Racing Towards Answers – Scientists Look For A Better Understanding of Sled Dog Health


Sled DogsSled dogs are the endurance athletes of the canine world. In a long-distance race like the Iditarod, a thousand dogs or more will race up to 1500 miles at speeds ranging from 7 to 12 mph. Owners and dogs train together for months at a time in order to build the strength, skill, and stamina needed to compete in such events, and that kind of work can be extremely hard on a sled dog’s body. That’s why a group of scientists from Oregon State University have focused their research efforts on gaining a better understanding of the unique concerns affecting the health of these dogs.

High intensity and long duration exercise have been shown to have many effects on the human body – including causing changes in the immune system. Similar changes have also been observed in sled dogs, and the Oregon group recently had the opportunity to examine the precise nature of racing’s immune effects.

They found that many dogs became significantly immuno-suppressed while training for the race and racing, although most of them recovered completely within a few months after the race. Still, the decrease in sled dog’s immune response during the training and racing periods could make them more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Diarrhea is one of the more frequent health complaints of sled dogs during long races. Although, except in rare, severe cases, diarrhea neither threatens a dog’s life nor necessitates him being removed from a race, it can affect the whole sled team’s performance. That’s why owners and scientists have been so interested in trying to figure out the condition’s cause. Could a suppressed immune system explain why diarrhea is so common?

Many sled dog racers, as well as scientists, have assumed that the high prevalence of diarrhea is related to the presence of intestinal pathogens and medicated their dogs accordingly. Sled dogs are often presumptively treated with antibiotics, and there are anecdotal reports of them being vaccinated with an unapproved vaccine. However, with the support of the AKC Canine Health Foundation, Dr. McKenzie and her Oregon State colleagues have begun to cast some doubt on whether sled dog diarrhea is even related to disease.

The scientists collected feces from dogs participating in the Iditarod, and discovered something fascinating. Although a large percentage of dogs were, in fact, infected with various intestinal pathogens, those bacteria were not actually associated with the presence of diarrhea. Instead, it seemed as though diarrhea might be a simple consequence of the effect of prolonged exercise on the gastrointestinal tract – a problem that has also been observed in humans who participate in long distance running events.

What does this mean for sled dogs? The victory for this stage of the race is the knowledge that trainers may be able to reduce the over use of antibiotics and other, untested, treatments that could cause unnecessary complications for a dog’s health. And, although scientists are far from the finish line, it’s good to know that they’re quickly moving towards a better understanding of sled dog health.

This work was funded by AKC Canine Health Foundation Grant 883-A and 1074-A.

Scientific publication:

McKenzie, E., et al., Prevalence of Diarrhea and Enteropathogens in Racing Sled Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2010. 24(1): p. 97-103.

McKenzie, E., et al., Hypogammaglobulinemia in Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2010. 24(1): p. 179-184.

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