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Mushers, veterinarians combine knowledge and love for happiest, healthiest dogs along the Iditarod trail

Mushers, veterinarians combine knowledge and love for happiest, healthiest dogs along the Iditarod trail
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 10:08 AM AKST
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MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - No one knows their dogs quite like the mushers. But no one knows dogs in general quite like Iditarod veterinarians. The two have the same interest in mind; the health and well-being of the athletes.

“It is great communication between the vets and the musher, I like it very much,” Mats Pettersson of Sweden said, who is competing in his seventh Iditarod. “Vets listen much to a musher, we know the dogs very good and they know more the other aspects of the health and other ways so I think it is a really good vet crew out here this year and I am really happy with them. As soon as you need ... stuff for the dogs, if you need help, they’re always here so I think it is very professional.”

Upon arrival to a checkpoint, vets initially keep a close eye on how the team is looking heading in. If the musher decides to park at the checkpoint, a team of vets will evaluate the dogs by checking their temperature, heartbeat, muscles, exoskeleton, how well they are eating, drinking, resting and beyond.

“The most important thing is when the team’s coming in, you’re watching all of the dogs run in, checking for obvious lameness, checking, making sure they don’t have a dog in the sled bag when they come in,” said Nikki Preston, one of over 50 Iditarod veterinarians on this year’s trail. “From there you ask the musher if they’re staying or going. If they’re going, you basically sign the book and say that you didn’t examine them, if not, then you wait until they pull over and check their team out.”

Like professional athletes, sled dogs receive the top care and attention. And like professional athletes, sometimes the dogs have to be sidelined due to injury or illness, known as returning or dropping dogs.

“Obviously you want to keep as many dogs as possible, but if they are not up to the task at some point during the race then it’s just detrimental to have them on the team,” said Pete Kaiser, 2019 Iditarod Champion. “They’re slowing everybody down and it’s not good for them if they’re not healthy and having fun.”

“Some mushers go in with the strategy that they are going to going to drop dogs and certain positions in the race,” Preston added. “Other times it’s an injury or illness or something like. It is pretty rare that the musher doesn’t pick something up that we pick up for them, they’re usually pretty in tune with their dogs.”

Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister was the first into the McGrath checkpoint Tuesday with 13 dogs, having to return Kat, a fellow Iditarod veteran, prior to arriving.

“She was just sore,” Burmeister said. “She’s older, she was the 8-year-old on the team and this has been a really rough trail. The burn last night with all of the moguls and it was just sore on her. ... She did her part and got us through a bunch of open water and I really appreciate everything she did for me.”

There is no Iditarod without dogs and both the mushers and vets understand that.

“I mean at the end of the day, it’s about the dogs and I think that is pretty apparent when it comes to the Iditarod. There are 50-something race veterinarians and there are zero medical doctors to take care of the mushers, so it’s all about taking care of the dogs and making sure they get there,” Preston said.

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