This morning, we had the amazing opportunity to attend vet checks at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. Each side of the parking lot was lined with musher’s dog trucks, filled with happy, tail-wagging dogs, a few days away from running the 2019 Iditarod.
Teams of veterinarians were busy working with each team of dogs to ensure good health. Mushers were right there with their dogs, giving them comfort when they were scared or shy of unknown people.
The veterinarians assisting the mushers are all volunteers and come from around the globe. There are about 55 vets on the team, and 45 of these vets head out on the trail once the Iditarod starts. Bill Sampson, a veterinarian volunteer for the last 12 years, was very helpful, allowing me to ask any questions and giving me lots of information. Bill continues coming back as an Iditarod volunteer vet each year because “it’s addicting”. Although I’m not a veterinarian, I totally get the addiction!
Final pre-race checks are required 14 days prior to the start. Prior to this, dogs have received extensive testing, including blood tests and electrocardiograms (ECG). Any dog on the team that is deemed unhealthy by the Chief Veterinarian, Stu Nelson, is not cleared to be part of a musher’s Iditarod team.
Not only do dogs undergo a multitude of testing prior to the race, but dogs are also examined at every checkpoint along the trail. Mushers are required to stop at each checkpoint long enough to have their dog teams examined by the veterinarians out on the trail.
Basic guidelines for checkpoint checkups are:
Again, if any dog is unable to continue on because of health concerns, they are pulled off the trail to protect their health. At this point, dogs head back to Anchorage and remain under vet care until the musher’s handler picks them up.
Mushers can read their dogs the same way a mother or father can read their children. They can tell by the wag of a tail or the way an ear is drooping if they are sick. They can see it in their eyes or in the way they are running. They know their dogs, and their number one priority out on the trail in the middle of Alaska is the dog team.
As I walked from team to team observing the vets and mushers, watching them in action, I stopped to talk to Sebastien Dos Santos Borges. Sebastien is a rookie musher in the 2019 Iditarod.
He has completed the Yukon Quest twice before but wanted to try the Iditarod. In speaking with Sebastien, I learned that he is from France. He and his dog team flew to Alaska in the fall to work on training. The flight from France is a 17 hour flight, and each dog is required to have an individual passport. Sebastien was super friendly and showed me the dogs’ passports and even let me take a picture. Each passport contained the dog’s microchip number, along with all vaccination and vet records from France.
Sebastien’s entire dog team was absolutely beautiful, but there was one dog, Quest, that I felt a close connection to. Quest was so calm and laid back, and he was the perfect model.
Being on the trail is about so much more than a race. For mushers, it’s about the time on the trail with 5-14 members of their family. It’s about the bond that grows stronger while they are out in the wilderness. It’s about taking care of their dog teams before they even consider taking care of themselves. It’s making sure that the dogs are not only healthy, but also happy. The love between a musher and his/her dogs is unbreakable.