You are driving your family over 1000 miles this summer on vacation. I’m sure you want your family to arrive safely; after all, they are the most important people in your life. With that in mind, you probably have been checking your car inside and out to make sure it is safe to travel. On the trip you constantly check the oil, put the best gas in it, check the tires, and keep it in tiptop shape.
Mushers do the same with their dogs. These dogs that are taking them over 1000 miles across the state of Alaska are their very best friends. They make sure these dogs are well taken care of.
Today we listened to Iditarod chief veterinarian, Dr. Stu Nelson. This past race was Dr. Nelson’s 19th year as chief vet. The 9 years prior to that he was an Iditarod trail vet volunteer. It is safe to say that Stu has quite a bit of experience dealing with sled dogs.
These mushers take better care of their dogs than most people take care of themselves. To journey to the Iditarod the process for taking care of a dog is ongoing. Training formally starts in September, however, many dogs will condition in the summer with little runs here and there. In February, screening the dogs for the Iditarod takes place. During this process dogs will be given a microchip or get their current one updated. In most dogs, microchips are placed between the shoulder blades. In sled dogs, the microchip is placed behind the ears. This is done so the harness isn’t rubbing back and forth on the chip. The dogs are also given an EKG. This is to make sure the dog does not have any underlying abnormalities in his or her heart. Finally, the dogs are given a general health check-up. Dr. Nelson reads all the results to these check-ups and uses it as an opportunity to call each musher.
Two weeks prior to the race up to the Wednesday before the race is the physical vet exam. Mushers can choose to have a private vet conduct this exam or take their dogs to headquarters and have the exam done there. Mushers also must give their dog a de-wormer about 2 weeks prior to the race that Iditarod sends to them.
During the race dogs are given booties, straw to sleep on, blankets to cover up with, jackets to keep them warm. They are also given the best food concoction a dog could ever want. Out on the trail there are 40-45 vets that move up the trail. Mushers must carry a dog team diary that the vets communicate with each other through. At each checkpoint the dogs are checked out as well. This exam is a hands-on exam. The vets use the acronym HAW/L (haw means left, L means left) for the exam. H – heart and hydration. The vets will check out the dogs’ heart to see how it is doing. They will also check the hydration of each dog. This can be done through the gums or a skin fold test. A – appetite and attitude. The vet will talk with the musher about how the dog is eating. The vet will also check out how the dog’s attitude appears and discuss with the musher about the attitude on the tail. W – weight (bodyweight). This can be the most challenging test. It can be very hard to tell if a dog is too skinny or just a thin dog. The average weight for a sled dog is 50-55 pounds. Some can be in the 40’s and some can be up in the 60’s. L – lungs. Vets will listen to the lungs. It is very important to catch pneumonia very early on because this can be a fatal illness.
Iditarod sled dogs are known as marathoners. I can tell you that I ran a marathon last year and I didn’t have a single test done on me to make sure that I was healthy enough to do the run. I do know, however, if my best buds, Dixon and Chili, were to do that, they would definitely be getting tested.
Dr. Nelson stated that awareness is extremely important to mushers. He really makes it a point to educate both his vets and mushers on how to pick up on the early signs of an abnormality in their dog. There is constant research and studies going on to learn as much as they can about the care of these dogs.
For a musher, their sled dog is their best friend, their life, and their companion. They would never do anything to harm their buddy. The amount of care that goes into these dogs shows you just how much they care for their best bud. To make a journey this long and treacherous, you must make sure your companion is well taken care of.