The Use of Massage Therapy in Sled Dogs

Everyone is familiar with massage therapy.  Just thinking about getting a massage conjures up images of being pampered on a cruise ship, or spending a few days at a spa with cucumbers on your eyes, mud on your face, and your own personal masseuse rubbing your troubles away.  It's not like that for sled dogs!

Veterinarians, mushers, and handlers use massage therapy to increase the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and surrounding tissues in sled dogs. This helps speed the removal of waste products from the muscles, and helps relax a dog’s muscle spasms, also known as trigger points. Specific trigger points have been mapped out in hundreds of human patients in a clinical setting.  Have you ever massaged a spasm in your neck after sleeping wrong and then felt a shooting pain up to your eye or head?  That is a trigger point.

Trigger points go unnoticed until they are activated by certain types of movement or repetitive stresses to the muscles.  Because sled dogs are athletes, they use their muscles intensively and they are prone to problems with this common cause of discomfort at some point during their athletic careers.  Ii is easy to imagine how running a 1000-mile race would bring out those trigger points.

Dehydration during competition contributes to trigger point formation.  Mushers are always aware of how much water their teams consume.  The hydration status of each dog on the team is one of the first things a veterinarian checks when the team arrives at a checkpoint.  Dehydration is avoided by giving high-water-content snacks to the team while on the trail, and by adding ample amounts of water to the dog's meals.  This makes a "stew" which encourages the dogs to drink more.

At every checkpoint, the mushers massage the dogs' shoulders, wrists, feet, and hocks (ankles).  The mushers rub massage oils into the sore muscles and they cover the area with blankets to keep the muscles warm and the blood flowing efficiently, so the waste products are carried away and filtered by the kidneys.  They will also massage the feet with ointments that promote healing and help reduce the inflammation from the millions of steps it takes to cover 1000 miles.

Occasionally, if the dogs' wrists are sore, the musher will massage the tendons and wrap the wrist with neoprene to hold the heat into the joint and decrease the tissue swelling that may occur while resting.  The over-all effect of massage is to promote the relaxation of the entire muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems.  By massaging a dog after a long run, the dog is able to rest more effectively and experience less muscle pain and stiffness for the next run period.

Good dog care is paramount to winning or even completing a race. Mushers who take exceptional care of their dogs by using massage, proper hydration, and allowing enough rest during the race will have a team that is happy when they cross that finish line.

Dr. Donofro has been a Yukon Quest trail veterinarian five times.  Her experience also includes serving as a trail veterinarian for the Iditarod, Can-Am Crown, and Great Trail Sled Dog Races, and she has worked with racing greyhounds.  She owns a small animal hospital in Florida, where she practices traditional veterinary medicine in conjunction with acupuncture, traditional chinese medicine, physical therapy, and spinal manipulation.  In addition to her practice, she is active with Auburn University and the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine.

Author: 
Melanie Donofro, DVM