Outdoor housing and participation in sled dog races can be stressful for dogs, but there is not enough knowledge to assess the degree of risk for reduced animal welfare. That is the conclusion in a risk assessment from the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety (VKM).
The Norwegian Food Safety Authority (NFSA) has requested VKM for an opinion regarding the risk of reduced animal welfare, associated with dogs kept permanently outdoors and dogs that are used for long-distance sled dog racing in Norway.
Permanently housing of dogs outdoors is relatively common in Norway, in particular for polar breeds and sled dogs.
VKM has identified several factors why housing dogs outdoors may be stressfull for the dogs.
Risk associated with weather conditions and temperature
Weather conditions have been identified as a risk for dogs kept permanently outdoors. For dogs to be suited to cold weather conditions, exposed body parts should be covered by fur and the coat should be extremely thick in order to avoid frostbite and hypothermia. The temperature tolerance observed in polar dogs does not apply to mixed breeds like Alaskan husky, due to variability in the thickness and structure of insulating fur.
Risk of infection and social stress
With regards to outdoor housing, additional hazards were identified in association with large group housing. Keeping dogs in such conditions, irrespective of whether tethered or kept in pens, increases the risk of exposing them to pathogenic agents. Crowding dogs together may also expose them to social stress from more dominant individuals.
However, scientific data on risks of reduced animal welfare associated with dogs kept permanently outdoors is scarce. The extent to which dogs tolerate being permanently kept outdoors, will largely depend on management practices.
Assigning a specific risk is not possible as many factors are involved.
Risk-reduction measures include access to heated rooms, daily removal of faeces, regular cleaning and disinfection of premises and equipment, and careful management of groups of dogs with stable hierarchies.
Sled dog racing has become increasingly popular in Norway. According to the NFSA, many dogs that participate in long-distance races, such as the Finnmark Race and the Femund Race, often experience health problems.
Sled dogs are subjected to strenuous physical activities, both during racing and during the training season. VKM has identified several factors why sled dog racing may reduce animal welfare.
Current obligatory resting times not sufficient
Insufficient recovery period could result in fatigue or even fatalities, and is therefore a significant hazard. In Norwegian sled dog races, there are rules for obligatory resting at checkpoints, ranging from 8 to 33 hours in total, depending on the length of the race. Increasing the obligatory resting time, starting with 10 hours per day, e.g. 24 hour period (which is the minimum biological requirement in dogs,) and adjusting upwards, will decrease the risk of reduced welfare.
Other risk factors
Low ambient temperatures do not generally represent a problem while dogs are running. Hyperthermia may become an issue in sled dogs with thick coats, especially during extensive physical work at warm winter days.
Dogs demonstrating repeated vomiting during a race have an increased risk of aspiration pneumonia, may not obtain the required energy intake, and may develop more severe gastrointestinal-disorders and dehydration. Compulsory veterinary controls by appropriately experienced veterinarians should alleviate some of the risks.
Gastric ulcers are often associated with strenuous physical activity. Longer and / or more frequent rest periods, together with access to adequate food and drink, can reduce the risk of reduced animal welfare.
Updating guidelines and improving existing regulations
The risk assessment will be used by NFSA as a scientific framework for updating “Guidelines for outdoor housing of dogs” from 2003, and compliance with the present Animal Welfare Act. This information is intended to provide a more solid scientific basis for ensuring animal welfare, better guidance for both owners and race veterinarians, and to improve existing regulations in sled dog racing.
The VKM Panel on Animal Health and Welfare is responsible for the assessment.