Capable of burning an astounding 10,000 calories per day when actively mushing, sled dogs require a diet specifically tailored to their needs. Mushers must keep a careful eye on the dogs' weight so each dog can perform optimally, and mushers must provide the right kind of nutrients so the dogs stay warm, have enough energy for racing and don't eat empty calories.
Many mushers feed their dogs commercial kibble for ease of storage and use. Particularly during the off-season when a sled dog may only need 800 to 1,200 calories a day, kibble is cost effective and time efficient. Because sled dogs need a high-calorie diet primarily comprised of fat and protein, kibble doesn't always provide the best balance of nutrients during the mushing season.
Raw meat forms a staple food in many sled-dog kennels. Not only is it extremely rich in fat, protein and nutrients, it's high calorie, packed with water for extra hydration and easy to feed. The average sled dog may eat between 3 and 5 pounds of meat a day -- while running at maximum capacity, those numbers may double.
Lard and Fat
When it's particularly cold or a dog is working especially hard, a musher may add raw lard or fat to the rations. At roughly 120 calories per tablespoon, pure fat is an extremely calorie-dense form of fuel. Not only does the sled dog metabolism require a high fat-to-other-nutrient ratio, the extra calories help keep a dog warm and at an optimal body weight.
While not technically "eating," water is extremely important in a sled dog's diet. Every single organ and body system requires water to function, and without proper levels of hydration, a sled dog can't run as fast, as far or as smoothly. If a dog becomes dehydrated enough, he may die within hours. Clean, fresh water should always be available when a mushing dog is kenneled or tied out; when working, water should be offered before training and periodically throughout the run. Broth, shredded meat or other "baits" can be added to water to encourage a dog to drink.
Since 2001, Kea Grace has published in "Dog Fancy," "Clean Run," "Front and Finish" and an international Czechoslovakian agility enthusiast magazine. Grace is the head trainer for Gimme Grace Dog Training and holds her CPDT-KA and CTDI certifications. She is a member of the APDT and is a recognized CLASS instructor. She's seeking German certification from the Goethe Institut.