Iditarod Returned Dog Care

by Stuart Nelson, Jr., DVM

I have often been asked about dogs that are returned from the race. Long-distance sled dog races, such as the Iditarod, require mushers to finish with only those dogs who 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. A maximum of fourteen dogs may start in an Iditarod team, and at least five are required to be in harness to officially finish. Reasons for returning dogs are numerous. Attitude problems, fatigue, illness, immaturity, injury, being “in heat,” lack of speed and musher strategy, are the more common ones. The race typically consists of over 1,000 canine participants along an 1,000 mile trail, during a two week period. Obviously, we must be prepared to address almost any possible medical condition, just as with any other large population over time.

An elaborate system has been established to care for and transport Returned Dogs so that they can safely “return” to their home kennels. Preparations begin long before the race start. Local Contact Forms are completed for each team. Persons serving as “local contacts” for a musher must be located within one hour of Anchorage. These individuals are responsible for picking up Returned Dogs for a given musher after the animals arrive back from the trail.

Dog Care Agreement Forms are also completed prior to the race and specify which veterinary clinic a particular musher’s dogs should be taken to in the event of the need for medical treatment. During the race, mushers must complete a Returned Dog Form before releasing a canine from competition. An explanation of the reason(s) for returning is requested along with the mushers name and dog identification. 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. Any previous relevant medications administered and current treatments are also recorded on the form, in addition to the name(s) of the veterinarian(s) completing the exam.

Also indicated on the Returned Dog Form is the “condition status.” Although rare, dogs with potentially life-threatening conditions are designated “Red.” This status receives the highest level of priority, and every effort is made to stabilize the animal and immediately arrange for an air evacuation to a well-equipped medical facility. Dogs undergoing treatment for anything of a lesser nature are designated as “Blue” and depart on the next routine flight. All remaining dogs are officially considered to be “White” and will be flown out in an orderly fashion.

The Returned Dog Forms are completed in quadruplicate. The bottom copy goes to the checker for documentation of Returned Dog numbers. The top two copies leave a checkpoint with the appropriate dog, with one going to Returned Dog personnel in Anchorage and the other traveling home with the animal. The third copy remains with the last veterinarian to leave the checkpoint.

All Returned Dogs from the east side of the Alaska Range are flown back to Anchorage via small airplanes provided by the Iditarod Air Force. McGrath serves as a hub for checkpoints in the Interior. Typically, the “Air Force”
flies dogs from smaller Interior checkpoints to McGrath, where commercial carriers (race sponsors) then transport them back to Anchorage. Unalakleet serves as a coastal hub with the same protocol. Returned Dogs from the last two to three coastal checkpoints will move to Nome, where they are usually reunited with their teams and flown back with them to Anchorage.

As hub locations, McGrath, Unalakleet and Nome have appropriately larger numbers of Returned Dog personnel. At each of these, veterinarians are present to evaluate and re-evaluate returned dogs moving through the system. The final examination by Iditarod veterinarians occurs when each animal arrives in Anchorage, prior to being released from ITC care.

In conclusion, it is critical that mushers, sponsors, veterinarians and lay personnel work as a team for the best possible animal care. Returned Dog management is an important part of our commitment to this goal.