Just as professional athletes undergo thorough physical examinations before the season begins, so, too, do the 1,400-plus dogs running the Iditarod receive complete prerace veterinary exams.
Before the start of their roughly 1,200-mile competition, four-footed athletes will have blood drawn, electrocardiograms (ECGs) taken and microchips put in by veterinary technicians.
Following all this, each dog then gets individually examined by a veterinarian to further ensure their health.
"All dogs must go through it for a clean bill of health," said Jan Bullock, Iditarod head veterinary technician.
Bullock has served as the Iditarod head veterinary technician for the past nine years, has 23 sled dogs of her own for recreational mushing, and she strongly believes what she does makes a difference.
"We care about these dogs," Bullock said. "That's why we do this. This program is very extensive. The types of tests we do would normally cost $100 per dog, but this is all covered by the musher's entry fee."
Although all the mushers competing in the Iditarod must comply with the veterinary screenings, not all of them understand exactly why they should have to. However, Bullock explains to the mushers what the tests are for and why they are so important.
"Well, the first thing we do is take the dog's blood. This gives us an overall idea of the health of their liver and kidney functions, as well as the rest of their internal workings," she said.
"We'll take more blood when they finish in Nome, and then compare the pre- and post-race values. These research values help us learn how to provide better care in the future."
The same goes for the information gleaned as a result of the ECGs, according to Bullock.
"These are athletes, and they have athletic hearts. It's very different than a pet dog," she said. "The ECG looks at the rhythm of the heart to ensure it's strong and healthy. Abnormal rhythms could cause a problem in a 1,200-mile race."
The microchip for permanent identification that each dog has put in behind one ear is equally important, Bullock said.
"The chip is about the size of a piece of rice and goes in under their skin. It has a nine digit code that can be read by a microchip reader that's commonplace in most veterinary clinics," she said.
Bullock explained that the microchips can actually serve two identification purposes.
"Not often, but occasionally, a dog dropped at a checkpoint can get away for the handlers," she said.
This can happen in a variety of ways, such as when dogs slip out of their collars, snaps attached to their collars freeze open or break, or the dogs just wiggle away from a handler while being loaded into the plane for the flight home.
Regardless of how it happens, everyone involved in the race and many of the villagers along the way usually do all they can to reunite lost dogs with their mushers. The microchips can expedite this process, Bullock said.
As to the the second function the microchips serve, they prove that the dogs are actually the dogs a musher states they are.
"The chips prevent mushers from swapping dogs out there," Bullock said. "We read them at the start, and they're read along the trail by the drug testing crew. We can ensure the right dogs are with the right mushers."
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