Body condition of working dogs over winter

The economic value of farm working dogs is hard to quantify. They are indispensable members of the staff on a farm (mainly sheep or beef, but sometimes dairy), and they take little pay in return. The cost of purchase, training and maintenance are set over a dog’s lifetime. The loss of a dog through illness or injury can be not only inconvenient but also costly to a farmer. The benefits of minimising illness and injury as well as maximising the length of a dog’s working career are therefore obvious.

Some dogs can be hard to keep condition on year-round, especially during periods of hard work. The TeamMate: The New Zealand Working Dog Project in 2015 found all dogs in the study ranged from 2–6 for body condition score, with the majority lying in the 3–5 range. The body condition score ranges from 1-9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese.  Generally, farmers tended to try keeping all dogs in a team to the same condition score, i.e. they all had their own perception of what was ideal body condition, regardless of what type of work the dog was undertaking (straight endurance work versus work that might require more muscle mass, like yard work for example).

Working dogs are naturally leaner than less athletic dogs, but if they are too lean (for whatever reason), the risk of injury and disease increases. During winter this will cause problems as there is increased energy demand. Once the temperature outside is below 20 degrees, a dog will burn calories to keep warm. Energy that would otherwise be used to maintain body condition, digest food, and repair muscles and tendons after a day’s work will be used to maintain body temperature. Dogs that get cold overnight are harder to keep condition on, require more food, and will often be stiff and slow in the morning, taking time to warm up and making them more prone to injury.

So, how to keep the body condition score up?  Every 10 -degree drop in temperature, the caloric need for a dog increases 7- 7.5% . Feeding more calories is a simple solution. Care must be taken not to feed too big a volume at once after a hard day’s work, as this could predispose the dog to a GDV, a twisted stomach. Feeding a more calorie-dense food or feeding multiple times a day will help reduce risks. Short stops during the day to rehydrate and feed small amounts to the dog will help.

During the day, while the dog is active, its body temperature will naturally be higher. At night, when it is resting and the temperature drops, a high demand for calories occurs. The TeamMate project found that door flaps, various types of windbreak, sunshade materials and polystyrene insulation were among the modifications used to make kennels warmer or cooler for dogs depending on the season. The use of bedding in kennels was variable. Some owners went to great lengths to find a substance that the dog would leave in the kennel, trying out several different types before succeeding.

Types of bedding included: carpet, sacks or wool packs stuffed with straw or wool, old duvets, old horse covers and loose materials like straw or wool. In cooler areas some owners were using commercial coats to keep their dogs covered overnight, and some were even using them during the day. Almost without exception, the owners commented that once they got used to wearing the covers, the dogs ‘lined up’ for them to be put on in the evenings.