By Andrea Kuznick, CNP, EMP
One of the questions we are often asked by guardians of canine athletes is which natural health supplements could be used to improve their athletic performance. Regarding performance, a primary concern here is what level of stress is acceptable and how well does each dog deal with the stress while at these fairly strenuous trials?
When dogs are “up” or in a condition called “drive” for whatever dog sport they are entered into, the dog’s ability to focus, concentrate and the need to please their trainer (owner/guardian) is heightened. However, the distractions at these events (noise, crowds, food smells, other dogs, new experiences in general) create extra stress for these performance dogs. A trainer will prepare their canine partner by making sure their dog has previously been exposed to these experiences and is adjusted to them. To make the acceptance of the distractions easier, several herbs can be used for all obedience training and as extra support for these events or trials. The result is the dog will more likely focus on what they have been trained to do and at the same time better endure the stress level encountered.
In the dog sport called Schutzhund, my German Shepherd must track a field, do an obedience course, and then perform protection duties. If she fails in any category, she fails in the competition. These events can start as early as 5 am in the morning for tracking, and often the protection part is held on the second or third day of the event. There is a lot of down-time in between the trials and even this has an effect of stress on the dog and can possibly cause performance failure.
These herbs are especially effective: American Ginseng, which helps with mental focus, supports the physical body, fights the effects of stress, and supports the immune pathways; Astragalus which supports the body energy and stimulates the immune system from the effects of stress; Siberian Ginseng, used to increases alertness, stamina and endurance; Codonopsis pilosule, a Chinese herb used to increase stamina, strength, and, it acts as an adaptogen for stress. Lastly, ashwagandha, an adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb, supports the immune pathways and acts to synergistically enhance the restorative effects of astragalus.
The following is what I add to my dogs’ meals daily for illness/injury prevention and fitness:
Probiotics can help to keep a dog’s intestinal tract healthy and vibrant as they are life-sustaining good bacteria (to help immune function). Probiotics support optimal absorption of the nutrients contained in their foods (I do both raw and homemade organic meals). As the sport/working dogs’ age, or experience an injury or illness, more consideration should be given to aiding better absorption of minerals and nutrients (this helps to prevent injuries by keeping the joints structurally strong). Good gut flora (bacteria/probiotics) help to make B-vitamins which support digestion and absorption of the meals I prepare for my girls (Lupa and River).
Herbs like Slippery Elm bark and Marshmallow root are known as mucilaginous herbs and are used to resolve diarrhea, constipation, and GI inflammation. Kelp is a good source of trace minerals, one of which is iodine, to support glandular function (also the immune system and how the body supports calcium retention for strong joints). Spirulina is known for having extraordinary concentrations of vegetable protein, carotenes, chlorophyll, and vitamin B12 — and spirulina is another source of trace minerals. Brewer’s Yeast is a source of essential B-vitamins (important for glands, stress, and coat colour/health. Guar Gum, as a fibre, binds with toxins and helps to carry the waste out of the body. Citrus Bioflavonoids are a source of antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties (heals the gut). Flax seed meal is a great source of EFAs, antioxidants, and it binds to toxins as insoluble fibre. The combination of flax seed meal, slippery elm and marshmallow root also serves as an ideal vehicle to protect the probiotics from stomach acids and hence ensure a higher amount of probiotics survive to implant in the small intestine and colon.
I also use a superb vitamin and mineral formulation to ensure my dogs are getting all the nutrients they need to keep them healthy. A dog’s diet/meal should contain moisture or ideally be at 70% moisture content. Remember, the working/sport breeds have much higher demands of them physically for their programs/training routines so extra nutritional support is required. Yes, their urine will have a darker yellow colour but this is normal as the body excretes any extra water soluble vitamins that it is not using, (i.e. water soluble vitamins such as B-vitamins do not accumulate in the body). I would rather have it this way and know my dogs’ bodies have the extra vitamins for absorption and stress support.
Omega 3-6-9 essential fatty acids are invaluable to a working dog. Every living cell in a dog’s body needs essential fatty acids; these help support a healthy coat, yes – but in a true case of “your dog is what she eats” essential fatty acids contribute to the elasticity of the cell membranes. The flexibility of the body at the cellular level contributes to preventing inflammation caused by free radical attacks. Fatty acids are important for hormone production, which in turn controls the building of healthy, strong joints, better functioning glands and immune pathways; and so on. EFAs are the BEST source of appropriate energy (body fuel) and are used as an energy source for active muscles.
Would supplementation be different for a younger dog versus an older dog?
YES, the older dogs actually need more joint specific nutrients added to their meals. I would recommend adding a joint supplement protocol for sport or agility dogs to maintain that optimum performance level needed for competitions and trials events. So long as the older dog enjoys the activity and care is taken around prevention for injuries. I personally have seen dogs as old as 14 years competing and still loving their sport.
As our agility dogs get older or endure an injury, they may suffer the same complications of repetitive strain on the joints and tendons as humans do, and can lose some of the lubricating fluid between the joints and vertebrae. One of the key ingredients necessary for cartilage repair is glucosamine. Normally, in healthy dogs, the body can produce sufficient glucosamine to provide for joint repair. Under arthritic or injured conditions, the need for glucosamine increases. If the body cannot provide enough glucosamine to meet this increased need then the joint repair process suffers and progresses to mobility issues.
Chondroitin sulfate is the major glycosaminoglycan (GAG) found in cartilage; it also helps inhibit enzymes that are destructive to the joint and has been shown to be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis. Since chondroitin production by the body decreases with aging, supplementation with this compound may be especially helpful for older dogs with arthritis or injuries.
It is important to control the inflammatory process; otherwise there will be further damage to the joint. Remember, at any time there is a balance between joint destruction and joint rebuilding. Joint destruction is caused by the inflammatory process so it is vitally important to control the inflammatory process otherwise joint destruction will predominate over joint rebuilding. Controlling the inflammatory process can be done using traditional herbs and compounds known to reduce inflammation. MSM, which is an excellent source of sulfur, may help to control pain and inflammation. There are several herbs that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects: Boswellia serrata has been shown to provide anti-inflammatory relief from arthritis by inhibiting pro-inflammatory 5-lipoxygenase chemicals and blocking leukotriene synthesis.¹ Devil’s Claw has been reported in some laboratory studies to have significant pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.²
When inflammation is prevalent in the agility dog, then I move to reduce the inflammation and increasing mobility. Movement keeps the weight off and keeps the older dogs happier in general. Formulations that contain the above-mentioned herbs and MSM encourage repair through reduction of inflammation. It supports immune functions and overall health by minimizing an often overzealous inflammatory response. (Inflammation can be caused by a number of factors; food allergies and hidden pathogens for example.)
Insufficient hyaluronic acid in the joints can cause extra wear and tear on the joints and hence cause an inflammatory response at the level of the joint. Hyaluronic acid lubricates joints and is an integral component of synovial fluids and membranes around the joints. While glucosamine is a precursor used to synthesize hyaluronic acids, the syntheses of hyaluronic acids require other components which may not be present in the body in sufficient quantities because of mal-absorption or excessive usage. The sporting activities may then degrade the joints faster so supplementing with hyaluronic acid skips the process of the body having to struggle to keep up with the demand to produce it on its own by providing the body with a pool of complete ingredients necessary to make new hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid is unique in its restorative ability, and will often provide improvement, where glucosamine and chondroitin have failed to do so. Hyaluronic acid supports joint health and cartilage function, reduces joint friction, increases joint mobility, and provides lubrication and shock absorption for joints, and seems to helps alleviate pain associated with even normal exercise & activity.
As a dedicated nutritionist with the opportunity to choose better nutrition this time around for my two young dogs, I realize that I may seem a little “over-the-top” for most trainers of sport dogs. My last two large dogs died at 15 and 14 years respectively and it was due to mobility issues in the end. I believe that had I known to undertake nutrition prevention protocols sooner there could have been less damage to their joints. Today, with my young dogs now 3 and 2.5 years old I’m more determined to provide the best options for their health, growth, development and experiences to support the adventure of the dog sports we both enjoy.
1. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. 2004 Feb;146(2):71-9, Dietary support with Boswellia resin in canine inflammatory joint and spinal disease.
2. Wegener T. [Degenerative diseases of the musculoskeletal system–overview of current clinical studies of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophyti radix)]. Wien Med Wochenschr . 2002;152(15-16):389-92