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How volunteer vets care for Iditarod dogs along the 1,000-mile trail

Suzanna Caldwell
Iditarod veterinarian Tanja Kruse checks dogs in Kristin Hendricks' team in the Nikolai checkpoint on March 5, 2013 . Loren Holmes photo

It might cost $4 million to put on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race every year, but that number doesn't take into account the hundreds of volunteers that donate their time -- and often a good chunk of change -- to get to the race. Among the most important volunteers are the 42 race veterinarians who care for the dogs between Anchorage and Nome.

According to head veterinarian Stu Nelson, most Iditarod vets come from the Lower 48, with only a half-dozen Alaskans joining them on the trail. Some make a much longer trek, including two from Germany, one from South Africa and one from Australia.

No matter where they come from, their services are vital. It's not uncommon for mushers to ask for a vet upon arriving at a checkpoint. Even if they don't, vets swarm checkpoints, stethoscopes draped around their necks, calmly inspecting each and every dog.

That's by design, Nelson says. Early in the race, some checkpoints can be clogged with dozens of mushers arriving, making it impossible for all of the vets to do hands-on examinations.

Still, you'll often see vets moving through dog lots, hovering over teams, gently rubbing shoulders and backs, patting the dogs’ haunches, looking for any signs of distress.

Nelson says he trains all of the vets to HAWL -- an acronym that breaks down the four main areas “vets are tuning into.”

  • H for heart and hydration: As ultra-fit endurance athletes on the trail doing intense cardiovascular work, vets are keenly tuned in to the heart rates of the dogs, as well their hydration levels -- something that's especially important given the warm temperatures mushers have seen early in this year’s race.
  • A for attitude and appetite: Are they peppy and alert, rearing to go? Or disengaged and dragging? That matters, as does the dogs ability to chow down and keep fueling up.
  • W for weight: To travel thousands of miles, the dogs need plenty of fat reserves, even while eating thousands of calories a day.
  • L for lungs: Strong lungs are critical. Occasionally, dogs struggle with kennel cough -- essentially a cold that can lead to sometimes-fatal pneumonia.

For many vets, examining sled dogs is not common. Most vets on the trail have regular practices back home where they see house dogs more often than the elite sled dogs of Iditarod Trail teams. Still, veterinarians undergo an application process in order to volunteer that requires a minimum of five years clinical practice.

“In the Bush, you don't have the latest and greatest equipment,” Nelson says. “Experience is important because you don't have much technology to draw from.”

Last year, Alan Taylor, now on his fifth trip down the trail, had to deal with stethoscopes so frozen that one point of them broke. And despite a long trip from Australia to Alaska, Taylor says it's worthwhile.

“I enjoy what we do with the mushers,” he said from Rainy Pass on Monday. “The dogs are great to work with.”

It's an attitude that has changed over the years. Phil Meyer has worked the race off and on since the late 1970s. He says the attitude of both the dogs and mushers has changed tremendously since the early days of the race that started in 1973. Before, mushers used the dogs primarily for work. Now, there’s much more care directed towards treating the dogs well, he says.

“There's a lot of difference between working and racing,” Meyer said from his veterinary practice in Wasilla. “In racing, it's a sport and the dogs should never have to suffer.”

Nevertheless, there will always be bumps and rubs along the trail, but the overall health of the dogs is improving. Many vets credit research done on the trail with improving the health of canine athletes. In recent years, vets have begun giving the dogs an acid suppressant -- essentially over-the-counter antacid medication -- to prevent stomach ulcers. Adding vitamin E has helped prevent serious muscle fatigue in the dogs as they run 1,000 miles to Nome.

So far, it's paid off. For three consecutive Iditarods, no dogs have died during the race, a record unmatched in the history of the world’s biggest sled-dog race. Nelson hopes to make that four, but he recognizes there are things beyond the control of his veterinary team. “I have a realistic perspective that I can't control life, obviously, and things can happen in spite of everything being perfectly laid out,” Nelson says. “Freak things can happen.”

Family connections

The biggest draw for most Iditarod veterinarians might be the family experience among the close-knit volunteer checkpoints. While the Iditarod only pays a small stipend to veteran vets -- rookies vets get nothing -- it's generally barely enough to cover expenses of getting to Alaska.

“We get together each year, these people all become a big part of your life,” Nelson says. “And of course were else could see this? The vastness and beauty that is Alaska. There are a lot of unique things to what we do out there. You put the whole the package together, and it's pretty alluring.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com