Sled dogs brace for intense health issues during Yukon Quest – Victoria News

This year, the Yukon Quest 1,000 mile international sled dog race began with 15 mushers and 209 dogs beginning the 1,600 kilometer journey from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse.

Although the names of the mushers are the ones that are remembered and generally remembered, the dogs are really the stars of the show and it takes a huge amount of time, energy and resources to keep these dogs healthy and on their toes. track.

Dogs undergo a comprehensive pre-race vet check as well as four mandatory vet checks along the race course – at Mile 101 Checkpoint or Central Checkpoint, Eagle Checkpoint, Dawson City Checkpoint and at the Braeburn checkpoint.

Yukon Quest chief veterinarian Dr. Cristina Hansen said checks are usually done as soon as possible after a team arrives, especially in Dawson.

“We try to do them immediately, within an hour of them arriving, because then we can identify those little issues,” Hansen said. “Let’s say if we find a dog with a sore wrist, we’ll tell the musher what we probably want him to work on and we’ll come back 24 hours later and reevaluate the dog, and often they’ll get better after 24 hours. rest.

Hansen said there are three common issues that occur while running: frostbite, diarrhea, and orthopedic (joint and muscle) issues.

Frostbite usually affects male dogs on the tip of their penis, thanks to the cold wind rushing over the exposed skin.

Luckily for dogs, there are coats and “foxtails” – bands that dogs wear to cover their lower stomachs and genitals – to prevent many problems before they start.

Andy Pace, this year’s Yukon Quest Armchair Musher, said frostbite is an easy problem to treat before it starts.

“There are definitely things you can do to prevent that,” Pace said, adding that dogs are used to wearing coats and other items when they go out for runs. “It’s something they’ve been through in training so it’s no surprise to them and it’s something that you as a musher have kind of adapted to your team.”

He said the worst thing that usually happens is that the group loosens up a bit, forcing the musher to stop the team and reposition it.

As for diarrhea, Hansen said dogs typically suffer from stress colitis, similar to what human runners might experience. Sometimes it can also be due to an infection.

“A lot of it, especially in the beginning, is just the excitement and stress of leaving and most dogs are fine,” Hansen said. “They don’t get dehydrated, they keep eating, they don’t lose weight. They might have diarrhea for a checkpoint or two, and then they’ll be fine.

For Pace though, dog muscle issues are by far the most common to deal with both at checkpoints and when camping on the trail.

The routines mushers follow at checkpoints are very similar to those they follow when camping on the trail, Pace said.

“The whole idea of ​​the routine is that you do it so many times that when you’re exhausted, you don’t really have to predict what’s next,” Pace said. “Your muscle memory kicks in.”

He said that usually, while waiting for the water to boil, the dogs are controlled by the musher, with emphasis on bending or flexing the limb.

While it might seem difficult for the average person to track the physical health of 14 dogs, Pace said the time spent training the team makes it quite easy.

“It’s a little less tricky than you think,” Pace said. “Everyone who runs this race has already walked a few thousand miles behind these same dogs, watching their gait in all kinds of terrain and you can really tell when there is the slightest hitch in the dizziness for one of them. “

Gait is the first thing you notice, he said, adding that it could be as simple as a problem with a shoe or dog paw pad.

Where the problem is on the leg also plays a role in what happens next.

“Over time, you get an idea of ​​the best course of action,” Pace said. “If it’s a shoulder, it’s best in most cases not to run the dog. If it’s a wrist, you can work a lot on it.

Dogs running the Yukon Quest are also usually given antacids as a way to prevent gastric ulcers.

“We recommend them,” Hansen said, explaining that these ulcers were the number one killer of sled dogs before an academic paper on the subject led to significant changes in antacid use and today, “Almost all mushers put their dog on an antacid.”

The real key to keeping dogs healthy for Pace is the relationship between the veterinary team and the mushers.

“I think it’s worth noting… how much of a symbiotic relationship there is between vets and mushers,” Pace said. “They definitely unite around the welfare of athletes in racing and always look out for and advise each other in the best interest of the dogs.”

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Yukon Quest

Bette C. Alvarado