Part Two of the Five First Aid myths: Should I give my dog electrolytes?

Click here to get this week's free download! A heat stress symptoms flow chart.

Topic number two of the five-part mini-series is all about giving your dog electrolyte solutions.  Now it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t start a blog post with a little rant. Because that is kinda my jam.

Small disclaimer when I rant: I don’t rant because I am angry or upset or judging. I rant because I am really passionate. Sometimes the passion itself is what allows these words and strong emotions circulating around in my brain to flow out on to paper or into a blog post. Just know that the rants come from a place where I want you all to be knowledgeable and prepared to handle any situation!

The rant goes as follows: Dogs are not little people. From their gut, to their ability to sweat, and to their ability to generate the energy needed to partake in our activities. They are not little people!

 For example: A side or sister myth: (which I will not get too in-depth because it’s not relevant to first aid- but just worth mentioning briefly here)

 The myth: grain free diets are better for dogs.

 Let’s all take a critical look at this:

 Assumption:  My dog is allergic to grains or my dog is carnivore. So, grain free is better.

 Fact: This principal was founded on the whole “gluten intolerance” IN PEOPLE. Dogs do not have gluten intolerances. There was one family of inbred Irish Setters in the UK that were documented to have a gluten intolerance. That’s it! I highly doubt your pit bull has any of that Irish Setter lineage in him…. ;)

 Fact: When dogs in the wild eat their kill, they eat the entrails first. Think of a white-tailed deer. What do they eat? They eat corn. Not to get graphic here, but corn is going to be in the entrails. Therefore, dogs in the wild do in fact consume grains. They are omnivores.

 So, I Digress, I just want to make it apparent that our lovely dogs are not little people… and if they were, we might not like them as much! Haha! Kidding.  I get it we all want the very best for our dogs. Believe me I get it! But sometimes what’s best for us isn’t what’s best for them.

 So that brings me to electrolyte solutions or tablets when hiking with our dogs, or in situations where its hot and our dogs are going to be using a lot energy.

Once again, I hang out on forums and online groups… lurking in the background to see what everyone is talking about. One topic that came up recently was what kind of electrolytes do you carry?

Some people on the forum stated that it was unnecessary (which… spoiler alert. They are correct!) while others (a few being a tad argumentative) were adamant that they were necessary for whatever reason.

I will get down to it and dispel this myth. I won’t make you wait any longer.

 But first, why would we give our dogs electrolytes in the first place?

The reason dog electrolytes have surfaced in the market place is because IN PEOPLE electrolyte replacement is necessary. In fact, if we don’t replace our electrolytes it can be downright deadly. I am sure you have all heard horror stories of people competing in marathons or triathlons who have had to be hospitalized or even worse, have died of hyponatremia (low levels of sodium in the bloodstream). We are, essentially replacing the electrolytes and salts we sweat out while restoring the sugars we have burned up.

 (Side note: I just think this is super neat and felt like mentioning it. If you don’t like to geek out on stuff like I do just scroll past this paragraph. But there are actually companies out there who test your sweat, then formulate your custom-made electrolyte replacement. If you think about it, it makes sense- some people sweat more than others and also some people lose more salt through their sweat. I just thought it was cool!)

 Dogs do not need electrolyte solution or tablets for the following reasons:

  • Dogs expend energy differently than their human counterparts. Let me break this down for you a little. I will try not to get too in-depth but if you are anything like me, understanding the whys helps me retain information. Also, I just want you all to see the method behind the madness.

As you all may know, the main groups of source energy that we use for our activities such as  hiking- running- biking- thinking- living-  are broken into three categories. Fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essentially sugar- so from here on out that is what I will refer to them as.

As people, we are highly dependent on burning our sugar as an energy source. That is what our bodies burn most efficiently- so naturally our bodies tap into that energy source first. Next, once we use all our easily available sugar stores to maintain our activity- whatever that might look like- our bodies will then start tapping into our fat stores for sustained energy. This keep us fueled up to hike, bike, run whatever.

Now in dogs... this picture is a little different. Dogs will yes, like us tap into their sugar stores for shorter periods of exercise. However, research has shown that dogs, unlike us, are quicker to tap into their fat stores… in fact they will burn fat even at rest. I mean, I am kinda jealous. I wish that as I was sitting at my desk typing this, I was tapping into my fat stores for energy! Would be nice right?

So okay, how does this apply to electrolyte solutions for dogs. If dogs are quicker to use fat vs sugar for energy… giving them additional sugars during exercise can actually be worse for them.

This is the important point. If we supplement our working dogs with sugars unnecessarily (meaning they still have enough sugar in reserve because they have been burning fat)- we might run the risk of upsetting their stomachs. So, with unnecessary electrolyte supplementation during exercise dogs might be more predisposed to diarrhea and stomach cramps. WHICH the diarrhea in turn will then probably lead to dehydration. And this is less than ideal when you are 20 miles from cell reception.

  •  Secondly, dogs process the electrolytes in their system differently than we do. Yes, dogs sweat through their paws, but they do not experience the electrolyte loss like we do through sweating. We rely on sweating and evaporation as our cooling process. Dogs rely on panting and mainly lose free water. Meaning water loss without the electrolytes.

Because dogs manage their electrolytes adequately despite water loss (through panting) the addition of electrolytes to their water is largely unnecessary. Providing fresh water before the activity, during the activity, and after is adequate to restore hydration. Dogs are built differently than we are, and if they drink fresh water after exercising their kidneys are capable of quickly correcting dehydration and restoring any sodium imbalance without supplementation. (A reminder just to really hit this point home- the concern with supplementing electrolytes in people is hyponatremia- or too little sodium- which dogs don’t need to worry about! Lucky them! They are, once again, the superior species!). Typically, a well-balanced commercial dog food diet is all your dog will need to maintain the electrolyte balance in his system. And this is most certainly recommended because on a balanced commercial diet they are less inclined to suffer from any nutrient deficiencies. I say all this trusting you have consulted your veterinarian on your dog’s diet and nutrition. Which brings me to my next rant: All home cooked diets should be fed under the strict supervision of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. This article is written under the assumption that you are feeding an adequate diet. An adequate diet= a commercial diet or a home fed diet that is formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. If your pet is suffering from a nutrient deficiency prior to a hike (and often they won’t show any symptoms of this). Then you may be putting your dog at risk.

Now I will say that there was one study in Texas that showed dogs performed better with electrolyte supplementation during work. However, the specialists argue that this was an issue of water palatability, and speculate the increased performance was due to the fact that they were adequately hydrated- not because they were supplemented with electrolytes. And in fact, the fancy and expensive electrolyte powders you can purchase online might decrease the palatability of the water you provide. Depending on the dog, low sodium chicken broth might be best to increase the palatability of water. However, that will be very difficult to hike with and could potentially spoil. Finally, keep in mind that this was a study on working dogs. Working dogs have such intense drive to do their jobs that if offered water near the “work zone,” if you will, - they sometimes will not drink.  Ultimately the take home point is: as long as your dog is drinking- he is good to go.

 So, keep things simple. Feed your dog a well-balanced diet and offer fresh water consistently and you shouldn’t have any issues. Ultimately, it’s well known that dogs who are dehydrated are predisposed to heat stress- and are at risk for a heat stroke. Let’s keep them hydrated, rested, and cool while exploring without over complicating it!

Now all this talk about electrolytes and keeping our dogs hydrated did get me thinking about heat stress. Plus, I have a lot of people asking me about it. When we get a little closer to summer, I will post a blog specifically about this- since it in itself is a can of worms. In the meantime, however, I made this quick reference for heat stress symptoms in a flowchart. I will go over it in great detail on my Facebook live- tomorrow 2/22/19 at 2:30PM CST. If you can make it- great! If not- I will post it so you can view it at your convenience. That live video will be at the Wanderdog Facebook page. Click here to head over to the Facebook page. Like our Wanderdog First Aid page us so you don't miss it!

So there ya have it!

Any questions or comments? Feel free to reach out! I would love to chat! I hope you geek out on this stuff as much as I do!

Until next week, get excited for the next myth! We will be at three out of five!

Happy tails and safe trails,

Libbie Fort, DVM

 

P.S. Don't forget to download this week's freebie! It's a quick reference flow chart on heat stress symptoms!

1 comment

Gail Rocke

Excellent reads and information!
Thanks for enlightening our canine knowledge!

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