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How veterinarians ensure the health of Iditarod dogs
By Tanya Lewis
April 2014

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race first ran in 1973 in Alaska, and this year more than 1,000 husky sled dog athletes and 69 mushers are traveling the 975 miles to compete in what is called "The Last Great Race."
Each team can register up to 20 dogs, but they can only compete with 16 and are required to finish with at least six dogs. The event started March 1 with a ceremonial 11-mile race through Anchorage, Alaska. The prettier, more streetwise dogs might be part of the ceremonial race only to be among the four left behind in favor of the more athletic animals needed for the more strenuous endurance race to Nome.
This race takes a physical toll on the sled dogs, so veterinarians are on hand to ensure the health of the animals. Each year there are more than 40 licensed veterinarians who perform more than 10,000 checkpoint examinations during the race.
Thirty days prior to the race, the dogs receive an electrocardiogram to make sure they have the no abnormalities in their heart. Each husky athlete has blood work done, and a microchip is inserted. Each dog also has a complete prerace physical by a licensed veterinarian within 14 days of the race, and vaccinations are required to be current. Random drug tests are performed throughout the race.
Mushers (the human athletes) are required to maintain dog team diaries and must provide the diaries to veterinarians at each checkpoint. Any health concern for a husky athlete can result in the dog being "dropped." Once dropped, a dog is monitored and transported to Anchorage with continuous care from veterinarians until released to its owner.
Mushers and their families often have many dogs. The mushers consider the dogs as pets and friends as well as elite athletes. And the citizens of Anchorage consider the dogs as part of their community.
The Iditarod can be a perilous journey. In 2013, the first death of a husky athlete in four years occurred when a dropped dog could not be flown out due to poor weather. This year, race officials increased the number of protective shelters and developed a more comprehensive care manual for dropped dogs.
The 2014 route has 26 different checkpoints staffed with veterinarians. Dogs not up to continuing will be dropped along the route at a checkpoint. It is not unusual for a musher to travel with a fatigued dog or injured dog in the sled until the next checkpoint.
During the race, the dogs are traveling between 5 and 12 miles per hour, burning more than 10,000 calories during a day. The race can be 10 or more days, and it is not unusual for a team to consume over 2,000 pounds of food.
Like all elite athletes, husky racers need high-quality protein for maximum performance. For the dogs racing in the Iditarod, wild Alaska salmon is an important part of their diet. The dogs like it and for some of the teams from Alaska, salmon is provided to their kennels by local fish processors and sponsors.
Other forms of protein — meat, fats, oils, dry dog food — and vitamin supplements are part of the dogs' diets. The husky athletes are fed at each checkpoint, but they also receive snacks periodically. The mushers and handlers dropped off packages of food and supplies for their teams 18 days before the race.
Booties are also a mandatory supply. The feet of huskies are vulnerable to cuts from ice. To prevent this, polar fleece booties are used to keep the dogs' paws protected. During a race, a team may use 2,000 booties. The booties last for several hours or around 100 miles. Mushers are required to have eight booties in the sled or on the dog at all times.
The booties are removed when the dogs are not racing, and the musher will massage the paws and put ointment between the pads. Volunteer groups such as Paw Partners provide the hand-sewn booties for many of the mushers.
As many as 16 husky athletes make up each team at the start of the Iditarod race. Each musher hopes and works diligently to make sure all 16 athletes remain healthy through the finish.
A musher may choose to drop a dog as a strategy to finish first, but never plans the dropping of a dog for medical reasons. The health of all team members is a priority of the mushers, and the legion of veterinarians and volunteer animal enthusiasts make the Iditarod "the last great race."
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