Just like a human athlete, a sled
dog's diet affects the dog’s ability to compete. A sled dog at rest in the
summer needs about 800 calories per day. In the middle of a cold winter long
distance race that same dog may need up to 10,000 calories per day (10,000 is
not a typo!). The quest to provide sled dogs with enough calories and the right
type of calories has resulted in tremendous growth in our knowledge about the
canine diet, and better food for both the racing dog and house pets.
A canine athlete does not digest
and use food in the same way as humans. The high carbohydrate diet that helps a
human runner perform at his or her peak will not have the same effect on a sled
dog. Studies by veterinarians and dog food manufacturers have found that a high
carbohydrate diet actually lowers canine performance.
Fats and protein are the most
important sources of energy for a sled dog. The ratio of fat and protein varies
depending on the distance to be run and the time spent running, however, certain
minimum requirements have been determined. A typical diet consists of 32%
protein, 15% carbohydrates and 53% fat.
Fats provide the dog with quick
energy. They are highly digestible and very dense in calories. Protein helps a
dog handle the physical demands of racing and is required in greater amounts as
physical activity increases.
Dog mushers rarely rely on dry
dog kibble alone to supply their dogs nutritional needs. A top quality dry dog
food is critical to the diet but it is usually supplemented by ground chicken,
fish, liver or other meat products.
Finally, it is not enough to
provide quality food unless the dogs are supplied with clean water. Water is the
most important part of a dog's diet. Contrary to popular myths, sled dogs do not
get their water supply by eating snow. Snow requires tremendous energy to melt
as it is consumed and it offers little water for much effort. By contrast, warm
water after a night in the cold can be to the sled dog a lot like a hot
chocolate drink is to a human. On the other hand, it is not unusual to see a
sled dog grab a bite of snow, just like you enjoy an ice cream cone now and
Gee, that dog looks thin?
A frequently heard remark at
races is that the dogs seem thin. Indeed, compared to a house dog who may get
out for a walk or short run a couple times a week, sled dogs are thin. Although
sled dogs consume more calories than an average human, they also burn those
calories working out in training. Like human runners, the intake of calories and
exercise result in a slim, athletic physique. Mushers monitor the weight of
their dogs, feeding them accordingly. If the dogs gain too much weight, they
risk overheating, disease and injury. If they are too thin they lose stamina.
Mushers balance these considerations and maintain their dogs at a healthy weight
for each particular dog.