Dr. Stu Nelson – Part 1: The Iditarod and the work of a trail vet.

For two weeks every year, the health of hundreds of sled dogs during the world’s most prestigious sled dog race falls upon the shoulders of one man, Dr. Stu Nelson, the chief veterinarian of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. And with the help of an entire crew of trail vets, Nelson makes sure that the animal athletes stay in top shape and get what they need.
Nelson grew up around the country, attending school in Missouri and beginning his career on the East Coast. The first animal athletes he worked with were racehorses before moving to Idaho. It was there he first saw an ad for volunteer trail vets for the Iditarod.

“When I saw that opportunity, I thought it’d be really cool. So 1986 was my first year as a trail vet.”
He served as a volunteer from that time until 1995, when he was asked if he would like to serve as the chief veterinarian; and has been serving in that position since 1996. And what keeps him coming back?

“I think if you asked all the volunteer veterinarians, they would say there is all the allure of the North Country, the majesty of the wilderness. We have a total volunteer staff of 2000, all there for a common goal. We’re kind of like a family. There’s a lot of camaraderie there,” he said. “Being out there in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s a total different experience; it’s almost like a working vacation.”

But it isn’t just the land, it is the animals, too, that keeps him returning.

“These dogs, they are really great to be around. I’ve looked at thousands and thousands of sled dogs and I’ve never been bitten. I can’t say that about general practice. They are neat animals and it’s a neat sport.”

The Alaskan Husky, the type of dog used for sled dog racing, is a collage of other breeds and is intelligent, fast and agile.

“They are really cool dogs and they are real dogs. Their primary driving force is being out there performing, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make great pets,” he said. “Overall I think they’re really great dogs, happy-go-lucky, easy-to-please dogs.”

Making sure the dogs stay healthy is no small feat and it begins even before the dogs arrive at the starting line in Anchorage. A month before the race, all the dogs are required to have an ECG (electrocardiogram), along with comprehensive bloodwork, a physical exam, be dewormed (to avoid parasites) and have their vaccinations to help ensure their health on the trail.

During the race, the job for Nelson and his team continues.

“We have a volunteer staff of about 40-45 a year, and they do all the routine exams at the checkpoints,” he said. “On an average they are doing 10,000 routine exams during a race. They are out there working hard.”

There is a basic acronym that sets out a guideline that the vets use to check out the dogs — HAWL.

H stands for heart and hydration; A stands for attitude and appetite; W stands for weight and L stands for lungs.
Some common ailments and health issues seen on the trail, including diarrhea, which causes dehydration and repetitive injuries, such as those to the wrists and shoulders, Nelson said.

For the past two years, there have been no dog deaths during the race. Nelson said this success can be contributed to the right combination of research and education. Using things learned from years of research and years of experience in the field, Nelson said that he has been able to educate the other trail vets and mushers about what to look for in the dogs.

“A big part of my job is education of the mushers and trail vets on early signs of abnormalities. Then they can take action,” he said. “My goal is to have everybody tuned to picking up on things before they become more serious.”

Catching problems early is the key to keeping dogs on the trail in good shape, and Nelson said that is a great accomplishment.

“It’s taken years and years to get where we are,” Nelson said. “But it’s two weeks long, 1100 dogs and zero deaths. That’s a pretty strong statement.”