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Environmental Factors That Impact a Dog’s Nutritional Needs

Featuring Russ Kelley M.S., Eukanuba and Royal Canin Pet Health and Nutrition Center

Temperature, humidity, elevation, and terrain all play interconnected roles in determining your dog’s energy requirements. Keep these factors in mind when deciding how much to feed your dog both in-season and off-season.

English setters running uphill on a rocky terrain during a hunt

Sometimes it’s tough to know how much to feed your sporting dog. Too much and she puts on some extra pounds, making her vulnerable to injury. Too little and she won’t get the nutrition she needs for peak performance. Consulting your food’s specific feeding guidelines is a good start, but there are a variety of other factors to consider.

Temperature and Humidity

If your dog is diving into frigid water to make retrieves or busting through snowdrifts, her energy requirements can be extreme.

“Even in flat, snowless conditions, a dog working at temperatures near 0 degrees is going to have double his normal energy requirements,” says Russ Kelley, science lead at Eukanuba’s Pet Health & Nutrition Center. “When you have an upland dog that’s running through snow, or a retriever that’s jumping into cold water, that’s when the energy needs really go up.”

This seems like common sense, but Kelley notes that the nuances of how temperature affects your dog go well beyond cold weather.

“Most people understand that when they are working their dog in cold weather, it drives up their dog’s metabolic requirements,” says Kelley. “But they don’t often think about it in high temperatures. When dogs are working in hot environments, they have to work harder to maintain their normal body temperature, just like in cold weather.”

Kelley also mentions how humidity compounds the effects of heat.

“When it’s hot and humid, it makes it even harder on the dog because they do a lot of their heat transfer through respiration,” he says. “When the air they are pulling into their lungs is hot and high in moisture, it’s less effective at regulating their body temperature.”

Anyone who trains or hunts in warm conditions knows it can be an issue to get your dog to eat enough to replace the energy it burns off during the day.

“Dogs don’t tend to have as big an appetite when it’s hot compared to when it’s cold, but it’s not because they don’t need the extra energy,” says Kelley. “They just don’t feel like eating. But if we are going to be working dogs in those types of conditions, it’s important for us to find ways to entice them to eat. Smaller meals spread over the course of the day are always a good idea when it’s hot. If you are looking to get 3 or 4 cups of food into a dog, try to get half that down through small meals and snacks. Then they only have half the amount to eat once they’ve cooled down and are ready to eat at night.”

According to Kelley, that cool-down period aids in digestion because feeding a dog while it’s overheated leads to a loss of nutrient absorption. Kelley also notes that it’s important to remember hydration in both hot and cold weather.

“It’s beneficial to add water on top of the dog’s food, to essentially get the dog to eat and drink at the same time,” he says. “In hot weather, it’s not the end of the world if they don’t eat as much as you would like for a day or two. But if they aren’t properly hydrated, they can get in trouble quick. I always favor hydration over nutrition in hot weather, at least on a short-term basis. Hydration is also very important in cold weather. Dogs that are underhydrated are much more susceptible to hypothermia.”


For hunters making an upland road trip for Arizona Mearns’s quail, Idaho chukar, Utah grouse, or Colorado ptarmigan, it’s important to consider the effects of elevation on your dog.

“When talking about elevation, there are two items that play roles,” says Kelley. “One is the added physical exertion for a dog to go up and down steep slopes. The second is that oxygen concentrations become lower at higher elevations. Dogs are highly dependent upon aerobic respiration, especially upland dogs that are working long hours in the field. They use a lot of oxygen to drive their metabolism. As the oxygen concentration goes down, that means their respiration rate must increase to get the amount of oxygen they need. At high elevations, a dog that is overexerting itself will often lie down and pant. It’s not because he’s too hot and is trying to cool down. He’s trying to catch his breath.”

To combat the effects of elevation, Kelley recommends calling your dog in for frequent short breaks, giving him a little water, and letting him catch his breath.


Anytime your dog is in an environment where he has to work harder, he’s going to increase his energy requirements. That could mean deep powder snow or soft sandy soil in the Southwest.

“People usually think of sidewalks, concrete, and other hard surfaces as tough on joints, but the same is true for soft ground,” says Kelley. “The dog is often sinking in the ground and over-flexing its ankles, which puts stress on muscles, cartilage, and joints. It doesn’t hurt to give the dog a rubdown at night to look for sore spots.”

We have our tricks to keep us going through extreme weather and tough terrain—extra trail snacks, recovery drinks, and other measures. It’s important we show our dogs the same care, and adapt their feeding needs to the paces we run them through.

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