On Friday, dozens of rumbling diesel-engined dog trucks will descend on the Soldotna Sports Center to unload the best of the best from their dog yards.
The dogs will then be thoroughly inspected from nose to tail by a small cadre of local veterinarians as part of the pre-race veterinary examinations which function to ensure that every dog that takes to the trail on Saturday is healthy enough to be there.
“It’s very important,” said Tim Bowser, head veterinarian for this year’s Tustumena 200.
Bowser has volunteered his veterinary services to the race very year since 1999, and said he has done so because he believes in what he is doing.
“We want the dogs to be safe and be sure they’re all in the condition to compete in a race of this length,” he said.
Veterinarians will check to make sure all the dogs have had their rabies and distemper vaccinations. They will also perform individual inspections on each dog.
“As a race vet, I’m more concerned with orthopedic soundness, the respiratory system and things that mushers may not be able to assess as well,” he said.
Bowser said most mushers are good at spotting limps and changes in a dog’s gait that are a subtle signs of injuries, but they are not always able to know what is going on with the dog internally.
“I listen to the heart and lungs, looking for things that could save a dog’s life,” he said.
Heart murmurs, hernias and other internal anomalies are all searched for by the veterinarians. If found, the discovery may by shocking news to the dog’s owner, but most accept the fact that it can’t run in the race.
“We definitely wouldn’t tolerate any type of neglect or abuse to a dog, but its rare to see anything like that,” Bowser said.
In fact, he added that many mushers have close relationships with local veterinarians, as one could easily deduce from all the photos of Iditarod mushers hanging in Bowser’s Soldotna Animal Hospital that read “Thanks for the great vet care.”
“As a race vet I try to be an ally, working with the musher for the good of the dogs. It’s always more effective to work as a team,” he said.
Curt Wisnewski, a veterinarian at Kenai Veterinary Hospital, has also volunteered as a race vet for the past five years. He echoed similar sentiments to Bowser.
“Some of the big guys are at the vets all the time,” he said.
However, Wisnewski was quick to point out that not everyone that competes in a sled dog race is a “big guy” and some of the participants, particularly those from rural or bush communities, may not have access to a veterinarian on a regular basis.
“Not all people have relationships with veterinarians due to economic issues or whatever, so this is the only time their dogs may be seen by a vet outside of getting vaccines,” he said.
He said the pre-race veterinary exam is a good deal for these folks.
“For the price of their entry fee, they get 14 dogs checked over and they get to ask questions. It’s a bargain really,” he said.
Once the examinations are over, the race veterinarians duties are not done. They also attend the race starts, are at the checkpoints, and are waiting at the finish line when teams end their 200-mile trek.
“We try to be out on the trail and at the checkpoints so we can monitor the hydration status of dogs and try to troubleshoot any potential problems. We also talk with the mushers to help them assess dropping dogs,” Wisnewski said.
This medical marathon, which can last more than 72 hours, can be difficult, according to Bowser, but he said he still likes doing it.
“It’s a lot of work and it takes away from time at my practice, but it worthwhile because I enjoy it and because the T-200 is our big race on the Kenai Peninsula and supporting it is supporting the community,” he said.
This year’s T-200 begins Saturday, with the ceremonial start at 10 a.m. at the Kenai Chrysler Center, followed by the official race start at 2 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia @peninsulaclarion.com
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