New trick?

Researchers find sled dogs are unique, elite athletes

Posted: Monday, February 13, 2006

Alaska sled dogs are undeniably amazing athletes and an ongoing research project is indicating that these dogs may not just be elite, but completely distinctive.

“They’re astonishingly unique,” said Michael Davis, veterinarian and director of the Comparative Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Oklahoma State University.

Davis, along with Katherine Williamson, fellow veterinarian and a research associate at Oklahoma University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, wrapped up the collection phase of a research project involving the sled dogs of Kasilof musher Jon Little on Friday.

“We’re trying to learn how sled dogs adapt to sustained strenuous exercise,” Davis said.

It is one of many Davis has conducted. In other studies on sled dogs Davis has researched gastrointestinal diseases — such as diarrhea, ulceration and cramping due to strenuous exercise, and the effects of cold weather exercise on pulmonary function, to name just a few.

“Basically, from studies we’ve already conducted, we know that somewhere around 100 to 200 miles into a run, a dog’s muscle changes, and it does so in a way that makes them much more difficult to fatigue,” Davis said.

The most recent project on Little’s dog involved taking muscle biopsies to compare enzymes in the muscle fibers.

“We give them a short-lasting general anesthetic, then a biopsy is taken from the hind leg. The biopsy itself is a little-bitty piece, basically a sliver, really, about half the size of a paper match,” Davis said.

Liquid suture was applied to patch the biopsy hole. Dogs can run as soon as four to six hours later, according to Davis. He said for this project, pre- and post-exercise biopsies were collected from different dogs so run performance would not be affected.

Eight biopsies were taken from a control group of dogs prior to exercise and nine biopsies were taken from the experiment group after a 200-mile run. The biopsies will be sent off to various laboratories around the country for analyses.

Davis said he is excited about what information the project will yield once the samples have been analyzed.

“We know that the dogs’ muscle changes to an extent, just not how,” he said.

Davis said what is known is that dogs operate differently than human athletes whose muscles burn carbohydrates then must rest once these carb sources are depleted. Sled dogs also deplete carbs in muscles, but once these sources are depleted they can “switch” to another energy source — probably fat, Davis believes — to keep on going.

“More remarkable is that once they make the switch, they can rebuild carbs while still running. In essence, they increase energy stored in muscle, while burning energy stored in muscle. No other animal, human or exercising entity does this. It’s astonishingly unique,” Davis said.

“As long as you keep feeding them, they keep burning,” he added.

Davis said his hope is that the biopsies taken during the project will reveal exactly which energy source it is the dogs switch to, while also providing insight into how this process works to sustain strenuous exercise.

“We want to learn if the chemical signal can be produced without running 200 miles,” he said.

Davis said the applications will be far reaching once the energy source is determined and the process understood.

“It’s very important to our understanding of the dogs’ health. It will help our understanding of how these dogs work, what they need, and what kinds of supplement — and in what doses — may benefit them,” he said.

This research may benefit humans, as well.

“If this is a new way for muscles to burn fat, it could have applications to treating obesity in humans,” he said.

Davis added that there may even be military applications from this research, in that it could lend to ways of improving energy reserves for soldiers engaged in strenuous activity during combat.

Learning ways to help athletes — both canine and human — is one of the reasons Jon Little said he volunteered his kennel for the project.

“I’ve always been interested in scientific research. I’m running these dogs anyway, so if I can help, I want to,” Little said.

“These guys are on the leading edge. They’re learning things people don’t know. I’m curious as to what they can find out.”

For more information on this or other projects on sled dogs conducted by Davis, visit the Web site www.cvm.okstate. edu/research/Facilities/CEPL/projects.asp.

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