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What Do Dogs Eat During the Iditarod Trail?

By: Dr. Tim Hunt
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Meals for the dogs during the Iditarod Trail consist of a base of kibble and lots of variety as to types of meat.

The type of meat used can vary according to temperature outside, what part of the race you are in, how one dog might be doing in relation to another, how well he is holding weight, gastrointestinal status and so on. They tend to have a full meal at every checkpoint or camp out and several snacks on the trail. A full meal will consist of roughly 10 pounds of meat (chicken), some beef, plus several pounds of beef fat and vitamin supplement. There is also about eight pounds of kibble fed out to the 16 dogs.

Remember, all the food tends to be frozen (if not it has spoiled and you can’t use it, or there is evidence it thawed and refroze you are asking for trouble so skip it) and requires hot water to thaw out. We carry a cooker that heats water and melts snow and ice. Some checkpoints are nice in that they have hot water for you to use -- but there are only a few of those.

The “stew” that is created is readily gobbled down by the canines in your charge and there is nothing like hearing a team of huskies slurping up their meal. Calories are very important but more so is the water. Things don’t work well when dehydrated.

Keeping a team going forward down the trail is nine-tenths keeping them fed and hydrated correctly -- and therein lies one art of mushing (or successful mushing to a large degree). A dog's ability to eat well is something we look for when selecting dogs to compete (good eating parents tend to throw good eating pups). We can even train them to eat. But how do we train them to do that, you ask? We start with puppies and never overfeed them. They get imprinted at a young age that they need to eat what is fed to them the first time.

Snacking on the trail can be soaked kibble on the snow (kibble absorbs water and will keep it's shape like a sponge), frozen meat such as beef, chicken, tripe, beaver, salmon, lamb and so on. Real cold temps tend to encourage the use of fattier meats while warmer may have us use a leaner meat. Types of fat also digest at different rates so that is taken into consideration with the temperatures we run in. Slow digesting fat in warm temperatures tend to shut down appetite, for instance. We also time the snacking so when they arrive at a checkpoint they will be hungry and take in a full, warm meal.

Lastly, the overall caloric needs of these beasts being 12,000 to 14,000 per day in the race plays a huge role in the plan for eating. These absolutely amazing athletes have been shown to nearly convert all energy needs over to using just fat -- up to 80 percent of their overall calories being derived by fat in their diet. Dogs actually do not get hardening of the arteries like we humans. They use that fat even more efficiently the longer they are fed it, actually requiring less fat to do the same work. And they can increase their overall V02 max -- or the ability to use oxygen for exercise -- by being fed a high fat diet. They are just amazing critters.

Protein is very important for them as well, as it is needed for maintaining muscle mass, healing injuries and the like -- not as fuel. Fuel means heat or making a muscle move. I look at protein being the framework of the house and fat is used to fuel the furnace that heats the house. And fat is like fuel oil in a furnace being much more efficient and requiring less mass to do its job as compared to heating with wood, which I equate to carbohydrates or protein being used as fuel. Hope that makes sense.

Lots of food and lots of water for these incredible dogs.

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Voted America's Favorite Veterinarian in 2014, Dr. Tim Hunt provides expert content to Voyce. His role with Voyce is one example of the many terrific expert partners that have dog-specific content featured in the Voyce member portal. To join the Voyce Experience, click here.