How Do Sled Dogs Survive Such Intense Cold and Winter Storms?

Written by Alan
Published: November 23, 2022
© iStock.com/8213erika
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What’s your favorite thing about sled dogs? Their distinctive physical beauty, top-tier marathon skills, or extreme endurance? Sled dogs also have a rich history chronicling their contributions to human survival, particularly in arctic regions. 

For instance, they hauled everything during the Yukon Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century, including prospectors, supplies, and mail. Jack London memorialized this in his book The Call of the Wild.

In 1925, there was a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska. Twenty teams of sled dogs traveled nearly 700 miles in just six days to provide a crucial anti-toxin to the sick residents of Nome.

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The late 1800s and early 1900s were known as the Era of the Sled Dog. But, then, the advent of snowmobiles, airplanes, and trucks rendered them obsolete. Not totally, though. Some rural populations- in parts of Alaska, Canada, and the entire Greenland – still use sled dogs.

Not to forget the famed annual sled dog races like the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod, and the International Pedigree Stage Stop Race.

Sled dog breeds, including Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies, Canadian Eskimos, Chinooks, and Malamutes, typically live longer than most dog breeds of similar sizes. This is because they are bred for their intelligence, trainability, health, and cold resistance. 

Their high athleticism contributes to the longevity of their lives. They also have exceptionally healthy genes and often remain healthy into their mid-teens.

Musher and his sled dogs
Sled dog breeds, include Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies, Canadian Eskimos, Chinooks, and Malamutes.

Do Sled Dogs Get Cold Paws?

The short answer is no. Sled dogs stay true to themselves while living in their native habitat. When they run, their feet retain heat, and there is no problem with their blood circulation. However, when sled dogs wake up from a nap and their blood is not flowing through their feet as quickly as it should, they may be more inclined to lift a foot off the snow to stimulate blood flow.

They have a complex system of heat transfer from warm arterial blood to cold venous blood, thanks to the proximity of their veins and arteries. Warm blood in the arteries transfers heat to the surrounding, cooler veins. 

Before reaching the body center, cool blood from the feet is warmed to a lukewarm temperature. As a result, the dog’s body temperature is prevented from dropping while the temperature of the paws remains constant.

 Also, the fat and connective tissue in their paw pads is a type that can withstand freezing temperatures. They can even curl up on the snow with their paws raised and their nose tucked under their tail to trap more heat.

You are probably thinking, okay, but what about the booties? The booties rarely provide warmth to the paws. Instead, their primary purpose is to shield the feet from abrasion and other minor ailments that hundreds of miles of running could cause. In addition, snow becomes abrasive, like sandpaper in cold extremes, increasing the need for boots.

It’s ironic that overheating, rather than cold, calls for concern among sled dogs. When sled dogs have ice on their coats, it is a shocking indication they are not keeping warm because it signals they are losing enough body heat to melt the snow covering them. The sight of snow-covered, sleeping sled dogs demonstrates how well they conserve heat.

Sled dogs running in a race wearing paw protection
Sled dogs often wear protective footwear to avoid abrasions and other minor ailments that hundreds of miles of running can cause.

©iStock.com/Jeff Manes

How Do Sled Dogs Survive Intense Winter Cold?

An animal’s ability to tolerate cold weather depends on its diet, coat density, age, health, and physical features. However, it is never acceptable to abandon sled dogs in subzero temperatures without providing food, water, and dry shelter, despite the perfection of nature in its adaptations.

Older sled dogs may have trouble maintaining their body temperatures and walking safely on snow and ice. In addition, the bellies of short-legged breeds are more likely to make contact with the frozen ground.

The risk of frostbite is higher in dogs with heart disease or diabetes, which are illnesses linked to decreased blood supply to the limbs. 

Diet

Long runs without much food are nothing for sled dogs. Fatigue arises from humans doing this because they begin to use their body’s fat and glycogen. Sled dogs burn off calories without using other energy reserves because their metabolism is regulated. 

Sled dogs need a lot of food to stay powered because of their labor-intensive lifestyles. Sled dogs may easily take up to 10,000 calories per day, while domestic dogs of similar size usually need around 1,700 calories.

Some mushing teams give their dogs a precise combination of kibble and meat proteins like chicken, salmon, or beef. In chilly cold winters, warming stews are made with hot water, proteins, and kibble.

Dense Double Coats

Typically, sled dogs have double-layered coats. The thick undercoat is formed with fine, occasionally wavy hairs, grown from a single follicle to create a thick layer of insulating material that traps heat.

A stand-off coat is produced in some sled dogs by each hair follicle implanted at a 45-degree angle. The fur helps resist moisture from the snow because it does not lie flat on the skin.

Breeds with sleek coats have hair follicles implanted at an angle of 30 degrees.

A reflective outer coat known as the guard hair coat is water-resistant and twice as long as the undercoat. As a result, it prevents the buildup of snow on the dog’s skin and undercoat. It also acts as a shield from extreme seasonal temperatures. 

Sled dogs like the Alaskan Malamute have thick double-layered coats keeping them warm
Typically, sled dogs like the Alaskan Malamute have thick double-layered coats that help keep them warm in cold winter conditions.

©Aneta Jungerova/Shutterstock.com

Almond-shaped Eyes

Sled dog breeds like Siberian huskies and Samoyeds have almond-shaped eyes. This means they can squint to a point where they hardly expose their eyeballs to the wind and cold air and still see clearly.

Asides from being aesthetically pleasing, the shape of their eyes protects delicate ocular tissue from the elements, particularly when pulling the sled.

Bushy Tail

A dog breed like the Siberian husky has a long, fox-like busy tail that can reach his face and wrap around his snout for extra warmth. Huskies can warm the air around their faces while they sleep so that when they inhale it into the lungs, it has already been pre-warmed in the hair on their tail.

Dogs have been known to sleep for 12 hours straight during a snowfall in this position, their faces warm and their paws tucked away behind their tail. Modern-bred huskies can spend the night outside during the winter as long as they are well-fed and have weather-appropriate fur. 

Sled dog using its tail to keep warm while sleeping
Sled dogs have long bushy tails that can reach their face and wrap around their snout for extra warmth.

©SYLVAIN FELTEN/Shutterstock.com

Natural Earmuffs

Some sled dogs have a built-in set of earmuffs that shield the ear canal and eardrums from piercing cold wind. As a result, the ears can trap heat and lessen the chances of frostbite because of their reduced exposure to the outside. 

The ears are covered with dense hair that acts as a warming adaptation and a muff over the ear flap. 

Thick, Hairy Foot Pads and Paws

The foot pads of several breeds, including the chow chow and Norwegian elkhound, have evolved to contain more fat. As a result, the fat and the thick skin protecting their toe pads avoid freezing, resulting in frostbite and dead tissue. Why so? Fat isn’t as fast-freezing as other living tissues.

Dogs sweat through their mouths and feet. Thus, their feet serve as a means of thermoregulation. The hairy feet of huskies have thick skin with a leather-like texture. It insulates and protects their feet from the freezing snow and ice. In addition, their feet and foot pads are covered in a thick layer of fur.

The large, bear-like paws of Alaskan Malamutes enable them to grip the ice, prevent their feet from being engulfed by the snow and spread their weight across a larger surface area. 

What Features Do Mushers Look For?

Today, sled dogs are primarily used for racing, also known as mushing. Although they still serve their original role of transportation in some remote parts of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. 

In the United States, dozens of mushing competitions are held each year. However, Yukon Quest and Iditarod remain the two most sought-after mushing events. The former is a sled dog race from Whitehorse in Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska, while the Alaskan-based Iditarod is from Anchorage to Nome.

The sport’s popularity has been dwindling in recent years for some reasons, including fewer contestants, a decline in sponsorship, animal rights activism, a dog-doping scandal, and a lower prize pool.

Performance is at the top of determining factors for mushers. The feet take most of the strain during long-distance races, so good feet are a prerequisite for any successful sled dog. On the other hand, dogs with tender feet may always struggle on the trail.

Picky eaters or dogs at risk of digestive issues aren’t welcome. They may not consume the essential calories needed for high performance on the run. Having a thick coat is equally crucial. They can stay warm and sheltered from the cold while preserving those necessary calories.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Mushers also look for dogs that can participate in team building. Many sled dogs mingle with spectators and visitors all year long, so they must be friendly with humans and self-assured in unfamiliar circumstances.

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The Featured Image

Why do Siberian Huskies have blue eyes
The dogs of a Siberian Husky sled team have striking blue eyes. About 40% of all Siberian Huskies have blue eyes.
© iStock.com/8213erika

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About the Author

Alan is a freelance writer and an avid traveler. He specializes in travel content. When he visits home he enjoys spending time with his family Rottie, Opie.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. AKC, Available here: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/sled-dog-breeds-history-future/
  2. National Geographic, Available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/150131-sled-dog-alaskan-husky-racing-iditarod-winter-video-culture
  3. Klondike Dog Derby, Available here: https://www.klondikedogderby.com/all-about-sled-dogs
  4. Business Insider, Available here: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-protect-dogs-pets-frostbite-hypothermia-2019-3?r=US&IR=T