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‘How they perform the best’: Iditarod veterinarians keep teams healthy on the trail

Iditarod Veterinarians keep teams healthy on the trail.
Iditarod Veterinarians keep teams healthy on the trail.(Taylor Clark/KTUU)
Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 11:15 PM AKST
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - The health of the dogs pulling the sled is more important than finishing or even winning the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for a good musher.

While they care for their dogs between checkpoints, the veterinarians of the Iditarod trail make sure they stay in good health whether or not they cross the finish line.

Stuart Nelson has been taking care of sled dogs for 35 years. For 26 of those, he’s been the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian.

In Iditarod 49, the only things that happen before vet inspection is getting a COVID-19 test and signing the log to the checkpoint.

Nelson said he was worried the pandemic and social distancing would leave him with too few vets to take care of the animals. He said this year he has 56 on staff with 45 on the trail. He’s happy with that number.

However, that is fewer vets than a traditional year, albeit there are a few less teams than a traditional year as well.

Once cleared, the mushers unhook the dogs and a team of vets descend upon the working animals as they stop for a rest.

Nelson said they use an acronym to remember what to check that tips a cap to the history of mushing.

“We came up with the acronym many years ago called HAWL. H-A-W-L. For those who are familiar with mushing, H-A-W is a voice command for going left,” Nelson said.

That reminds them to check their heart and hydration, appetite and attitude, weight, and lungs. However, Nelson said that’s not all they inspect. They also check paws for sores, check digestion and tend to any other issues that may be occurring.

Even though the vets do a thorough inspection making sure they’re fit to continue, it’s usually the musher who decides if they want to send a dog, home according to Nelson.

“I’d say about 80% of the time that they make the decision that they want to return a dog for whatever reason. And so, you know it could be strategy, could be in heat, could be some kind of injury or illness, could be a lot of reasons. They might drop a dog or return a dog, but usually they make that decision,” Nelson said.

Veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe explained that strategy part. She said oftentimes, a musher will start to drop dogs toward the end of the race as a way to cut back on time taken caring for the dogs on the trail, shaving off minutes that become much more critical in later parts of the race.

If it is time to go home. The dogs are taken by more vets to the return kennel. Melissa Edwards is a vet at the McGrath checkpoint return kennel.

There they have dogs waiting to catch a ride to Anchorage. She said they have crates that feel like the trucks their mushers move them around in for races, so they are used to the conditions.

When it comes to the crates, she said there’s usually only an issue on warm days when the dogs could easily overheat.

Edwards said sometimes the dogs are a little nervous when they get to the kennel. However, she said they tend to relax once they settle in with some new dogs to hang out with.

“Once we get some other dogs, even though they’re not on the same team it’s like, ‘hey I’ve got some friends here. We’re all good,’” Edwards said.

The return kennel is complete with a small building that can be used as a field hospital if the dogs need more attention. Throughout the day, snacks like beef sticks are handed out along with some head scratches and being reminded that they are good dogs.

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