A sled dog team all harnessed up and ready to run

What Do Sled Dogs Eat In Sub-Zero Temperatures? (Here’s The Menu)

Sled dogs living, working and sleeping in sub-zero temperatures do not eat a traditional “dog food” diet. Instead, these industrious dogs feast on a mix of protein and fat-rich foods, eating larger or smaller portions depending on their size and daily activity.  

To meet their incredible daily caloric needs of 10,000 to 15,000 calories a day, sled dogs eat multiple meals made up of a soup of:

  • Kibble designed for the unique energy needs of sled dogs
  • Water to keep the dogs hydrated
  • Fresh meat and fish for protein
  • Lard for added fat

The nutritional makeup of this diet is roughly 40% protein and 60% fat.

A sled dog team rest together in the snow
Photo by Koen Swiers from Pexels

How does a sled dog’s caloric intake compare to a non-working dog?

The average healthy adult husky requires between 860 and 1290 calories a day (2 ½ – 3 ½ cups of kibble a day). Compare this to a sled dog competing in a race such as the Iditarod and the energy intake requirement skyrockets to between 10,000 and 15,000 calories during a race day (27 to 41 cups of kibble).

For reference, there is an average of 120 cups of dog food in a 30lb bag of kibble, with adult dog food providing approximately 368 kcal/cup.

It quickly becomes apparent that is impractical to feed working dogs in sub-zero temperatures solely on a diet of 100% commercial kibble as the amount of food needed for a 20+ dog team would be colossal! It is also inefficient for the sled dog’s metabolic processes (something we will cover in the next section).

Sled dog food composition

The same adult kibble we mentioned above is composed of around 28% protein, 17% fat, and 48% carbohydrates with the small percentages made up by vitamins, minerals and various additives.

The average adult dog requires at least 10% protein and 5.5% fats in their daily diet. PetMD also cites a need for a minimum of 20% carbohydrates for growing and active dogs; however, this idea is debatable. Some canine nutritionists believe that dogs do not require carbohydrates in their diet at all!

A working sled dog’s diet is comprised of 40% protein and 60% fat. So, a dog with a daily intake of 15,000 calories should get 6,000 calories from protein and 9,000 calories from fat.

What do working sled dogs eat when living in sub-zero temperatures to meet these unique caloric needs? The answer depends on the dog team and their feeder.

  • Most handlers offer their dogs a morning meal of a specially designed high-energy kibble with added meats or fish, soaked in warm water to create a soup (this also ensures that the dogs get enough protein and water, and handlers do not have to worry about the drinking water freezing).
  • Iditarod sled dogs also have their diet supplemented with fresh meat and fish as treats.
  • Handlers may also provide their dogs with buckets of meat to ensure their dogs get enough protein.
  • During cold months when sled dogs are working, handlers may also add lard to their dogs’ meals to increase their fat intake.

Sled dogs eat every hour to every hour and a half throughout the race to ensure that they have the energy they need to run the next leg. Multiple meals also help to fit 15,000 calories into the day!

But why do working sled dogs eat a diet comprised of fat and protein where the average adult dog eats much less fat and protein and a significant amount of carbohydrates?

A musher's eye view of a team of 12 sled dogs pulling a sled
Photo by Leo Mengoli on Unsplash

The difference in sled dog diet is down to metabolic processes

Like humans, dogs can utilize proteins, fats, and carbohydrates as energy sources, but the body uses different nutrients for different purposes. The first point of call for energy is glucose.

When a dog uses carbohydrates as an energy source the following metabolic processes take place.

  1. Dogs eat carbohydrate-rich foods.
  2. Carbohydrates break down through glycolysis to produce glucose
  3. Blood sugar levels to rise.
  4. The pancreas release insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
  5. Fat cells and tissues absorb the glucose.
  6. When fat cells and tissues are “full,” the body sends extra glucose to the liver and turned into glycogen.
  7. Glycogen gets broken back down into glucose when more energy is needed.
  8. When the liver has too much glycogen stored, extra glycogen is converted into fatty acids and stored as fat in the body tissues.

So, carbohydrate processing is a complex series of reactions that create peaks and valleys of energy.

Working sled dogs need a reliable and steady energy source; they cannot afford to feel sluggish when blood sugar levels drop. So, handlers feed them a diet high in fat and with moderate protein levels.

When dogs eat protein and fats over carbohydrates –

  1. Dogs consume proteins and fats.
  2. The body releases less insulin because glucose is less available.
  3. Glucagon levels then increase and tell the fat cells to release fatty acids.
  4. The increase in glucagon also tells the liver to convert glucagon into sugar to control the low availability of glucose.
  5. Glucose is used as an energy source.

The ketosis process causes the body to use fat as a source of energy. This process is called “ketosis” because as fats get broken down, the body produces something called “ketones.” Meanwhile, protein provides the amino acids that the body needs but cannot produce itself.

Ketosis eliminates the ups and downs caused by insulin and glucose levels balancing each other out. Ketosis means that dogs with a diet that pushes the body to burn fats have a more stable energy source.

A stable energy source is crucial for dogs that are pulling heavy weights and burning so many calories in a day!

A pair of green dog bowls filled with raw ingredients including beef, carrot and courgette
By humonia on Canva

Why don’t all dogs have a carb-free diet?

Bluntly, feeding all dogs a carbohydrate-free diet is expensive. If all commercial dog food companies had to eliminate the cheap carbohydrates they use to “fill out” their foods, prices would skyrocket, and company profits would tank.

Some believe that carbohydrates are a necessary ingredient in a dog’s diet. For these people, eliminating carbohydrate content in dog food is equal to eliminating an essential nutrient.

What do non-working sled dogs eat?

Keeping a working sled dog at a healthy body weight is not always easy. In the off-season, a non-working sled dog needs far fewer calories when compared to race days. Not restricting calories for a non-working sled dog quickly results in morbid obesity setting in.

How many calories do non-working sled dogs living in sub-zero temperatures need daily?

Veterinarians suggest that sled dogs still need two to three times the number of calories the average adult dog needs to maintain warmth and a level of body fat that protects them from the elements! These “off-season” calories come from a diet that resembles the dogs working diet – but they just get far less in volume.

Frequently asked questions

Why do sled dogs need a high-fat diet?

Sled dogs need a high-fat diet because fat is a more efficient source of energy than carbohydrates or protein. It also helps to keep their coat and skin healthy, which is important in cold weather conditions.

Do sled dogs need supplements?

Sled dogs may benefit from supplements such as fish oil (for omega-3 fatty acids), glucosamine (for joint health), and vitamin E (for muscle recovery). However, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian before adding any supplements to your dog’s diet.

Can sled dogs eat human food?

Sled dogs can eat some human foods in moderation, but it’s important to avoid foods that are toxic to dogs, such as chocolate, grapes, and onions. It’s also important to avoid feeding your dog foods that are high in sugar or salt, as these can be harmful to their health.

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