Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt reassures one of his canine athletes while Diane Schuette, a veterinary technician up from Pennsylvania to participate in the Iditarod, attaches electrocardiogram equipment to the dog during a pre-race veterinary examination at the Soldotna Animal Hospital on Saturday.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Iditarod hopefuls took one of the first steps this weekend toward what will be a marathon of health inspections dogs will endure over the course of the race, which begins in two weeks.
Race veterinarians and veterinary technicians utilized a portion of the Soldotna Animal Hospital for the prerace checkups that function to ensure the health and well-being of canine athletes making the 1,100-mile run.
Mushers can bring in 24 dogs to be checked, even though 16 dogs is the maximum number allowed for the race. Bringing in extras give mushers leeway in case of a last-minute injury or illness to any member of their team.
Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt arrived at the examinations first Saturday morning. He said he was hoping to establish a pattern that would last to the finish line in Nome.
“The veterinary care for this race is far and above that of other races I’ve competed in around the state. There’s just so many vets involved, doing a lot more tests,” he said.
Last year, 35 veterinarians participated in the Iditarod, spread throughout the trail. Their goal was as it always is to have each dog examined at every checkpoint. But since some teams camp along the trail instead of spending much time in checkpoints, this isn’t always possible.
Maelle Gouix came from France to volunteer her veterinary services to the race. As to why she would come so far to spend the wee hours of the morning examining dogs under the dim glow of a headlight in below-zero temperatures in a remote area of Alaska, she said simply, “It’s Iditarod, and I want to be part of it.”
Gebhardt said meeting people like Gouix and taking part in the prerace veterinary checks were the first part of annually establishing a rapport with those who will examine his dogs over the course of the race.
“I have a good relationship with the vets,” said Gebhardt, who last year was the recipient of the Iditarod Humanitarian Award. It was the second time he was honored for his outstanding dog care during the race.
“The more years you do this, the more you get to know the vets and the more you learn from each other,” he said.
Jan Bullock, head Iditarod veterinary technician, agreed that the relationship between veterinary staff and mushers is symbiotic.
“The purpose of the exams is twofold. It ensures the health of all the dogs, but it is also part of ongoing research to develop baseline date for dogs this athletic,” she said.
During the examinations that began Saturday and finished Sunday, all dogs had a subcutaneous microchip for permanent identification implanted, had blood drawn to check the function of their internal organs, and received an electrocardiograph.
Bullock said the latter test could reveal abnormalities in a dog’s heart that may, considering the physical exertion they will endure during the Iditarod, compromise their health.
“On average, though, only about two out of 1,800 dogs will not go as a result of a cardiologist determining their heart is not functioning efficiently enough to participate safely,” she said.
This year’s Iditarod begins with the ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 3, followed by the official restart in Wasilla on March 4. For more information, visit the race’s Web site at www.iditarod.com.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at email@example.com.
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