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Feeding & Watering

Choosing Feeds

Sled dog sports today include a wide variety of dog breeds and sizes doing different activities in almost every kind of climate. There is no single perfect diet that will meet the requirements of every sled dog under every condition. The ideal diet for a dog depends on the dog’s genetic makeup, age, physical state, training regimen, environment and the food sources that are available.

Sled dog diets usually consist of commercial dry food, meat-based food, or a combination of the two. Dry foods are convenient to feed and store, requiring only a cool, clean, dry location. Fresh meat products require refrigeration or freezing. Feeds marked with an expiration date should be consumed prior to that date to provide maximal nutritional value.

Meat feeds are extremely palatable to dogs. They may help maintain hydration because they contain up to 75% water by weight. High-quality meat-based feeds are readily available in all but the most remote locations.

Commercial dry food provides vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates. Some mushers prefer to mix their own meat ration and add some commercial dry food to it as a source of vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. If you choose this route, be sure to enlist the help of an experienced musher or nutritionist, as it is not always easy to balance a ration this way. Recently a few commercial dry products designed to be fed as supplements with meat have become available. These products are enriched with vitamins and minerals and help take some--but not all--of the guesswork out of feeding a non-commercial meat-based diet.

When choosing a product or combination of products to feed your dogs, remember that a sled dog's nutrient requirements change significantly depending on age, environment, and physiological state. You may wish to choose different products that will meet your dogs' requirements for each of these situations, or you may choose a feed that will act as a base that can be supplemented as necessary. In either case, choose a product that is relatively high in fat (15% minimum), relatively high in protein (25% minimum), fresh, and of the highest quality available. Poor quality commercial pet foods do not provide adequate nutrition to meet the needs of working sled dogs.

Determining a Working Dog's Dietary Needs

The best way to monitor your dog's body condition status is to run your hands over him or her. Perform this examination at least every two or three days. (In extreme conditions, it is important to keep an even closer eye on a sled dog's weight.) The ribs, spine, and hip bones should not be buried under an inch of fat, nor should they protrude. Rather, they should be easy to feel. A well-conditioned sled dog should be lean and muscular—neither skinny nor obese. (See Appendix). If you are unsure of what the ideal appearance and feel of your individual dogs should be, solicit advice from an experienced musher or veterinarian. Take every opportunity to feel and look at dogs from other kennels that are doing well in your particular mushing discipline.

Formulas and tables on dog food labels will give you a place to start, but they should not be relied upon for long-term feeding guidelines. There is too much variation in metabolism among dogs, their working environments and their various levels of performance to rely on "average" requirement guidelines. Most mushers agree that it is crucial to monitor your dogs' weight and body condition with your hands.  

Meeting the Demands of Training

Maintaining a dog’s optimal weight requires frequent adjustments to the amount of food he or she is given. When you begin training and each time you increase the workload, your dogs will require more food. During cold or wet weather they will need more food just to maintain their normal body temperature. One of the most difficult times of year to maintain a dog's body weight is during the fall when the weather is often cold and wet and training miles are increasing. During such periods, anticipate your dogs' increasing nutritional needs and begin feeding them more before they start to lose weight. During the most demanding times, a sprint dog may require two to three times more food than during the offseason; a long-distance racing dog may require three to six times its offseason requirement.  

Feeding During the Off Season

Recent research indicates that dogs that continue to receive high-quality rations through the off¬season are better prepared to resume training because their bodies are more able to mobilize and burn fat during exercise. It also takes several weeks for a dog's metabolism to adapt to a high fat diet. The drawback of feeding premium dog food year-round is that it can be easy for dogs to become overweight in the offseason; watch your dogs closely and adjust their portions as necessary.  

Life Stages

Dogs also have different nutrient requirements during pregnancy, lactation, growth, and old age and their diet and food intake must be adjusted accordingly during these times.

Pregnancy and Lactation: A female should be maintained on a performance type ration throughout pregnancy and lactation. She can be fed at maintenance levels for the first four weeks; however, from the fifth to the ninth week, her intake should be increased by 10 percent each week so that when she whelps, she is getting about 1 1/2 times what she was eating in the maintenance state. As a rule of thumb, her food intake should be increased by 30 percent of maintenance for each puppy she is nursing. Thus, if she only has one puppy, she should be fed 130 percent of maintenance. These suggestions are just guidelines-; remember to run your hands over her regularly and adjust her food intake as needed. A lactating dog should be neither skinny nor obese.

Puppies: Puppies usually weigh between 10 and 14 ounces at birth and should gain weight every day after their third day of life. Weight gain is an excellent way to monitor the nutritional and overall health status of a litter of pups. Slow or negative puppy weight gain can be the first noticeable sign of a health problem with the mother or pups, and supplemental feedings may be required. Enlist the help of a veterinarian or an experienced musher the first time you attempt to raise orphan pups or even supplement nursing ones.

Puppies can begin to eat solid food at three weeks of age. Puppy food or a high-quality performance food with a small kibble size is recommended for at least the first four months of their lives. A flat pie pan with soaked dry food or a meat ration is a good way to entice them to start eating. As they walk through the food, they will get bits of food on their paws, lick them, and realize it is something good to eat. Over the next three to four weeks, they will consume more food, so they can usually be weaned between six and seven weeks of age. Before, during, and after weaning, be sure that less assertive pups are maintaining a normal rate of growth. Since there is no standard rate, compare the growth rate of the less assertive pups and their littermates.

After four months of age, pups should be fed a premium food at a rate that keeps them in optimal body condition but not so much that they become fat or grow too fast. (Maximum growth rate of 2 1/2 pounds per week for huskies, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds per week for larger Northern breeds).

Older dogs: The aged dog may have a slightly decreased ability to digest and absorb nutrients. It may also take an older dog longer to move a meal through its gastrointestinal tract. Most older dogs will do well on the same ration as younger dogs in the offseason. Occasionally, a dog will have trouble digesting all the fat in this ration or may become constipated. If so, try feeding a diet lower in fat or higher in fiber. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian about specific diet regimes and supplements for your geriatric dogs. .

Water

Water is the most essential part of a feeding regime. While deficiencies in protein, fat, vitamins, or minerals will affect a dog's health, it may take days or months before such problems are noticeable. In contrast, dehydration affects an animal's health immediately and in extreme cases can even lead to death within hours if left untreated.

A dog gains water by drinking it directly, by eating foods that contain water, and by generating water through metabolism. Water is lost each day through urine, feces, and water vapor in the breath. Anything that increases a dog's daily water loss will increase its daily requirement. Dogs also lose a significant amount of water through panting when the weather is warm. Exercise leads to increased water loss not only through the breath, but also through the stool and urine. A dog's water requirement may double if it participates in open-class sprint racing and increase three to five-fold if it participates in long-distance racing. Medical problems such as diarrhea and vomiting also increase water loss.

It is difficult to know exactly how much water each dog requires. Understanding how environment, training, and illness may affect the dog’s hydration needs allows you to anticipate these changes and offer your dogs more water when they need it. During warm weather it is best to have clean, fresh water available at all times. When the temperature drops below freezing, water consumption can be encouraged by offering warm, baited water. The bait can come from any source that will increase palatability such as dry food, meat or cooked fish. The bait should mix well in water and must not be spoiled or soured.

About 1 1/2 quarts of water should be offered two to three hours before training. Some dogs will not drink this amount all at once but will readily consume several smaller portions offered within a short period of time. Small amounts (about a pint) can be offered immediately after exercise to help cool the dogs down followed by more water (about a quart) after they have completely cooled down. Offering 1 to 1 1/2 quarts of baited water before feeding or mixed in with a dog’s food can further encourage water intake.

These recommendations are a starting point and should be adjusted according to the needs of your dogs. Monitor your dogs' hydration status by observing their hunger for snow and by examining their skin and gums. In a well-hydrated dog, the tent made by lifting up the skin on the shoulder blades should disappear within one to two seconds and the white spot made by pressing on a pink area of the gums should disappear in one second or less. If either of these processes takes longer, the dog is probably dehydrated and in need of fluids.

Monitoring Your Dogs

These guidelines are intended to help you begin your feeding and watering programs. The best feedback on how well you're doing will come from the dogs themselves. Watch them carefully and learn as much as you can from experienced mushers who you respect. Proper dog nutrition is a blend of science and art. It’s easy to get a brain-full of science by reading books and articles on the subject, but you can only develop the actual skills with hands-on practice. So keep your eyes and ears open, and go have fun with your dogs!  

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