Posted by: Viktor Mar | 2010 April 24

How Dogs Keep On Mushing

For years sled-dog racers stuck to a basic long-distance formula: six hours on, six off. Recently, though, teams have won prominent races like the Iditarod by going longer than was thought possible, up to 14 hours at a stretch, with the dogs getting stronger the longer they ran. Clearly a tactical rethink and a medical reevaluation were in order.

Michael S. Davis, an Oklahoma State University veterinary physiologist, says top sled dogs “seem to flip a magic switch,” which somehow changes their metabolism after racing a few hours. That lets them quickly burn lots of calories-about 12,000 a day, from a fat-laden diet-without depleting their muscles’ fat and sugar stores or growing tired. It’s not clear just how they do it, or whether migratory animals have a similar capacity, but Davis hopes to find the “hidden strategy,” then see whether humans have one too.

Musher Jon Little defends testing the endurance of sled dogs, typically huskies and malamutes, for the sake of science. “They run because they love to,” he says, “not because they have to.” Might other breeds have the metabolic switch? That’s best answered by the racer who ran four Iditarods with poodles. – Jeremy Berlin

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