Researchers look to sled dogs for answers on endurance

Saturday, March 12th 2005, 11:48 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A group of Oklahoma researchers is looking to sled dogs for clues about athletic endurance and disease development.

Oklahoma scientists and veterinarians are at the Iditarod, a grueling 1,100-mile race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. The race started March 5.

Michael Davis, a veterinarian at Oklahoma State University, is leading a team of Stillwater faculty studying the physiology of the dogs and why they can run so far without fatigue.

The scientists were awarded a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, which could use the findings to better prepare soldiers for long-term or intensive missions.

``We've been doing research on these guys for the last six years,'' Davis said by phone from Anchorage. ``The sled dogs are probably the best example of successful sustained physical exertion that we know of.''

The dogs, often called Alaskan huskies, a crossbreed sired for endurance, can run 10 or more hours a day, covering more than 100 miles.

``When they stop, they are happy and wagging their tails,'' Davis said. ``They are unbelievable athletes.''

While genetic traits factor in, much of the dogs' strength comes from physical conditioning and diet, he said.

The scientists are taking blood samples throughout the race to learn more about the dogs' metabolism.

``We take a look at the markers of what makes a successful sled dog and see if there are the same indicators in humans.''

Warmer conditions for this year's race are affecting the dog's performance and leading to concerns of overheating.

Sled dogs have thick coats and perform best when the temperature is between 20 degrees above or below zero. For much of this year's race, temperatures have been in the 20s and 30s.

``The teams are having to very carefully manage their runs,'' Davis said. ``Most are sleeping through the middle of their day.''

Kenneth Hensley, a biochemist with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, recently returned from Alaska, where he collaborated with Davis on research.

Hensley, who also teaches at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, wants to know why sled dogs don't develop muscular diseases like Lou Gehrig's disease or Huntington's disease.

He said the dogs have near perfect physiology despite tremendous physical exertion.

``I want to understand how these dogs maintain healthy fit muscles and nerves, so I can better understand why some people suffer from a failure of muscles and nerves.''