Vet Care in the Iditarod

Caring for the dog - the vets of the Iditarod

One part of the Iditarod Race that doesn't garner much press is the care the dogs receive during the race and what happens if they are “dropped”, or left behind at a checkpoint, by the musher. What really happens behind the scenes by these volunteer veterinarians and assistants is often unheralded.


Stu Nelson is the Chief Veterinarian and has been for about 20 years now. He heads up a team of roughly 36 volunteer vets from around the world that travel to Alaska to lend their services to the race. With about 20 checkpoints and the race moving along, you can find teams at the front being 10 checkpoints ahead of the last team in the race. So, vets are jockeyed ahead on the trail, constantly, to stay with the flow and manage what needs to be done; a lot of logistics, as usual, with this race. But - you get to fly in little planes that land on the snow with skis. Plus, the pilots like to get vets air sick, so when they see a moose, they will spin down to “take a close look at this one”, half knowing you might get airsick. I think they take bets on which pilot can get more vets to puke.


At each checkpoint, the musher decides whether to stop for a rest, or go through, and this requires either a quick or extended veterinary exam of each animal. This begins by watching the team come into the checkpoint, moving, as that is when you can most easily pick up orthopedic issues (is the dog lame or sore and if so, which leg is it, etc.). I find that the most informative part of an exam is watching the team move and then how animated they are once stopped. And how they eat. The short exam may just be a walk around of the team to see that nothing obviously is wrong and asking the musher if all is OK, or the musher may already have a plan to drop a certain dog for a problem they have identified. Often, the musher is the best evaluator of their team by far, as they are with the dogs 24/7 and have a great deal of experience with sporting dogs.

A full exam will happen after the musher “parks” or places the team in an area so they can bed down and sleep for the time the musher is going to stay at the checkpoint. There are many chores to be taken care of with a dog team, so the vet needs to be cognizant of not interfering with the musher and his/her team. What exactly happens after you stop at a checkpoint, you ask? Here is a list of what I do when I come in to park and each step counts, so there's no wasted time:

Pull into parking spot.
Take off extra snow hook and grab the bag of dog jackets from sled.
Proceed to front of team, tie off with extra snow hook.
Go back down the line undoing tug lines, hooking harness to self, reattach each dog to camp tie outs on the gangline, and then put a dog jacket on each dog 'til we're back on the sled.
Grab bag of snacks and snack all dogs with slices of frozen meat of some type until back up to the front of gangline.
On way back down gangline, take off all booties.
Grab a bale of straw and start to "straw out" all dog bed areas from back to front of gangline.
Pick up booties on way back down line.
Start cooker to boil water or snow for feeding in a half hour.
Start on foot care, and this is when the vets can start to examine the dogs. Do any vet care on dogs as needed.
Once water is boiled, put over frozen meat in cooler, mix and feed out to dogs with kibble after vet is done.
45 minutes. Done.
Time to grab 1 ½ -2 hrs sleep after preparing sled for next run.
5 hours total at checkpoint and then the snow hook is pulled for next leg of the journey.

A dog is determined "needed to be dropped" if it has an injury that will not be fixed, or heal, in the time spent at a checkpoint. Some things can be addressed, and steps are taken to correct it and the dog can return to the trail, like a sore ankle. A sore shoulder is another thing, as those can take much longer to heal and the dog often needs to be left behind. What happens next is that dog is taken from the team before the team leaves, and he/she goes to the "dog lot" of that checkpoint, to be managed as necessary (depends on health issue) by the vets or dog drop people, until the dog can be flown out back to Anchorage.

Dog lot duties can actually be fun, as you may have 20-30 dogs or 5 dogs but they all have their personalities. Serious or critical cases are kept indoors and, if needed, a special plane will be deployed ASAP if the dog needs to get to a vet hospital. Many medicines, IV fluids and drugs are available at a checkpoint, but some things cannot be shipped out to remote locations (certain machines, etc.) and the dog needs to go a hospital for proper care. They are stabilized and shipped as quickly as you can.

When the dogs are flown out, often they are in large groups and I have never seen an altercation on a flight, even with 20 dogs in the cargo of a larger plane. They are quiet and just lay down. Pretty neat.

Many a dog has had veterinary care given to alleviate serious issues by the skilled vets on the race and hats off to them for volunteering their time and efforts to help out these wonderful athletes. With out their help, this race could not occur. Thanks, Doc.

Here are links to 2 interviews with Stu Nelson;–-part-1-the-iditarod-and-the-work-of-a-trail-vet/