by Stuart Nelson Jr., DVM
Of a total staff of approximately 50 veterinarians, most will serve as “trail” veterinarians. These individuals will have a number of responsibilities at checkpoints along the race route. Of course, their primary focus will be on the examination, evaluation, and treatment of the canine athletes.
A “senior” veterinarian is selected at each checkpoint for organizational purposes. The person so chosen is the most experienced of the group and has demonstrated a high level of expertise in previous races. Responsibilities of the senior veterinarian include the following, which may be delegated when deemed appropriate: 1) inventory medications and supplies; 2) supervise the care and feeding of dropped dogs; 3) organize dropped dog paperwork and coordinate their departure from the checkpoint; 4) schedule staff so all share the workload equally; 5) work with communications personnel, race judges and checkers in efficiently managing a checkpoint; and 6) immediately notify the Chief Veterinarian of any problems or crises that may develop.
It is absolutely essential that mushers and veterinarians work together in behalf of the dogs. A healthy dialogue must be established and maintained. Excellence in dog care requires a team effort. In a race scenario, mushers are with their animals 95% of the time and have specific knowledge about their individual dogs. Veterinarians are engaging those dogs about 5% of the time, but have advanced medical training and expertise. Only when mushers are properly informed of specific abnormalities to watch for, and actively communicate observations of such to checkpoint (trail) veterinarians, can the best care be provided for our canine athletes.
A systematic examination protocol will enable the most efficient use of staff time. Veterinarians are instructed to first observe a team that he/she will be examining, as it moves into the checkpoint. Lamenesses can be detected most quickly while the dogs are in motion, allowing for a more accurate assessment of musculoskeletal problems. Other important visual observations can also be made at this point, such as attitude, respiratory rate and condition of booties.
When a musher stops to rest their team at the checkpoint, individual “hands on” examinations are next on the agenda. These are best accomplished soon after the arrival of a team for several reasons. First, any disorders can be addressed and treatment begun to allow for maximum recovery time and appropriate rechecks while at a particular checkpoint. Second, longer periods of rest can be achieved without interruption to the animals. Finally, it is more efficient for busy mushers and veterinarians, rather than trying to routinely coordinate schedules and rendezvous at later times.
The Iditarod Trail Committee has for many years required that mushers carry Dog Team Diaries (Vet Books) as part of their mandatory equipment. By rule, these must be presented to a veterinarian at every checkpoint. The veterinarian who examines a team at a given checkpoint is responsible for making notations relevant to the medical status of team members and signing the diary prior to returning it to the musher, who must also sign it. This system has been very helpful as a communication and reference tool for veterinarians and mushers alike.
There are a number of criteria utilized when performing the examinations. Included are the following: mucous membrane color (pink); capillary refill time (less than one second); heart rate (120 beats per minute or less) and rhythm; respiratory rate (10-15 breaths per minute) and pattern; hydration; bodyweight; attitude; posture; response to shoulder, carpal, hip, stifle and tarsal flexion; muscle and tendon palpation and; appearance of the feet. In severe cold and wind, it is also important to check for potential frostbite in the following areas: harness and bootie rubs, teat, prepuce, vulva and flank fold regions. Any signs described by the musher, such as coughing, diarrhea, fatigue, gait changes, etc., in addition to any abnormalities detected on routine evaluation, would necessitate further investigation.
It is essential that we focus on our priorities when the teams are coming and going in rapid succession. Potentially life-threatening abnormalities are our greatest concern. The following acronym, “H.A.W/L,” although not perfect, is easy for mushers and veterinarians to use as a guideline when things are happening fast and human fatigue is setting in (“HAW” is a voice command to go Left): H = Hydration and Heart (rate and rhythm); A = Attitude and Appetite; W = Weight (bodyweight) and; L = Lungs
Mushers may finish with only those dogs that started the race. Although none may be added to the team after the start, they can be returned at any checkpoint and for any reason. If team member numbers are reduced below the predetermined minimum, a musher cannot officially finish.
A highly organized system is in place to care for returned dogs and appropriately attend to their needs. Mushers must complete a Returned Dog Form before releasing a canine from competition. On this form, an explanation of the reason(s) for returning is requested along with the musher’s signature. Typically, if an illness or injury is present, a veterinarian has already examined the animal. In the event that this has not taken place, an examination is performed as soon as possible. Previous relevant medications administered and current treatments are also recorded on the form, in addition to the name of the veterinarian completing the exam. Included on the returned dog form is a box to indicate “Condition Status.” Dogs with potentially life-threatening conditions are designated “Red” and are identified by red flagging placed around the neck. Every effort is made to safely expedite their travel to an appropriate veterinary facility. Dogs undergoing treatment for less serious disorders are designated as “Blue.” Dog Care Agreement Forms are completed prior to the race and specify which veterinary hospital a particular musher’s dogs should be taken to, if necessary. All remaining dogs are officially considered to be “White,” merely waiting to return to their home kennel.
Dogs returned East (Yentna, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass) of the Alaska Range fly directly back to Anchorage with the Iditarod Air Force (IAF). Upon their arrival, they are once again evaluated by veterinarians to assess their health status. For those returned farther down the trail, they typically are flown by the IAF to the hubs of McGrath, Unalakleet or Nome, where they are rechecked by veterinarians at those locations. Once again, they receive another examination by veterinarians after landing in Anchorage.
Effective protocols in assessing and caring for Iditarod dogs is crucial to a successful race, and the efforts of all are much appreciated.