Written by Disha Ramanan
There's been a recent drop in the temperature - a slight nip in the air here, a chilly gust of wind there. Winter is here and it's here to stay. So does the change in the weather mean a change in the way you feed your dog too? We spoke to Manssi SK Saha, canine nutritionist extraordinaire and founder of Bangalore-based Doggiliciouus, and she breaks it all down for us.
First things first, Manssi is very clear on one thing. Changing your dog's diet depends entirely on where you live and how cold it actually gets. She says, "Every Indian state doesn't get cold. We have moderate cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai and so on where the temperature differential isn't enough to warrant extra calories for your dog. Whereas other places like Delhi, of course, have severe winters where we'd have to make some modifications to the dog's usual diet."
She also points out why our dogs do get a bit hungrier in the winters and why adding those extra calories is important. "The dog's coat has the ability to keep her warm in the winter and cool during the summer. But where the temperature dips significantly, it's important for us to reflect that in the diet. A dog's body is going to spend calories just keeping itself warm. The body must work just a little harder in the cold weather simply to keep the body temperature optimal. That's why a dog tends to burn more calories in winter and might want to eat a little more."
We as doting pet parents want to do the very best we can for our fur kids so how do we go about devising a safe, wholesome and healthy winter diet? Manssi's take is simple. "There's a fine line between a few extra calories and overfeeding your dog outright. It's really just about adding some healthy fat in the diet - things such as ghee and extra virgin coconut oil. Alternating between the two would be a good idea since they provide different benefits. Another healthy alternative is home-made, hand-churned white butter. Over and above what you already give them, I would say you could add 1/4th of teaspoon for a small dog, 1/2 for a medium sized one and a full teaspoon for a large dog, per meal, of any of these good fats."
Importantly, she busts the myth once again that there are no "heating" foods or "cooling" foods. "I hear of people talking about eggs or chicken etc being warming. That's a myth! The very process of digestion, no matter what food it is, is what creates heat in the body. However, it is important in the cold weather that the dog eats protein that's a little more fatty, for example red meat."
In creating your dog's diet plan, it is also important to be mindful and observe your dog for a few days as the weather changes. Manssi says there's really no one-size-fits-all formula in the quantity of food. "It's a natural tendency to be hungrier in the colder weather since our caloric need increases. I would look at every dog as an individual in figuring out what's right for them. If your dog feels hungrier than before, I would rather increase his portions of food than overuse treats, as tempting as it is to do so. A leaner dog may need an extra portion of food, but a bulkier one may well be fine on her current diet. So it's important to notice how your dogs are doing when the weather changes, so that you as a pet parent can do what's best for them."
If you find the need to introduce another small meal into your dog's day, Manssi has a great idea. "Bone broth is one of the healthiest things you can feed your dog," she suggests. "Served warm, it can be an excellent snack in between meals. Otherwise, it can also simply be added to their existing meals. It has healthy fats, it's loaded with nutrition, and perfect for winter."
We come to the topic of exercise. Is it good for your dog in winter? How much is too much? Manssi opines, "Yes, exercise does raise body temperature, but that's a temporary high. You can sustain the increase in temperature far more consistently by making proper dietary changes instead. In the cold weather, a dog's joints are naturally quite stiff. Overexercising, especially in winter, is a bad idea." She also provides a solution, "Mental stimulation can be an equally effective form of exercise. You could get your dog some interesting puzzle toys or do some nose work with them indoors. Using their brains tires them out faster than physical exercise. You could even make simple DIY puzzle toys using things in your house."
With food and exercise covered, we broach winter illnesses and ailments.
Is there something particular to be concerned about?
"Dry skin is much too common amongst dogs in this weather. Dry paw pads and dry snouts are common complaints. Cracked paw pads are very painful but dogs won’t show that pain outright – they won’t be crying over it. That's why it's important for us to check their skin and paws often - say, once a week - to make sure they're in good health. For a cracked paw or snout, extra virgin coconut oil can always be applied. Or a good quality organic paw butter can be used."
Manssi also gives us another interesting solution - a "hack", so to speak. "You needn't spring for expensive paw butters, unless you want to. Our age-old Kailas Jeevan ointment which is both Ayurvedic and cheap can be used safely on our dogs everywhere. Be it cracked skin, or mild cuts, scrapes and wounds - it's even safe around the eyes and mouth. You could even cut a piece of an aloe vera leaf, fresh off the plant - no store-bought please - cut it open, and just rub it on your dog's skin if it's infected anywhere. It's a very effective anti-microbial. You can wipe it off after 10 minutes and moisturise with some extra virgin coconut oil."
Another issue we come to is arthritis. If it starts acting up in the cold weather, Manssi suggests applying a warm compress in the mornings for stiff joints to get some warmth and mobility before getting up and moving about.
Finally, I bring up the topic of pollution - a relatively recent but alarmingly critical problem. Is there anything we can do to prevent our dogs from the ill-effects of our environment? Manssi's solution is as simple as it is logical. "What you put into your dog's body is the only thing that can help her adjust to the toxins around her. Quality matters - giving your dog organic, freshly cooked, balanced meals in the correct portions is what can keep your dog's immune system functioning the right way so that her body can cope. Kibble is the worst thing you can give your dog. People who absolutely adore their dogs buy some of the most expensive brands of kibble available. That is, unfortunately, the worst thing one could do. There is simply no alternative to a fresh food-based diet. Once the food is right, then we can look at things such as golden paste to give her that little nudge, as a supplement. But keeping a dog on a bad diet and trying to compensate with supplements just won't work."
Manssi SK Saha is a Bangalore-based canine nutritionist. With a Diploma in Canine Nutrition from the British College of Canine Studies and having participated in other courses and workshops in holistic healing and canine behaviour, she founded Doggiliciouus in 2017. She does nutritional consults, holistic wellness consults and diet plans pan-India and provides wholesome, fresh-cooked dog food meals in Bangalore.