Caring for dogs at the Iditarod

(A team of sled dogs wait patiently at a checkpoint in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska, while their musher warms food for the team. It’s 11:00 a.m. and a balmy -40°F. Photo courtesy of Jeffery Dill, DVM)

The Iditarod, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, kicks off today in Anchorage, Alaska.

A legendary two-week, sled-dog race/endurance test that pits human and dog against saw-toothed mountain ranges, ice-bound rivers, dense pine forests, and miles of desolate, arctic tundra, the Iditarod runs some thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea.

It’s been called the last great race on earth, and for Jeffrey Dill, DVM, working it was a dream come true.

Dill, who owns Donegal Animal Hospital in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, worked the 2017 Iditarod as a volunteer veterinarian, and considers the experience a high point of his life.

He doesn’t really remember what first put the Iditarod on his radar, but over the years he developed a consuming passion to be a part of it. He wasn’t alone in that; many veterinarians volunteer for the Iditarod, but few are chosen: “I applied for a couple of years before I got accepted.”

Dill was one of between 50 or 60 veterinarians who made the cut that year, a number of whom were specialists in fields like critical care and cardiology. But like most of the volunteers, Dill is a general practitioner.

Five years of clinical experience is the minimum required for selection. And while some disorders are unique to sled dogs, veterinarians who make the cut must be prepared to address all types of conditions that might develop; given that nearly a thousand dogs are traveling a thousand miles over a ten- to fifteen-day period, a broad-based medical and surgical background is vital.

Vets with emergency medicine experience go to the head of the line. And while some vets with many years of Iditarod experience might get paid a small stipend, most—like Dill—work for free.

Once Dill was done with the mandatory pre-race seminar, he was assigned to an 8-person vet team at a checkpoint where they worked around the clock, with sled teams pulling in and out constantly. “We examine each dog and make sure they’re healthy, treating any issues that comes up,” Dill said.  “And dogs who, for whatever reason, can’t go on. If they can’t, we take care of it.”

Examination of each team went pretty quickly. Dill said each individual exam took about 1 to 2 minutes. And although a race, Dill said the stops at the checkpoints weren’t rushed, with mushers taking time to check in with officials, rest, and feed their dogs. The vets rotated on and off because the checkpoints are open 24/7.  “We would typically work 4-6 hour shifts with the vet team split in half.” 

Each check point had a different number of vets, based on the number of teams coming. “Later in the race, there were typically fewer vets assigned to each checkpoint because the teams were spaced out and it may be hours between arrivals,” he said.  In the first days of the race, “They’re coming in a lot quicker so there are more vets at a station.” 

Dill said veterinarians working the Iditarod are usually on the same page when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, but in the rare cases where disagreement does crop up, the Iditarod has a head veterinarian who makes the final call.

And he said there’s even less disagreement on the part of the mushers.

“In general, those mushers are very in tune with their dogs and want them as healthy as possible,” Dill says. “They’re usually the first ones to raise the possibility of a problem. If they think one of their dogs is in trouble, they’ll say, ‘I think this dog needs to come off the race.’”

Dill knows there’s some negative pushback about the Iditarod in terms of how some people perceive the dogs are treated, but he says he’s a believer: “I think the [organizers] do a very good job. In any sporting event involving dogs there are definitely a few bad apples. But the mushers I worked with at the Iditarod were amazing with their dogs.”

“The Iditarod is near and dear to me,” he added. 

So why isn’t Dill back up there this year?

“I got married and had a kid,” he said, laughing.  Volunteering as a veterinarian at the Iditarod is a big time commitment. “You have to be prepared to devote three solid weeks to it.” 

First-timers especially. Rookie Iditarod vets are required to attend a three-day pre-race seminar where they learn things like protocols for treating sled dogs, typical injuries to look out for, and when to pull a dog from the race. And once pulled, how to care for those dogs—called drop dogs—and get them from the frozen wastes of nowhere back to a referral hospital in Anchorage.

Drop dogs are flown back on a single-engine Cessna fitted with skis.

“Typical injuries include frostbite, a lot of shoulder injuries from pulling the sled, and diarrhea,” Dill said. The most serious case his team saw was a sled dog they diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition more commonly seen in working and athlete dogs which can lead to kidney failure.  “We didn’t have the ability to do bloodwork on the trail, but the dog was peeing blood.” Fortunately, one of the vets on his team was a critical care specialist who recognized the signs, so Dill’s team pulled the dog and had him flown back to Anchorage for treatment. “He turned out fine.”

Dill said dropping the dog so early in the race probably didn’t affect that team’s chances: “Mushers are required to start the race with a maximum of 16 dogs and finish with at least 5, and this was only the second checkpoint so [given they were still 15 dogs strong] the team was likely fine.” He said mushers not only expect to drop a dog or two along the way, some actively plan on it as part of their strategy: “Maybe an older, experienced dog they want in harness at the start of the race to help steady the team at the outset but they don’t expect to need the whole way.” Maybe for just a checkpoint or two.

And they don’t necessarily have to wait until they get to a checkpoint to drop a dog, Dill said, especially if they dog’s having issues: “If the dog is having problems on the trail, the musher will unharness him and let him ride on the sled,” Dill said. “It’s not unusual to see a sled pull up with a couple of dogs riding.”

Dill said the sense of community he shared with the other vets on his team was one of the best things about working the Iditarod: “I developed some great relationships when I was up there. We were freezing, sleep-deprived; it was quite a bonding experience.” 

But even better was the sheer, other-worldly exhilaration of being out there in the wild. Dill remembers the thrill of hearing the mushers and their sled dogs arrive at the first checkpoint at Manly Hot Springs, 264 miles west of Fairbanks: “Teams started arriving about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. It’s 40° below. We’re standing out there in the middle of nowhere, the Northern Lights were going full bore,” Dill said.

“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.”