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An inside look at Iditarod dog care

  • Author: Stuart L. Nelson, Jr., DVM
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 27
  • Published February 27

Chief veterinarian Stu Nelson examines a dog at the Tanana checkpoint during the 2017 Iditarod on March 8, 2017. (Jeff Schultz/SchultzPhoto.com)

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the most well-known sled dog race in the world. To many, it is a time-honored challenge in outdoor adventure. But the level of health care for canine athletes has risen to new heights since the 1973 inaugural running.

Elaborate pre-race health screenings, systematic evaluations during the race and proactive research studies have set the standard for the care of sled dogs. This even has benefits for the average house pet. For instance, leading dog food companies have taken the knowledge gained from these Iditarod studies to develop better products for Fido and Fifi.

Proper animal care is vital to the sport of mushing. Our 55 international volunteer veterinarians do everything possible to ensure the well-being of the dogs. It is only when mushers actively communicate observations to checkpoint veterinarians, and vice versa, that the best care can be provided for our canine athletes.

As part of the commitment to the welfare of the dogs, mandatory pre-race screening includes blood testing, ECG recordings and microchip implants, all provided by the Iditarod Trail Committee to the mushers and their dogs. Each dog's microchip number is scanned before starting the race to verify they have gone through the screening protocols.

In addition to the extensive pre-race testing, every dog is required to have a veterinary physical exam within fourteen days of the race start. Deworming is also mandatory within 10 days of beginning the trip to Nome, and vaccinations (distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, bordetella, rabies) must be current.

All rookie veterinarians are required to attend an International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) sled dog veterinarian training seminar during the week before the race start, preparing them for their checkpoint responsibilities. Topics include cardiology, foot care, examination protocols, nutrition, orthopedics, training/conditioning and research updates.

Once the race begins, trail veterinarians leapfrog along the race. The first few checkpoints have six to seven veterinarians. As the race progresses and greater distances develop between teams, more checkpoints are staffed with an average of three to four veterinarians per checkpoint. The acronym H.A.W.L. is an easy way for mushers and veterinarians to track sled dog health in evaluations: hydration and heart (rate and rhythm), attitude and appetite, weight (body weight) and lungs.

Since 1994, the ITC has required that mushers carry dog team diaries as part of their mandatory equipment. The veterinarian who examines a team at a given checkpoint is responsible for making notations on the medical status of each dog. Although not required by race rules, it has been the goal of our veterinary staff to perform hands-on examinations of every dog at each checkpoint. It is estimated that more than 10,000 routine exams are performed by trail veterinarians during the Iditarod!

As the ultimate marathon athlete, the Iditarod sled dog has been the subject of a number of research studies during the past two decades, increasing the knowledge of physiology, metabolism, nutrition and medical conditions. Often, such conditions are also experienced by human marathoners and equine athletes.

Working sled dogs have been documented to utilize 10,000-12,000 calories a day.  Obviously, nutrition is then extremely important, and much research has been done to design ever-improving formulas for optimum health and performance. As mentioned, leading dog food companies have been able to take this knowledge gained to develop better products for the average pet.

These are just a few of the many advancements and benefits in dog care since the first Iditarod. During the race, mushers and veterinarians work as a team for the well-being of the dogs. As part of our stewardship role, we have been proactive in promoting research studies that have optimized nutrition and dog health. Care of dogs, whether pets or athletes, is and always will be the the priority of the Last Great Race on Earth.

Stuart Nelson is the head veterinarian of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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