Mushing champ starts state's first veterinary program

Mike Dunham
Photo by Mike Dunham

SALCHA -- An Alaskan who wants to become a veterinarian faces a tough choice. Colleges of veterinary medicine are all out of state. Slots for the programs are limited. And out-of-state tuition for the four-year degree ranges between $234,000 to over $300,000, twice as much as it is for in-state students.

"The best bet is to declare residency in the state where you're attending," said Arleigh Reynolds, the current Fur Rendezvous mushing champion and a veterinarian himself. "That means you give up Alaska residency and the benefits that go with it."

Reynolds hopes to see that change next year when a proposed program at University of Alaska Fairbanks will begin to offer a veterinary program for in-state students.

The program, the first of its kind in Alaska, will allow students to take the first two years of courses at home, where in-state tuition will be $27,000 -- a number that looks big but is standard, even on the low end, for such programs around the country.

For the final two years they'll switch to the program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Whether Alaskan students will be able to get a reduced rate from Colorado, similar to the WWAMI program for medical degrees, is still being worked out. But, Reynolds said, at the very least the Alaska student will only have to pay out-of-state tuition for two years rather than four.

Reynolds, who will run the program, said the idea was presented to UA regents four years ago. Cost was a major consideration. The annual cost of operating a full four-year program would be $100 million. But for the two-year feeder program the price tag will be between $1.1 and $1.4 million.

The program will have the benefit of small classes, Reynolds said, because it will be limited to 10 students in the first year. The staff will include a large animal veterinarian, an anatomist, pathologist and internal medicine specialist. If all goes as planned, the first classes will take place in the fall of 2015.

Dogs as 'sentinels'

Originally from upstate New York, Reynolds got his veterinary degrees from Cornell University. His Ph.D topic was nutrition in sled dogs.

"I'd always been an endurance athlete," he said. "I started coming to Alaska to lecture, worked with Rick Swenson and Susan Butcher, and finally decided it would be fun to race myself. I wrote proposals to five dog food companies for grants to let me study these athlete animals and the best offer came back from Purina. Now I've spent the last 15 years in Alaska.

In 2001 he and his wife Donna, moved to a dry cabin (no running water) off the Old Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks. They've raised -- or are still raising -- six children there. Today, they have a beautiful log home with all the amenities, decorated by trophies from Reynolds' hunting trips and mushing victories.

Next to the house is a lot with 70 dogs. A contraption resembling a merry-go-round lets them exercise even when there's no snow. A big shed contains bags of stored Purina Dog Chow, warm quarters for "retired" dogs, an office with Reynolds' diplomas and autographed photos of his Alaska mushing mentor, Roxy Wright-Champaine. There's also a lab where dogs can be examined and blood samples drawn.

Reynolds' research goes beyond finding the best high-protein/high-fat formula for maximizing endurance and performance in-sprint racing dogs. Reynolds said dogs provide "sentinel models" for people living in the north. How a dog reacts to short days and cold weather can tell us something about how humans will react.

Through blood samples, he determined that dogs at the mouth of the Yukon River had a higher mercury content than those upriver. The dogs live largely on subsistence fish, which also make up a big part of the diet for people along the river.

He also found that for dogs the stress of agreeable exercise is better than the stress of travel or going to the vet. "It's a non-invasive form of stress; the dog likes doing it," he said, which for some reason improves a dog's immune system and how well it responds to vaccines.

Other research done right in his dog lot indicated a benefit of exercise. While some of the dogs snooze for most of the summer, others are exercised regularly. After a forest fire blackened the skies around Salcha, Reynolds discovered that his exercised dogs had levels of the "free radical" nitric oxide (NO) 10 times lower than in the idle dogs.

Free radicals are associated by some scientists with autoimmune diseases and cancer. They occur naturally in bodies but increase with smoking or pollution -- like a forest fire. The dogs had all breathed the same smoke-laden air for the same time, but the level of nitric oxide in their blood varied by a whopping 1,000 percent.

Reynolds said the conclusion was obvious. Toxic pollution can affect whole populations, but "If you're in good shape ahead of time, your body will handle it better."

No shortage of students

Fifty years ago, a Massachusetts veterinarian stunned Alaska mushers by winning several world championships at the Fur Rendezvous races.

"Roland Lombard changed how people thought about the dogs," Reynolds said. "Before him people assumed that if a dog was thirsty he'd just take a bite of snow; Lombard watered his dogs because he knew that eating the snow would cause dehydration, and proper hydration is crucial for athletes. He paid attention to foot care. He really revolutionized mushing."

Today's racing dogs receive a level of care and attention unknown to the freight teams of yore. Mushing is as much a science as a sport. With intense media coverage of long-distance races, the connection between sled dogs and Alaska's culture has never been stronger.

Yet every single veterinarian working in Alaska was trained Outside.

The UAF-Colorado State collaboration will be a big step toward changing that. Reynolds said there's no shortage of potential students.

"I was speaking to 70 kids at a school in Anchorage and asked who would be interested in becoming a vet," he said. "Every single hand went up."

Veterinary medicine is also attractive to adults who are looking for a career change, he said.

When it comes to how much an animal doctor gets paid, Alaska is somewhat on the low end. The VIN Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes veterinary training, says the average annual income of a veterinarian in Alaska is between $80,000-$86,000. In Hawaii, Florida, New York and several other states it starts at $100,000.

Coupled with the low population of much of the state, the result is that vast stretches of Alaska have no ready access to veterinary services.

Reynolds hopes the new program may help ease that shortage by giving some students from the bush a grounding in animal medicine, perhaps the same students who go back to staff village clinics.

"I'd like to see a rural service," he said, "to provide parts of the state with services that aren't there now."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.