The Best Decisions on Dog Care Come from Education

Dog care is an extremely important aspect of the race and two very important concepts are vital to accomplishing the highest level.  It begins with education.  Valuable knowledge has been gained through shared years of experience and many proactive research studies.  Education of mushers and trail veterinarians provides necessary information with which to make the best decisions in regard to canine health. 

Once a common level of knowledge has been established, mushers and veterinarians can apply that to their work as a team on behalf of the dogs.  Mushers have the unique knowledge about their individual dogs and are with them on the trail.  Knowing each dog, including their behavioral and physical characteristics, then observing them closely, is vital for recognizing early signs of abnormalities.  Communicating with checkpoint veterinarians about any such observed abnormalities enables the latter to utilize their professional expertise in an optimal fashion. 

In pursuing the team approach, I have for many years offered voluntary kennel visits during December, January and February, which are designed to accomplish the following:  1) develop a good rapport between race veterinarians and mushers in a non-race and more relaxed atmosphere; 2) discuss the direction, goals, projects, research studies, etc., of the Iditarod veterinary program; 3) more fully explain the examination protocols, health criteria and reasoning of race veterinarians working at checkpoints; 4) address kennel management issues of concern to mushers; and 5) perform health care consultation

Visits are limited to kennels with road access in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, for logistical and financial reasons.  The knowledge that I’ve personally gained has been very rewarding, and I’m looking forward to this new season!

For many years, the Iditarod Rookie Musher Meeting has been hosted at the Millennium Hotel (Anchorage) during the first weekend in December.  In preparation for Iditarod 2013, this year’s meeting is scheduled for December 1-2.   All rookie mushers must attend, regardless of the distance that they may have to travel. The intent of that meeting is to provide them with as much practical knowledge as possible, well in advance of the race start.  The information gained can then be used throughout the training and racing season for the maximum benefit. 

Many topics are covered at that meeting, including equipment selection, food drop preparation, race strategy, race rules, and of course, dog care.  During the first day, I spend several hours discussing important aspects of veterinary care.  Subjects will include nutrition, foot care, orthopedics, pre-race screening (ECGs and laboratory blood testing), race protocols, research topics and drug testing.  The program wraps up with a visit to Happy Trails Kennel for a practical review of race preparation and participation.

Another undertaking of relevance to dog care will be accomplished soon.  As most of you know, a couple of years ago the ITC implemented an outreach program to remote villages along the Iditarod Trail.  For this year, the Race Marshal, Mark Nordman, and I will be traveling to Shageluk to conduct a vaccination clinic for the dogs of local villagers.  Shageluk is far from access to routine veterinary care, and the cost for transportation is high.  With the support of the Iditarod Air Force, we will be flying there to vaccinate dogs for Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parvo, Parainfluenza  and Rabies.  In addition, we will be prescribing  and dispensing Drontal Plus, a broad spectrum anthelminitic (dewormer), which is effective against hookworms, roundworms, whipworms and tapeworms.  This product contains the only approved treatment (praziquantel) for a tapeworm known as Echinococcus multilocularis, which can potentially also cause serious illness or even death, in humans.  This parasite is endemic in the western coastal regions of Alaska.

The tempo will continue to escalate as the race approaches.  In addition to letters of communication with the veterinary staff and mushers, screening of all dogs (ECGs and bloodwork) preparing to enter the race will commence in early February, under the direction of my Head Veterinary Technician, Jan Bullock.  Also, in February, attendance in the three day ISDVMA (International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association) Sled Dog Veterinarian Training Seminar will be mandatory for my rookie trail veterinarians.  The General Musher Meeting will take place on Thursday, February 28, and soon after that (March 2) Iditarod 2013 will officially be underway. 

The following months will go by like weeks, so now is the time to prepare yourself for another great race, whether online or in person!

Stuart Nelson, Jr., DVM                                                                                                                                     

Chief Veterinarian