This year’s Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race started with 15 mushers and 209 dogs beginning the 1,600-kilometre journey from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse.
While the mushers’ names are the ones typically remembered and reported on, the dogs really are the stars of the show and it takes a huge amount of time, energy and resources to keep those dogs healthy and on the trail.
Dogs undergo a full pre-race vet check as well as four mandatory vet checks along the race route — at either the Mile 101 checkpoint or Central checkpoint, at the Eagle checkpoint, at the Dawson City checkpoint and at the Braeburn checkpoint.
Dr. Cristina Hansen, the head veterinarian for the Yukon Quest, said the checks are typically done as soon as possible after a team arrives — particularly in Dawson.
“We try to do those right away, within an hour of them arriving, because then we can identify those little issues,” said Hansen. “Let’s say if we find a dog with a sore wrist, then we’ll tell the musher what we probably want them to work on and we’ll go back 24 hours later and reassess the dog, and a lot of times, they’re better after 24 hours of rest.”
Hansen said there are three common issues that come up during the race — frostbite, diarrhea and orthopedic (joint and muscle) issues.
Frostbite typically afflicts male dogs on the tip of their penis, thanks to the cold wind rushing over the exposed skin.
Luckily for the dogs, there are coats and “fox tails” — bands that dogs wear to cover their lower bellies and genitals — to prevent a lot of problems before they start.
Andy Pace, this year’s Yukon Quest Armchair Musher, said that frostbite is an easy issue to deal with before it starts.
“You can definitely do some things to prevent that,” said Pace, adding that the dogs are used to wearing coats and other items when out for a run. “It’s something that they’ve experienced during training so it’s not a surprise to them and it’s something you as a musher have kind of calibrated to your team.”
He said the worst thing that typically happens is the band loosens a bit, requiring the musher to stop the team and reposition it.
As far as dealing with diarrhea goes, Hansen said dogs are usually dealing with stress colitis, similar to what human runners might face. Sometimes it can be due to infection, as well.
“A lot of that, especially at the start, is just the excitement and the stress of the start and most of the dogs are fine,” said Hansen. “They don’t get dehydrated, they continue to eat, they don’t lose weight. They’ll maybe have diarrhea for a checkpoint or two and then they’re fine.”
For Pace though, the muscle issues that dogs have are by far the most common to deal with both in checkpoints and when camping on the trail.
The routines mushers follow at checkpoints are very similar to what they follow when camped on the trail, said Pace.
“The idea of the whole routine is that you do it so many times that when you’re exhausted , you don’t really have to comptemplate what the next step is,” said Pace. “Your muscle memory just kicks in.”
He said typically while waiting for water to boil dogs are given a check by the musher, with a focus on the flexion, or bending of the limb.
While it may seem like a difficult task to the average person to keep track of physical health of 14 dogs, Pace said that the time spent training the team actually makes it fairly easy.
“It’s a little less tricky than you might think,” said Pace. “Everyone running that race has spent already a couple thousand miles behind those same dogs, watching their gait through all kinds of terrain and you can really tell when there is even the slightest hitch in the giddy up for any of them.”
The gait is the first thing one notices, he said adding that it could be as simple as an issue with a bootie or dog’s paw pad.
Where on the leg the problem is also plays a role in what happens next.
“Over time, you get a sense for what the best course of action is,” said Pace. “If it’s a shoulder, it’s best in most cases not to run the dog. If it’s a wrist, you can work through it a lot.”
Dogs running the Yukon Quest are also typically given antacids as a way to prevent gastric ulcers.
“We recommend them,” said Hansen, explaining that those ulcers used to be the number one cause of sled dog death before an academic paper on the subject led to significant changes in antacid use and today, “almost every musher puts their dog on an antacid.”
The real key to keeping the dogs healthy for Pace is the relationship between the vet team and the mushers.
“I do think it’s worth noting … how much of a kind of symbiotic relationship the vets and the mushers have,” said Pace. “They both definitely unify around the welfare of the athletes in the race and pay heed and counsel to one another in the best interest of the dogs always.”