Alaska News

Before start line, Iditarod dogs all get ECGs, blood-chemistry scans and a worming

The trip from Delta Junction to Anchorage for the Iditarod vet check seemed endless. I forgot the rabies certificates for Zoya's (my wife), dog team and had to run back 70 miles to get them. The Iditarod is particular about having the proper paperwork. The dogs competing must have current rabies, parvo, corona, distemper and bordella vaccinations.

The Wednesday veterinary exam at Iditarod headquarters is mostly a formality. The real veterinary work has been completed over the past few weeks. In addition to vaccinations, every dog running the Iditarod must have a complete worming, a blood-chemistry scan and an electrocardiogram.

The ECG program has been in existence since 1992. Mushers must have 24 potential racers checked two weeks to a month prior to the race. Each dog is hooked up to an ECG monitor for a complete heart scan. They must lay calmly on their side on a stainless table for a few seconds while hooked to six cables. Most dogs take this as a perfect invitation for a belly rub. The ECG results are sent to Purdue University for evaluation. Each year, one or two dogs are eliminated from Iditarod contention based on previously undiagnosed heart conditions discovered by the ECGs.

A complete blood chemistry scan is also a requirement for the potential Iditarod dog. Two vials of blood are drawn from each animal and sent to the lab at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Results come back to Dr. Stuart Nelson, the Iditarod's head veterinarian.

Nelson has worked with the Iditarod for 37 years and has been the chief vet since 1998. He evaluates the blood work and contacts each musher to go over the findings. Occasionally, a sled dog may deviate slightly from normal. If the deviation is significant, that dog will likely stay home.

In addition to the blood work, ECGs and vaccinations, Iditarod dogs must also have a complete worming (the wormer is provided by the Iditarod Trail Committee) and a microchip implanted to track individual dogs, something that has been done for more than 20 years.

Iditarod dogs are the most studied and well-documented dogs in the world. The costs involved are significant, but the work is provided to mushers as part of their $3,000 entry fee. The ECG program is run by volunteer vets using equipment owned by the Iditarod Trail Committee. Blood scans are performed by volunteers and Providence donates the lab time. The cost of microchips and wormer is absorbed by the Iditarod.

A kennel owner paying for these pre-race tests themselves would find the price prohibitive -- thousands of dollars for each competing dog, Nelson estimated. And pre-race veterinary work is not the end. Rather, it provides veterinarians who work the race some initial data to fall back on.

Every Iditarod has 35 or 40 vets on the trail performing thousands of individual exams on racing dogs. In spite of the myriad of tests, an abnormality may slip through. That happens with human athletes, too.

Makes me think I should find my vaccination records and climb up on that ECG table. I might be able to use a good worming, too.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. His wife, Zoya DeNure, is starting her fifth Iditarod this year.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.