Volunteer Veterinarians Endure Freezing Temperatures During “Last Great Race” in Alaska

For the last eight years, Carl Rogge, DVM, has flown to Alaska as a volunteer field veterinarian for the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. Known as the Last Great Race, the Iditarod spans 1,150 miles and lasts between 14 and 17 days, depending on Mother Nature, said Chas St. George, director of public relations for the race. “It’s an excellent sand box to play in,” St. George told NEWStat.

A total of 35 veterinarians participate in the annual event, as well as a number of veterinary technicians, and are flown to 25 checkpoints throughout the course to assess the health of the dogs.

“It’s one of the most highly competitive volunteer positions in any sporting event,” said St. George, who estimates that the committee receives about 200 applications each year.

In awe of the athletes, dogs that spend each day running and resting, Rogge gets goose bumps when he hears dogs howl with excitement and leap into the air before the event. “The dogs absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s like the Superbowl for them but they don’t bang their heads together.”

Alaskan sled dogs are incredibly fit. In fact, Rogge said the first time he gave a dog an injection he almost bent the needle. “They’re all muscle,” he said. “It’s an amazing gene pool. It’s a perfect specimen of athlete. All the bad traits like hip dysplasia have died off.”

A total of 83 teams – dogs and their coaches who are called mushers – started in this year’s race with packs of at least 16 dogs per team. Many of the packs drop dogs as the race progresses, due to dehydration, lameness or respiratory problems, but teams must finish with at least six dogs to qualify, Rogge said.

This year a 21-year-old woman who is legally blind participated in and finished the race. Jeff King finished first, making it his fourth Iditarod win, St. George said.

For two weeks Rogge gets about two or three hours of sleep a day in a canvas tent, eats strange local delicacies, works 18-hour shifts in minus 32 degree weather, and loves every minute of it. “It’s so cold the stars actually crackle,” he said with a gleam in his eye.

Prior to the race, veterinarians and technicians conduct a panel of tests on the dogs, including CBC profiles, EKGs that are read by board-certified cardiologists, worming, and other comprehensive exams. Rogge recalled that a friend of his, who runs marathons, laments that none of those precautionary tests are done on human athletes.

A veterinarian who has practiced for 32 years, Rogge is a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, which has 250 members worldwide, and attributes his interest in the Iditarod to his quest for unique experiences. “It’s a life ever-lasting experience,” Rogge said.

NEWStat Interesting/unusual