Learn What the Veterinary Team Does at the Iditarod Sled Dog Race

Dr. Stuart Nelson examines an Iditarod dog
© Jeff Schultz/IditarodPhotos.com
Chief veterinarian Dr. Stuart Nelson examines a dog in Nome, Alaska during the 2012 Iditarod.

Dr. Nelson says as long as sled dogs are healthy and have good circulation, they are not likely to develop frostbite or hypothermia. This also depends on the dog having appropriate hair for the weather.

“One musher made a name for himself by running standard Poodles. Athletically they could do it, but poodles don’t have the right type of coat. Ice builds up, and ice balls adhere to the hair. The problem is it accumulates when running, and then when they rest, their body heat melts the balls,” he explains. “They then get wet and are prone to hypothermia. In Huskies this doesn’t happen. As a result we now prohibit dogs who don’t have coats sufficient for arctic conditions.”

Ironically this means vets are usually more concerned with overheating than hypothermia. It might seem strange to worry about this during a winter race, but sled dogs typically train in conditions of 30 to 50 degrees below zero. When the race starts in Anchorage, it’s not that cold, says Dr. Nelson — it’s usually 20 to 30 degrees above zero. Mushers are warned to look for any signs of overheating when the temperature is above zero and there’s no wind and bright sunshine, and when a dog has a long coat or a dark coat that will absorb more heat.

Common Issues Faced by Sled Dogs

Other problems vets warn mushers to be aware of are those similar to endurance athletes — in fact, sled dogs actually share some commonalities with endurance horses in this respect. Dogs can be at risk of dehydration and pneumonia; other common issues dogs face are marathon fatigue, diarrhea, ulcers, and aches and pains similar to those found in human marathoners.

To help mushers remember what to look for, vets developed an acronym: HAWL. HAWL stands for heart and hydration, attitude and appetite, weight, and lungs. It is meant to be easy for mushers to remember because it is similar to the term said to dogs when mushers want the team to go left, “haw.”

Mushers carry a dog team diary to record the condition of each dog, and vets must sign off on the diary at every checkpoint before the team can move on.

“We educate them on the early signs of abnormalities," says Dr. Nelson. "In performance, a small thing can turn into a big thing pretty quickly. Being able to recognize these early is important because they are on the trail and able to see the early signs. There has to be communication between mushers and vets at every checkpoint."

Thanks to these measures, Iditarod vets hope to catch any problems before they really start. This way every dog can be healthy and fit to compete in “The Last Great Race.”


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