20

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 28%
  • Fat: 45%
  • Carbs: 27%

447 kcal/cup

Nutrisource Performance

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 28%
  • Fat: 45%
  • Carbs: 27%

488 kcal/cup

Fresh Dog Food for Active Dogs

Nom Nom Chicken Cuisine

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 29%
  • Fat: 49%
  • Carbs: 22%

42 kcal/ounce

Spot& Tango Lamb and Brown Rice

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 33%
  • Fat: 45%
  • Carbs: 22%

Just Food For Dogs Beef & Potato

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 27%
  • Fat: 53%
  • Carbs: 20%

44 kcal/ounce

Dog Food For Active Dogs - Endurance with over 2 hours of activity per day, like sled dogs.

Activity: 2 hours or more

Probably one of the most nutritionally demanding activities for dogs are those that do low-to-moderate intensity excerise over long-periods of time. This increased duration can cause caloric needs to be 8 to 11 times the amount of the typical “pet” dog. Through research studies we have also found these activities to be nutritionally and physically taxing – with higher protein and fat needs for this category in comparison to all others.

  • Long-Distance Sled Racing
  • Pack-Hound Hunting
  • Livestock Guarding
  • Livestock Herding
  • Hiking or Walking more than 10 miles

Macro-Composition Needs for Active Dogs

with more than 2 hours of Activity per Day:

  • Protein: 30-40%
  • Fat: 50-70%
  • Carbs: 0-20%

Other Nutritional Factors:

  • Low Fiber, Highly Digestible (>80% dry matter)
  • On longer race or activity days may need additional energy in the form of fat.
  • Small carbohydrate “snacks” may be beneficial one hour after intense exercise to help rebuild glycogen stores. However research is limited to if this helps performance.

Many owners find combo-feeding dogs in this category of activity to be easier due to budget and the need for high fat diets.

Research on Dog Food for Active Dogs – Endurance Athletes

As we start to increase activity level into the long-distance endurance category our dogs becomes more “fat burners” then “carbohydrate burners” as their main source of energy. And for our ultra-endurance athletes carbohydrate requirements become almost zero. We do see some need for increased protein in our long-distance runners in order to avoid injury, and as a cofactor in gluconeogenesis.

In one research study the focused on endurance athletes they looked at the performance of dogs given graduated amounts of protein within the diet (16%, 24%, 32% and 40%). Researchers found that dogs fed either the 16% protein or 24% protein diets were more likely to be injured, with all dogs fed the 16% protein diet becoming injured at some time during the trial period. They also found that dogs that consumed with 40% protein diet had the highest plasma volume. (National Research Council, Reynolds 1995)

Several small clinical trials have been noted in sled dogs on diets lower in protein (25%) and lower in fat (35%) where dogs suffered from injuries, cramping, reduced stamina, and even coprophagy. In these causes dietary protein was increased (30-33%) and dietary fat was increased (45-50%) – symptoms resolved and stamina improved. (NRC page 291).

Researchers concluded from these studies that optimal protein for performance dogs in order to avoid injury is between 30-40% protein on a caloric basis. 

A research study evaluating the need of carbohydrates for endurance canine athletes. And found that unlike people who see decreased stamina if they do not replace glycogen stores after long-distance running (via carbohydrates), dogs do not have this issue. Researchers had 36 sled dogs consume a diet composed 35% protein, 50% fat and 15% carbohydrates, and then had them run 100 miles per day for 5 days straight. Muscle glycogen stores were evaluated each day. And though muscle glycogen stores did decrease to 21% on day one, they raised back up to 50% by day two and remained stable for the rest of the trial period.

Further research looking and general health, performance, and blood parameters on healthy sled dogs found that dogs fed diets between 28-41% protein on a caloric basis, with between 59-72% fat and no digestible carbohydrates suffered no ill-effects by the lack of carbohydrates within the diet.

Finally research published in 1980 by Downey et al found that Beagles fed a high fat diet (53-67% or calories) could run for longer periods of time in comparison to when fed a more moderate fat diet (29% of calories).

This suggests that endurance canine athletes are primarily fat-burners, and that carbohydrate-loading was un-necessary in the canine endurance athlete. These studies also concluded that there is no carbohydrate needs for the canine endurance athlete.

Dog Food for Active Dogs – Endurance Athlete

There are not many options for high -fat performance kibbled products, the only product I could fine is available in Canada – Inukshuk 32/32 (25% protein, 60% fat, 15% carbs). However this product is not widely available in the USA. Most other kibbled foods have optimized for protein while keeping fat low (great for weight maintenance) or at least not high enough in fat for our endurance athletes.

However we do have several freeze-dried raw and lightly cooked options. All three of the Freeze dried diets mentioned have done additional pathogen and quality control testing on their products to make sure they are free of pathogens via “test and hold” procedures.

Dry Dog Food For Active Dogs

Ziwi Peak

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 33%
  • Fat: 63.5%
  • Carbs: 3.5%

312 kcal/scoop

Open Farm Freeze-Dried

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 34%
  • Fat: 61%
  • Carbs: 6%

233 kcal/cup

Primal Freeze-Dried

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 39%
  • Fat: 50%
  • Carbs: 10%

127 kcal/oz

Fresh Dog Food for Active Dogs

Chi Dog Water Diet

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 33%
  • Fat: 56%
  • Carbs: 11%

Open Farm Surf & Turf

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 31%
  • Fat: 58%
  • Carbs: 11%
Kabo Dog Food

Kabo Lamb Recipe

Percent Calorie:

  • Protein: 33%
  • Fat: 63%
  • Carbs: 4%

Depending on the duration and intensity of activity your dog gets the best dog food for active dogs will differ. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing an ideal food for your dog is their activity level. The dog who gets a less than 15 minute walk each day has significantly different nutritional needs than that of a canine athlete. And even the nutritional needs of canine athletes change depending on the type and duration of activity.

About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.

Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!

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11 thoughts on “The Best Dog Food for Active Dogs

  1. This is really interesting! We hike daily, and do nose work and a lot of active training with the dogs. They are both very high energy, despite not being super young anymore (they are 6 and 13). I home cook for them, and worked with a vet nutritionist that helped me formulate balanced recipes. I know she asked me a lot of questions about their activity level while we were working on recipes. I’m for sure going to take a look at some of the studies you mentioned – thanks for sharing them!

  2. This is super great information. I didn’t realize how different the protein levels are for the dog’s activity. But it certainly makes sense. I just never thought about it. My dog’s activity level, I admit varies by season, which is my doing. He’d keep going more so in the winter, but I get too cold. I will have to look at his food for the breakdown. I’m really curious. While he’s active year-round. He’s activity level certainly goes up in the spring and summer with a lot more hikes and longer walks. Hmmm…maybe I need to adjust accordingly. Although, he’s currently on a prescription food for a suspected colitis issue. So, I’m not sure I could adjust too much. You’ve definitely have my wheels turning.

    1. It’s definitely something to consider but definitely not the primary driver of nutritional needs if your pup has other medical conditions. I know my pup Ash has to be on a lower fat diet despite always getting well over an hour of exercise a day. Nutrition is definitely multi-factorial. 👍

  3. Wow! I knew diet definitely plays a role in the well being of our pets however I had no idea how different levels of carb, protein and fat ratios impact a dog’s diet. Seeing how differing levels impact or help maintain optimum performance based on their activity and lifestyle is enlightening. I learned something new.

    1. We are all always learning! Nutrition is an evolving field, and I honestly hope we continue to see advancement in this area looking at more moderate activity levels and long-term health. Not just short-term performance outcomes.

  4. What a great post. This will be so helpful for anyone trying to balance their dogs diet.I had no idea so many things could affect energy and activity.

    I assume a small dog would not use as much energy in its short bursts as a larger dog might on an extended walk and this would affect feeding. (Even though the small dog might jump around like a mad thing 😉 )

    1. Caloric needs by weight are actually about twice as much for smaller breed dogs than for larger breed dogs. So they automatically need a bit more calorically dense diets per size than a larger breed dog.

      But it is interesting that we seriously lack comparative research between small & large breed dogs on activity level needs. I do wonder how much size would influence these recommendations.

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