No Iditarod champions without vet checkups

Posted: Monday, February 20, 2006


  Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt and veterinary technician Laura Diaz restrain a dog during Iditarod veterinary checks at the Soldotna Animal Hospital on Saturday. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt and veterinary technician Laura Diaz restrain a dog during Iditarod veterinary checks at the Soldotna Animal Hospital on Saturday.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

With Iditarod a little more than two weeks away, mushers are finalizing their race strategies. While they each have their own individual game planes, nearly all agree that quality dog care is critical to their success.

Prior to ever having the opportunity to run in the Iditarod, all potential canine athletes are given a series of veterinary exams to ensure their health and well-being.

Saturday, Sunday and finishing up today, local dog drivers brought their huskies to Soldotna Animal Hospital to be checked by Iditarod veterinary technicians in town for the procedures.

“We’re looking at the overall health of the dogs,” said Jan Bullock, head veterinary technician for the Iditarod.

Mushers provided information such as the name, sex and age of each dog, then each was transplanted with a subcutaneous microchip for permanent identification.

“The dog’s name, color and owner may change, but the chip’s number will stay the same and it’ll be there forever,” Bullock said.

Dogs also received an electrocardiograph (ECG) as part of the exam, which Bullock said can reveal abnormalities in the rhythm of a dog’s heart, as well as other heart-related abnormalities that could compromise their health.

To get a clear printout, dogs hooked up to the ECG needed to remain still for 8 seconds, a feat easier said than done, according to Bullock.

“It’s tough to get any dog to hold still for 8 seconds, but it’s especially difficult for a racing sled dog,” she said.

Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, hoping to establish a pattern that will last to the finish line in Nome, was the first to arrive at the vet checks. He found out firsthand how difficult it can be to hold dogs steady for the ECG.

Used to hammering at the harness and running with unbridled energy, some of Gebhardt’s canine companions wiggled relentlessly during the exam.

“You need to practice with them on a table at home,” Bullock joked to Gebhardt while he and veterinary technician Laura Diaz restrained a particularly feisty fellow.

In the end, each dog left with their ECG complete.

Dogs also had blood drawn to further check their internal systems.

“This way we can be sure there are no organ problems and the dogs aren’t harboring any infections,” Bullock said.

Gebhardt spoke to the importance of dogs participating in the blood collection.

“It’s a great thing. No musher wants to bring a sick or injured dog out there, and this way, you can make sure you don’t put a dog on the trail that’s not fit,” he said. “And, if there are any questions about anything — such as an infection — you’ve still got a few weeks to address it. You can get the dogs on antibiotics and clear it up.”

Gebhardt said this is one of the reasons that most mushers would willing bring their dogs in for vet checks even if it weren’t required.

“That’s why I bring in 24 dogs to be checked. Even though you only take 16 dogs on the race, you can test up to 24,” he said.

Gebhardt added that bringing in more than 16 dogs is a good idea in case one of those 16 selected for Iditarod is found to be harboring a hidden illness or injury.

“This way, you have alternatives if one of the dogs you were going to take isn’t in top shape,” he said.

In addition to Gebhardt’s dogs, dogs from the kennels of other participants in this year’s Iditarod — currently living on the Kenai Peninsula — included those of Lance Mackey, Tim Osmar, Bill Hanes, Mitch and Danny Seavey, Rachael Scdoris and Trent Herbst.

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