These days there are several factors that can limit participation in our sport, not the least of which is cost. The price of keeping even a small kennel isn’t inexpensive. Among expenses such as equipment, travel, and veterinary bills, the actual cost of dog groceries is one of the highest, and it isn’t getting any cheaper. If you’re a musher with any size kennel, you are already painfully aware of this. So, I had this idea to do an article on what is the least expensive yet highest quality way to feed sled dogs. The following is what I found.I went into the research for this article with some preconceived notions–some were correct, some weren’t. First of all I want to thank the very busy Dr. Arleigh Reynolds for help with this article. One of the world’s premiere dog nutritionists, Arleigh took the time to explain concepts and manufacturing processes in commercial dog food production, and share his experiences with feeding his highly competitive open-class sprint racing team.One notion I had was that feeding a higher protein/fat dog food than a lower one would save money and allow you to feed less food. To this point, I was partially correct. The other notion I had, which proved correct, was that the cost of buying and adding meat to the dogs’ diet, at the common prices paid here in Alaska, and possibly elsewhere, doesn’t save money on feed bills. It may have other practical purposes such as reducing bulk, palatability, and incidental hydration, but it aint’ saving you any dough. On paper, using a formula (see opposite page top) to determine calories per dollar, I calculated the cost per calorie of each of the 15 most popular high performance kibble dog foods most commonly used by mushers here in Alaska. The kibble formulas ranged from 30% to 37% protein, and from 20% to 25% fat. One unique formula had a whopping 32% fat, utilizing a technology that vaccum infuses fat into the kibble. I did not run the formula on any kibbles with lower levels of protein and fat as my experience has been that these levels are too low to seriously use in a working dog during strenuous training and racing. Our objective was not to find the “best” kibble, but to find the tools necessary for the average layperson or musher to understand the composition of their kibble, and how the various energy sources available to the dog are utilised. Therefore, we have not included any brand names of the kibbles or meats tested.Many if not all of these foods are also widely used in the rest of the US, where the cost may be somewhat less expensive. I’ve found that dry dog food and frozen meats in Alaska can cost up to 20% more than in the lower 48 because of shipping issues. The prices of the various foods ran from a high of just over $50 per 40 pound bag, to the “bargain basement” cost of around $26 per 40 pound bag. In order to compare apples to apples, I broke it down to the amount of calories per dollar because, after all, that is what we are looking for – the highest amount of quality, useful calories for the least expensive price. (I learned a lot about what constitutes a quality and useful calorie during the research.) The calories per dollar ranged from a high of about 3000 to a low of about 1600. To my surprise the highest calories per dollar came from the least expensive dog food, and vice versa. The few “super premium” feeds we looked at were almost twice as expensive as the cheapest, and definitely had more calories per pound, but not twice as many. But that is only part of the story, read on… And now for the big question – what’s in a calorie. As we’ve just stated, strictly comparing calories to calories, the least expensive 30/20 food was more cost effective than the higher, ultra premium blends. In actuality there is more to the story than that. The formula used to determine the metabolizable energy, and thus the calories per dollar, uses the same conversion factor for carbohydrates as it does protein. This means that for a given weight protein contains just about the same amount of calories as carbs do. But how important are carbs for a working dog, and what are their role as compared to protein and fat? Here is what Dr. Arleigh Reynolds has to say about the roles of certain energy sources in dog food. “Let’s look at the 3 different energy sources available to the dog. CARBOHYDRATESCarbohydrates are pure energy. That is all that they can be used for. There is a very tiny amount of carbohydrate that can be used structurally, but most of it is either going to be burned directly for energy, stored in muscle glycogen, or if there is an excess, it will be converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. That is the fate of carbs, they are an absolute necessity, but you don’t want to overdo it. FATSThe fate of fats is that they are the most calorically dense energy source we have. There is almost twice the amount of energy in fat per gram as there is in protein or carbohydrates. That is why we like to feed high fat diets during strenuous training or exercise. We can get more calories into them without the bulk, which means less matter in their digestive tracts, less stress diarrhea, etc. For distance dogs this a concern because they are burning so many calories, eating so much food, that we don’t want to have to put any more in their body than we have to. For sprint dogs, particularly open-class sprint dogs, they are running at such a high energy output and intensity, the stress on their GI tract is such that if there is any food in there, it is going to come out as stress diarrhea during or right after a run. PROTEINSProteins are a different story. The main purpose of protein is to replace proteins that are being used in the body – whether they are contractile proteins in the muscle, enzymes that are helping generate energy, or hemoglobin that is carrying oxygen in the blood. Every protein molecule in the body has a function. There is no stored source of protein as there are with fats and carbs. What we don’t want to do is dip into those protein molecules that are already incorporated in the body for an energy source when we are exercising because we would decrease whatever the function of that protein is. So the main role of protein is replacing and building, not energy. If the dog’s body is using lots of protein for energy, it is only because it has fallen short of it’s stores of fat and carbohydrates. So we want to minimize the energy that the dog gets from proteins. It’s inevitable that we are going to get some, and depending upon what source you read and what shape the dog is in ie: in a distance dog you may be using more protein for energy because you may end up depleting other energy stores. In a sprint dog you are probably going to use between 5 and 15% of energy from protein. That just happens during exercise. Muscles like to burn glutamine which is an amino acid. The gut also uses glutamine as it’s main fuel, and so does the immune system. There is always going to be some protein used for energy, and we have to replace that, but we don’t want to look at protein as a main energy source.” Arleigh explains.If we look at calories alone, sure, we can fill the dog up with calories from a lower protein/fat dog food, but at the expense of loading the dog up with more carbohydrates than they need. Again, in choosing a dog food for a working sled dog, we want the highest quality calories, with the minimum amount of bulk, and that is where the premium and super premium dog foods have their place. Apples to ApplesThere are also many different factors that can cause two different brands of the same dog food formula on paper to have a different effect on your dog. That is why it is so hard to choose a dog food just from the label. Sure, we see chicken meal as one of the top ingredients, but there are actually different grades of chicken meal available, and dog food manufacturers aren’t required to list this on the label. Other sources of protein that contribute to the percentage listed on the label may not be completely bio-available to the dog, such as soy, although none of the high quality dog foods in our sampling contained any soy products. This is reason why Chinese Melamine slipped into some less expensive grocery store brands – it boosted the protein levels of the wholesale raw ingredients sold to the unsuspecting manufacturers. The manufacturing and extrusion process can also have a huge effect on how the food is digested. Over or under cooking of the carbohydrates, or use of less expensive sources of carbohydrates can all cause the dreaded loose stool syndrome once your dog starts working harder and asking a little more of its digestive system.So how do we know which brand is best? Even the ever scientific Dr. Reynolds suggests the well known yet highly unscientific musher saying, of “You sometimes just have to look at what comes out the other end of the dog. Skin and coat condition, performance, and even blood work can lag in indicating a nutritional problem, but excrement is about our most immediate indicator of the volume of food that the dog is able to use.” I’ll say. It’s hard to argue with a movie theatre size Tootsie Roll to scoop up each day. “You almost always get what you pay for,” Reynolds adds. Most of the brands of kibble dog food mushers are feeding are from small manufacturers, or small divisions of larger producers and don’t waste money on promoting to the general non-musher public, a cost that has to be made up somewhere, either in the quality of ingredients, or the price of the food itself. In addition many of the brands we ran the formula on were created by mushers themselves, often times working in conjuntion with canine nutritionists. Many of them are also used by top level racers, a fact that can’t be overlooked. “Sometimes the best place to start is to look at a successful musher who has similar dogs and practices a similar type of mushing as you do, and see what they are doing.” Reynolds adds.Where’s the Beef?Many mushers traditionally mix their own diets combining kibble, fresh/frozen meats, oils, fats, etc. to attempt to achieve the perfect diet for their dogs in their environment. This method of feeding is almost as old as the the sport itself. Many believe they are saving money doing it. Assuming you don’t have a neighbor who’s a butcher, or other access to these products at a greatly reduced cost, according to our calculations, the Kcals per dollar for meat are about half of the average of all the kibbles we tested. It’s hard to believe, but really your dollar buys half of the calories in meat as it does in kibble on average. Again, we are just looking at calories here, and in meat, there are no calories from carbohydrates, all of the energy from meat sources come from protein and fat. Here’s what, and how we calculated. Water, Water Everywhere We collected 4 different commercially available meat mixes that are popular among mushers in Alaska. Meat producers don’t normally list the percentages of the ingredients in their product, the way kibble manufacturers are legally bound to do. And in some cases, they may list percentages of fat and protein, but it may be listed as dry matter, not on a “as fed basis.” In order to obtain similar compositional analysis to compare to the kibbles, we took approximately 1 pound of each and sent them away to the Dairy One lab in Ithaca, NY. Dairy One commonly does analysis for professional feed companies. The first thing we found, and it came as no surprise, is a high percentage of water. The lowest percentage of water was 68% and the highest was 79.5%. So the meat you are buying may be almost 80% water or more – the same stuff that comes out of your tap. We didn’t test all the meats available, and there may be specific meats and meat mixes available only in some areas. When we ran the formula on the meat, we found that the average of the meats tested had less than half the calories per dollar than the average of the kibbles. Three of the four had almost the same percentage of fat as protein. There are, however, some advantages and some disadvantages to feeding meat. Let’s start with the pros. When you are providing some of your dogs caloric needs by supplementing with meat, you are essentially providing a high quality protein and fat (depending on the meat’s ratio) without adding any unnecessary bulk. This is a good thing as we mentioned earlier in the article. In a way it is similar to what we are trying to achieve by feeding high quality kibble vs. grocery store brands. Another pro is that the water inherent in meat, or mixed in during the processing is actually a good, thing because it keeps your dogs hydrated. Of course you could add water yourself, and pay a heck of a lot less for it. Some of the cons of feeding meat, other than the PITA factor of storage and expense, are risks of spoilage, availability in some areas, and the biggest of all is that most meats, unless they are formulated and specifically, are not nutritionally balanced for canines. They are missing many micro nutrients and can also throw the Omega 6 to Omega 3 essential fatty acid balance out of whack. For example if you are deriving a large part of your calories from straight beef and beef fat, you may see a poor coat condition which progresses to hot spots and raw skin. One way to rectify this is to add a vegetable oil to bring the Omega balances back in line. Most meats also contain very little or no calcium. This is a very serious issue that can result in weakened and broken bones, especially the small bones of the foot of the dog. When the dog’s diet is lacking in calcium, the body takes it from it’s own stores. One way to rectify this is to add steamed bone meal, or a calcium supplement. Two of the meat mixes we tested claimed to be balanced for calcium to phosphorous, and in fact had a higher calcium percentage than one other mix tested.Even with all the negatives associated with meat, many mushers who race have found that in order to keep their dogs at the proper weight, and to keep the incidence of stress diarrhea both during and after a run to a minimum, the only thing that works for them is to add meat. Stuffing that many calories in a dog through kibble alone just doesn’t work under some circumstances for some kennels. Many of these same mushers are under the opinion that they are saving money because a 50 pound block of meat costs about $35 and a 40 pound bag of kibble costs about $40 or more. You simply cannot compare the two on a pound for pound as fed basis. Having said this, and with all the costs and possible pitfalls associated with mixing meats into your sled dogs’ diet, I know of very few succesful, top ranking racing mushers who don’t feed meat to some degree, at least some of the time. Back to the BeginningHow does all this information help us to find the most cost effective way to feed? Well, there is no method or formula that will work for every kennel’s situation. Environment, type of dog, style of racing and frequency of training are all factors that determine a dog’s caloric needs. A recreational team running a couple of times per week, or even a team of limited class sprint dogs in a relatively mild part of the country can probably get by with a high quality kibble alone. They simply don’t have to “pour” the calories to their dogs because the dogs aren’t training long distances, and burning up excessive calories just to stay warm while resting. They may not even have the need for the “ultra premium” brands on the market and may be able to get by with a really good quality 32/20 blend. On the other hand if you have a kennel of open-class sprint dogs with short coats and live in a cold environment, or you have a distance team that is training and racing very long miles, you will find yourself with much higher caloric needs and may need to supplement with meats and fats. If you can obtain quality, unspoiled, frozen or fresh meat in your area for less than 30 cents per pound, you may be approaching the calories per dollar of kibble, and it may be worth giving a try. If you do this, make sure to consult with a canine nutritionist to make sure the levels you are feeding aren’t throwing the Phosphorous/Calcium and Omega 6 to Omega 3 balances out of line. Only trial and error with your own dogs in your own environment, under your own training and racing conditions will show you whether or not you have to go to the expense and hassle of supplementing their diet. Greg Sellentin is the publisher of Mushing Magazine and lives in Willow, Alaska. He maintains a kennel of 40 dogs and races 8 & 10 dog sprint races with the goal of racing open-class in the near future.Arleigh Reynolds, D.V.M., Ph.D is a highly sought after canine nutritionist living outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. He races competitively in Alaska and Canada in open-class sprint races such as the Fur Rondy and Open North American Championships where he placed 3rd in both races this past season.