While studying ski asthma, an asthma-like disease common in elite winter athletes, as part of his Ph.D. research at Johns Hopkins University, Michael Davis approached the Iditarod head veterinarian for a possible collaboration opportunity. Davis hoped that the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, would provide a unique opportunity to study this phenomenon in sled dogs.

The Iditarod veterinarians, Davis explained, “recognized an opportunity to address a major problem of their own—the fact that the leading cause of death [in the dogs] was gastric ulcers or something related to that.” He continued, “it turned out that while the dogs were not a great model for ski asthma, the gastric ulcer issue was much more prominent. So, the Iditarod work shifted to finding a solution to the gastric ulcer problem.”

Davis, who completed his master’s degree in veterinary medicine from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995, and his team solved the gastric ulcer problem and shifted their focus to metabolic work. “We still use the same canine athletes,” he said, “but the type of basic metabolism work that is currently our focus needs a greater degree of experimental control than what is possible in the context of a race.”

Davis continued, “the dogs have an amazing capacity for plasticity in what their muscle will use for fuel—they can switch between carbs and fat almost seamlessly and use just about any metabolizable energy source at magnitudes that are simply unheard of in other athletes. We would like to know how they do that, both to improve the performance of the dogs themselves but also to see what sort of novel strategies could be implemented in other athletes.”

In other words, Davis and his research team are trying to find out what makes these dogs resilient. Although his recent work at Oklahoma State University has taken him largely outside of the race environment, Davis still makes it a priority to attend the Iditarod each year, “both to support the kennels that have become our go-to resources for experimental subjects as well as to provide seminars to the trail veterinarians on our current work,” explained Davis, who is a professor and endowed chair in the Department of Physiological Sciences at the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences. “The most rewarding part of the research,” he continued, “is interacting with the quality dogs and people with whom I have the privilege to work. The sled dogs and mushers are honest, hard-working team players, and I enjoy simply being around and being part of an environment like that.”

Davis, who earned his doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Texas A&M in 1988, has since expanded his research to include all kinds of exercise physiology, regardless of the species. “The only caveat,” he elaborated, “is that the subjects really need to be athletes—I’m not terribly interested in pigs on a treadmill. Beyond that, I’ve got a strong interest in the health and well-being of not just the animal athletes, but their human handlers, too—particularly those in the military whose lives are often directly dependent on their dogs. So on a program level, we are branching out beyond exercise physiology to take on things like canine odor detection.”

Davis also wants to emphasize that even though animal research involves inherent risk, he and his team of researchers “shouldered the responsibility for that risk in [our gastric ulcer work] and many others because we care about all the animals that will suffer if we don’t find a solution.” He continued, “I continue to do what I do because it is necessary and as well-trained and conscientious veterinary professionals, we are able to do the work in a manner that minimizes risk or discomfort better than most others.”

Written by Kelsey Foster, a master’s degree student in the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences


Michael Davis in parka
After Michael Davis completed a master’s degree at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995, he investigated ski asthma and then gastric ulcers in sled racing dogs for his Ph.D. research at Johns Hopkins University.
Michael Davis with dog sled
Although his current research has taken him in new directions, Davis still tries to attend the Iditarod—the world’s foremost dog sled race—in Alaska every year.