Race vets want to learn what makes four legged athletes tick

DAWSON CITY Phil Meyer pulled the thermometer out of the dog’s bum and wiped it on the tail. “101.3,” said the trail vet.


Phil Meyer pulled the thermometer out of the dog’s bum and wiped it on the tail.

“101.3,” said the trail vet.

“The temperature is good.”

During the Yukon Quest’s 36-hour layover in Dawson, every dog gets examined before heading on to Eagle, Circle and eventually the finish in Fairbanks.

Peeling back an eyelid, Meyer checked out the sled dog’s eyes.

“I’m looking for anything abnormal,” he said.

“Redness, swelling.”

The lips are curled back and the teeth examined, wrists are manipulated, shoulders are stretched and legs are prodded.

The whole time, Meyer is watching the dog’s eyes for signs of pain.

“She really doesn’t like me doing that,” he said squeezing the right front wrist.

“But usually we tell mushers what we find and they already know.”

The musher pointed out a split in the hind paw.

“That’s not bad,” said the vet, listing off a good ointment to use.

This year, the Quest’s 13 trail vets have a lot on their plate.

And examining and working on about 400 sled dogs is only one part of it.

Head vet Vern Starks is doing research.

“I’m trying to create a database by measuring the skeletal parts we can palpate,” he said.

“Then we look back at dogs with shoulder injuries and wrist injuries and lameness and see where the confirmation differs.”

In other words, Starks is hoping to find a correlation between skeletal irregularities and common injuries in sled dogs.

Working from a small database, Starks has already found that dogs with a shorter distance between their wrists and toes may be less prone to wrist injuries.

“What other opportunity would we have to do marathon studies on dogs,” said Starks, who also analyzes dogs in the Iditarod. “Some of these dogs, in a month, have done 2,000 miles.”

The head vet is also doing blood work on a lot of these dogs. Hematology studies have found that vitamin E deficiencies contribute to myopathy problems; dogs can collapse and sometimes die when running, he said.

This is the kind of discovery Starks is working toward with his research.

“It’s like an adult science fair,” he said.

“You wonder about something, then try and figure it out.”

Starks would like to study and measure every dog on the Quest trail before the race is through.

“But that’s asking a lot of my vet team,” he said.

This year’s international vet team includes a German pathologist who specializes in dissecting dogs.

“I’m interested in finding out why an animal dies, and determining the cause of the disease,” said Matti Kiupel.

The Michigan State professor signed on as a trail vet, but has already done a necropsy, or dog autopsy, on the Quest dog that died on the trail.

After spending the last five years at the university, it is nice to get some hands-on experience again, said Kiupel.

“I was worried because I hadn’t been working as a practitioner,” he said. “I have lots of diagnostic experience, but not a lot of treatment experience. And it’s nice to be back as a practising vet.”

The whole experience of working at a sled dog race is unique and exciting, he added.

Most of the vets end up in the hole, after taking two weeks off from their private practice to volunteer for the race. But it is worth it, said Kiupel.

“Sled dogs are like endurance athletes,” he said. “And by looking at their physiology we get a better understanding of human physiology.”

The average pet population has the same problem as the human population — obesity, said Kiupel.

“So when we look at this large population of sled dogs, who are basically endurance athletes, and we compare this to what we know about normal dogs, it’s an interesting experience.”

Through his research Kiupel hopes to find cures for many of the diseases that ravage sled dogs.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “And it’s a continuous learning experience.”

Kiupel was amazed at how friendly the sled dogs are. “Usually dogs come into the vet’s and they are nervous, and you expect to get bitten,” he said.

“But these ones are like puppies who like to be petted. You can roll them over, manipulate them, and even if they’re uncomfortable, they don’t react.”

Kiupel dismissed any criticism that the race is cruel or inhumane to the dogs.

The dogs are so eager to run, he said.

“The biggest punishment is for them not to run.”

Howling away at the Scroggie Creek dog drop, one of Lance Mackey’s dogs was getting shoved into a green and white-stripped sack before being loaded on the bush plane.

With just its head sticking out the dog squirmed around.

It didn’t seem pleased to be left behind.

Taped to its collar was a plastic bag with a vet note and some medicine. Every dog has its own page in the musher’s vet book, so vets can keep track of the animal’s medical history throughout the race.

And dropped dogs that are flown out often have notes and medicine taped to their collars, so other vets know exactly what’s going on.

“This way the dogs can’t reach it, or they’d probably chew it,” said Kiupel.

For fast, reliable identification, the dogs are also micro-chipped.

“The mushers want their dogs in perfect health,” said Kiupel. “I don’t know any pet that gets such intensive vet care in such a short amount of time.”

The bond between sled dogs and mushers is above and beyond that of a normal pet, he added.

They’re like family.

And the mushers’ lives depend on them.

“You’re out there for 200 miles, in the middle of nowhere — you have to blindly trust these dogs.”