By Michelle Theriault Boots
5:44 PM AKDT, March 17, 2011
Mushers and veterinarians on the Iditarod face a challenge: keeping sled dogs happy, healthy and motivated on a grueling 1,049-mile-long journey.
Keeping dogs healthy on the trail takes coordination and cooperation from a devoted cadre of vets and the dog mushers themselves, said Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson.
“With that many dogs over that length of time, we have to be ready for any circumstance,” Nelson said.
On the trail, 41 veterinarians -- all volunteers who pay their way to Alaska for the race, some coming from as far away as Norway and Australia – man the 25 checkpoints. They check dogs’ appearance and heartbeats as they come in, and diagnose and treat problems. They also care for dogs “dropped” by mushers at checkpoints until they can be flown to Nome or Anchorage to reunite with their owners.
Veterinarian Glenn Cantor, from Princeton, New Jersey, has been volunteering on the trail for 16 years. He's seen big changes in dog health: In the early 1990s, the race had more problems with sick dogs and dogs even dying suddenly.
A cardiac specialist M.D. from Chicago named Sarajo Bharati, whose research specialty was sudden deaths of young basketball players from cardiac failure, examined some of the dogs that had died on the trail from unexplained causes.
“She identified actual physical abnormalities in the hearts,” Cantor said.
The Iditarod doctors developed an EKG test to screen out dogs “that shouldn’t be long distance athletes.” There hasn’t been a sudden dog death on the trail in years, he said.
“It’s a success story,” he said.
Musher Aily Zirkle says that her primary concern on the trail is dog health – both physical and emotional.
“I’m constantly checking in with them, analyzing their physical and mental ability,” she said.
Dogs know what their limits are, and she says she’s most interested in making the race fun for them.
“It’s their race,” she said, “They’re the ones who trained up for it. I’m just kind of along for the ride.”
She likes to keep as many dogs as possible. Other mushers “drop” slower dogs to increase race speed, but Zirkle says team unity can be more important.
Her dog Nacho, a goofy, long-legged relative of Lance Mackey’s lead dog Zorro, is her best motivator.
“More than me, he’s the cheery leader,” she said. “He’s the one who motives them.”
In her 11 years of Iditarod racing she sees better overall health among Iditarod dogs. She attributes it to good breeding, better awareness of potential health issues.
Some mushers see trail veterinarians as “the police,” she says, but most are happy to collaborate.
“Dog health isn’t a 10-day race thing, it’s a 365-days-a-year thing,” she said.
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