Yukon Quest Veterinary Program
by Margaret Eastman, DVM, Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian (2001 - 2003)
Each year, as Yukon Quest mushers, sled dogs, and handlers take to the trail, a group of race veterinarians meets them at every checkpoint.
The problems encountered in these athletic animals are different from those seen in pet dogs, so specialized training and experience are necessary to be a veterinarian on a 1000-mile sled dog race. All of the veterinarians on the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team are members of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) , and they bring together years of sled dog experience as both medical practitioners and dog mushers, themselves. The partnership between race veterinarians and Yukon Quest mushers results in the best possible care for these amazing canine athletes.
During the two weeks before the start of the Yukon Quest, each dog that will participate receives a thorough physical examination by their personal, Yukon Quest-approved veterinarian, or by an Official Race Veterinarian during the Official Yukon Quest Vet Check. Vaccination certificates are verified, and the dogs are assessed to ensure that they are suitably fit to compete in a 1000-mile race.
Once the Yukon Quest begins, Trail Veterinarians are stationed at each checkpoint and dog drop ready to assist the mushers and to help care for their teams if necessary. It's not unusual for a sled dog to receive a "check up" at every stop along the way - that's over ten visits with a veterinarian in a two or three week period. Most pet dogs get veterinary attention only once or twice a year, if ever!
The relationship between a Trail Veterinarian and a musher is one of mutual respect and cooperation. The veterinarians are on the trail to help the musher achieve his or her goal of finishing with as many happy, healthy dogs as possible and to help the entire team reach it's full athletic potential through excellent canine care. At the conclusion of each Yukon Quest, the Veterinary Team presents an award to the musher who demonstrates superior care of his or her sled dogs and still remains competitive during the race. Many consider the "Vets' Choice" Award to be as prestigious as a top-finishing position.
The medical challenges that a veterinarian encounters in sled dogs during a race are far different from those seen in our clinics at home. Dogs who compete in the Yukon Quest are in top physical condition, so the problems encountered are the result of being a world-class athlete in competition. The dogs run with booties on their feet to prevent splits that can develop between their toes in certain types of snow. Often, the dogs will rest with neoprene wraps around their wrists to prevent and treat swelling. Mushers will kneel in the straw beside their napping dogs applying foot ointment and massaging tired muscles to keep their dogs limber and comfortable as they run. The knowledge and experience of the trail veterinarians combined with the careful observation and diligence of the mushers result in the best care possible for these remarkable canine competitors.
The care of sled dogs has evolved since the Yukon Quest was first run a quarter century ago. Treating the teams as dogs is no longer enough. Now we treat them as athletes. Ten years ago, a dog that strained a shoulder muscle or developed tendonitis in a front leg would have had to be removed from its team. Now mushers and veterinarians are able to use special shoulder wraps and wrist wraps at rest stops to keep the dog healthy, happy, and fit while moving down the trail. In fact, there are many examples of mushers treating and eliminating minor injuries while racing, and sled dogs do actually get better under competitive conditions. The booties that keep iceballs from forming between the dogs' toes are made of a nylon that will withstand fifty miles of running, unlike the older polar fleece booties that only lasted twenty miles. Extensive nutritional research has been translated into diets that maximize energy available to the dogs; some of these nutritional supplements have found their way into quality canine foods for pet dogs.
Veterinarians and mushers have incorporated massage therapy and physical therapy into traditional veterinary medicine to provide the most well-rounded care possible for the dogs. Innovations in sled dog care have come from mushers and veterinarians sharing information in concert, and this partnership has yielded numerous improvements in sled dog care--and these improvements are taken back to the trail veterinarians' home practices to benefit the general population of pet dogs that they treat as well.
Trail Veterinarians work closely with Race Officials and can remove any dog from the race if necessary should they feel that the dog might not be rested enough or is not physically fit enough to continue to go on to the next checkpoint or dog drop.
The veterinary team keeps a file on each of the roughly 500 dogs entered in a "veterinary diary," and they forward each diary to the successive checkpoints to insure that all pertinent medical information passes "down the trail" for consistent oversight of the entire dog team's health and performance.
The veterinarians volunteering their time and expertise on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race hail from many types of practices and from a variety of homelands. Whether they're from a city in Germany or rural Colorado, the common thread is their devotion to sled dogs and sled dog medicine, an awe of the sled dog's amazing athleticism, their fondness for the outdoor spirit which the mushers and their teams embody, and a genuine love of the Far North.
Dr. Margy Eastman is a former ISDVMA board member and a former president of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association. She joined the Yukon Quest as a trail veterinarian in 2000 and was the Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian for three years. She has been working with sled dogs for more than 10 years and has been a trail veterinarian on the John Beargrease, Great Trail, UP 200, Empire, and the Iditarod, as well as having raced sled dogs, herself. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, with her husband and son, where she practices small animal medicine.