Researher comes closer to unlocking the secrets of common sled dog maladies. Michael Davis has been hanging around Alaska’s two 1,000-mile sled dog races for about six years now. And it’s not because he’s interested in attempting either event.Davis, a veterinarian and associate professor at the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, has been studying sled dogs in hopes of finding out more about the science and physiology of these unique four-legged athletes. He’s certainly not the first to take a closer look at the dogs of distance mushing, but his research and studies have become more and more relevant over the past several years to the people who can use the information the most: the drivers.His ongoing studies have included the causes and effects of cold air in the lungs, referred to as ski asthma; the prevention and treatment of gastric ulcers and the process in which sled dogs metabolize food and expend energy.The gastric ulcer research has been one of the biggest so far, but finding a way of preventing this sometimes-deadly condition is still shrouded in mystery, Davis said, shortly after this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.It was while Davis was in the North studying the effects of cold air on dogs’ lungs that he realized perhaps researching ulcers and lesions in the animals’ stomachs was more relevant. The mushers agreed.“People who were actually running the dogs came up with the idea to look into ulcers, they decided it was more important,” Davis said.“The dogs aren’t really a great scientific resource as far as airways,” he added. “There are a lot of other ways to research that, so we took more of an interest in what causes and how to prevent gastric ulcers.”Over the years, a number of projects have included studying the effects of different medications to treat or prevent the stomach conditions which can cause bleeding ulcers, leading to bloody vomit, anemia, and in rare cases, death.One prevention study included the use of famotidine, the active ingredient in the over-the-counter acid controller Pepcid, before big races. The common remedy is now widely used as a preemptive measure by the majority of competitive racers.Perennial Iditarod contender Ken Anderson is a firm believer in the power of Pepcid, especially since he nearly lost a dog due to a bleeding ulcer in the 2006 race.Anderson was just five or ten miles out of the Rohn checkpoint when he noticed vomit on the trail. Since it was dark, he wasn’t sure if it was from one of his dogs or a team in front of him, so he kept going, keeping a close watch on his team.A little later, about 20 miles from the Rohn checkpoint, a two-year-old male named Badrah started vomiting blood and lots of it.“It was a huge puddle and it scared the heck out of me,” Anderson recalled.Anderson loaded the dog and found some Malox, an antacid, that he had packed for himself and gave the dog a few tablets, hoping that would help.Anderson arrived at Buffalo Camp, a popular resting spot on the trail, and found someone to radio the next checkpoint of Nikolai for help.Within an hour, a helicopter with a vet on board arrived to transport the dog. Iditarod organizers managed to divert a passenger plane into the checkpoint of McGrath to pick up Badrah and bring him to Anchorage for treatment.“He was OK, but I was really worried about racing him after that,” Anderson said. “But one of the vets told me they can get over that pretty quickly.” In fact, Badrah finished the Kobuk 440 just 10 days later and also went on to complete the 2007 Iditarod with Anderson.Anderson added that he starts all his dogs on a Pepcid regiment about a week before a big race and hasn’t had any problems since.Alberta, Canada, veteran Karen Ramstead wasn’t so lucky. Ramstead, who races purebred Siberians, lost Snickers, a six-year-old female, on this year’s Iditarod in Grayling. Snickers developed an ulcer, which ultimately led to her death. As a result, Ramstead and her husband Mark have started the Snickers Memorial/Ulcer Research Fund to raise money for more studies on the problem.“I do wish however, for everyone to know that it seems Snickers died from a bleeding ulcer. A team of 4 incredible vets (Dr. Justine Lee, Dr. Turner Lewis, and the Dr. Mikes) worked for hours on her. The lengths they went to in the wilds of Alaska were simply amazing and included a dog-to-dog blood transfusion off of her brother, Crunchie (who was so cooperative and calm it was spooky). I know that everything possible was done to try and save our little lead dog – and we will forever be grateful for that,” wrote Ramstead on her website.Though a medication like Pepcid can prevent ulcers, once the dog is displaying symptoms, it seems that there is little that can be done, said Davis, adding that they are still researching whether Pepcid can help heal an existing ulcer. If the dog is displaying symptoms, said Davis, it should be pulled from the race immediately.“Over the years we’ve done a number of studies looking at different medications,” he said. “Some have been effective and some not.”As for the cause of the ulcers, Davis and his crew of researchers still don’t have an answer.Early findings suggest that ulcers can form in any dog, no matter what breeds or bloodlines are mixed in. Davis has tentatively ruled out the type of dry food or meat as a cause of the ulcers.“If you study seven teams, you have seven completely different recipes and even within a team you may have a couple different recipes, so I don’t think food is a major issue,” Davis said.In a study published a few years ago by Davis and his colleagues, called The Prevalence of Gastric Lesions in Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs, he found that about half of the sled dogs tested had some sort of lesions in their stomachs ranging from mild to severe.“…An endoscopic study of 73 dogs participating in the 2001 Iditarod race was performed in order to evaluate a larger population of dogs. Data from 70 of these dogs could be used; 34 (48.5%) had ulceration, erosion, gastric hemorrhage, or some combination of these findings. When this group of 70 dogs was compared retrospectively to a control group of 87 dogs presented to the Texas A&M University (TAMU) Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, the Iditarod sled dogs had a significantly higher prevalence (P = .049) of gastric lesions. These findings suggest that, similar to athletes of other species, elite canine athletes have an increased prevalence of gastric disease compared to the canine population at large,” read the study.But, trying to compare sled dogs to any other species, even common pet dogs, is like comparing apples to oranges, he said.“These dogs are so unique. A lot of things that we assume we know about dogs simply is not true in sled dogs, so to a certain extent, we’re having to write the book from scratch. “You can’t use what is known about house pets.”“If your house pet had some of these issues or symptoms, it would be a major life-threatening problem, but in a sled dog, not only is it not life threatening, it’s entirely appropriate and necessary.”One example Davis cited besides the dogs living with, and recovering from, mild stomach lesions is the animals resting heart rate.A quiet, well-trained sled dog has an average resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute, and the heart is skipping beats on a regular basis. In a house pet, that would be a serious abnormality and the owner would be worried about heart failure, said Davis.In fact, the majority, about two-thirds, of dogs scoped after a distance race, have relatively mild stomach lesions, he said.“But we’ve done studies that show that even without any medication at all, the ulcers will heal in three or four days.”Deeper ulcers may take a bit longer to heal, and that dog might be prone to ulcers in the future, but that percentage is very small, about one or two percent, he said.“But even the same dog will change from year to year,” Davis noted. “It could have a nasty ulcer one year and nothing the next. You just can’t predict.”The main focus of Davis’ work around ulcers is on preventing them entirely.Dogs that die as a result of bleeding ulcers are only about one or two per year on the Quest and Iditarod, which as a percentage of the dogs competing in both 1,000-mile races, is very low.Studies have shown that there is no real difference in the prevalence of ulcers between dogs that run the Quest or the Iditarod. Davis does not study sprint dogs.“Mushers have been very accommodating and very willing to participate in these things if they see a particular benefit to the dogs,” said Davis.He and his group work with more of the big-name mushers because, he said, they are the ones that are more likely to finish the races. If they start a study on a team that doesn’t finish that particular race, the research done on those dogs up until then becomes moot. Also, Davis and his team are out the money spent.The money to fund these ongoing studies comes from grants from various institutions such as the National Institute of Health, the International Federation of Sled dog Sports and another Okalahoma-based research development agency.Davis’ research has also been funded in part by the US department of Defense. The military got involved a few years ago and has offered over a million dollars thus far.“The military got interested in the ultra endurance-type sled dogs because the dogs will work for a long period of time at a relatively modest level on one day, and the next day, and the next day and that’s the sort of stress that soldiers deployed in the field undergo,” Davis said.“The military was interested in how the dogs train and how they adapt to exercise to see if they could find something that they could translate to soldiers and give them the same fatigue resistance that these dogs seem to have.”“As a result, we’ve learned a lot about the dogs that is just astonishing and has never been demonstrated in any other species including lab animals or humans.”This season, Davis collected data to see how well the dogs rebound from the stress of each 1,000-mile race. “We’ve done studies that show that there are changes in blood work and we want to see how soon that returns to normal with the idea of looking at how a dog that finishes the Quest is sufficiently healthy to run the Iditarod seven to ten days later.”Some of the changes in the dogs’ blood, such as plasma protein and red blood-cell count, can return to normal in as little as six hours after the race while other changes take up to four days to return to baseline.They already know that sled dogs are not prone to the same types of infections that occur in human endurance athletes because the dogs are not using as great a percentage of their overall capacity, so that they have something left for the next day and, in the case of the Iditarod, the following 10-12 days, said Davis.“They’re not stressing their systems nearly as much,” he said. “The dogs’ strategy involves preserving energy, protecting their immune system and maintaining weight; things that a human can’t do,” he added.Now, while the dogs are resting in the summer sun, Davis will spend the off-season processing the data collected this winter and figuring out what he’s learned to decide where they need to go next season. He plans on continuing with sled dog studies for a long, long time.“What makes dog mushing different from other athletics is that we have the full support of the mushers and the race organizations,” he said. “There’s just no way that you would see that kind of commitment in any other sport. “The mushers deserve to have as much information as they can use.”Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks. She covered sled dog races for seven years before venturing into mushing herself and now owns nine huskies.
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