Volunteer veterinarians keep dogs healthy on Iditarod Trail
Over 20 checkpoints are spread out across the Iditarod Trail and at each one is a team of volunteer veterinarians.
"When they are coming in we just want to see how they are running," volunteer veterinarian Sara Connolly from Illinois said. "Do they look like they still have a lot of energy? Are they running well? Then we check in with the mushers if they have any concerns."
Connolly is an athlete and is working on her Ph.D. Two years ago, she came to Alaska for the Iditarod veterinary workshop to see what it was all about. Last year, she worked in Nome.
"Dogs running an amazing long distance race like this got me really excited and I wanted to see what it was all about," Connolly said. "We know that these guys are superior athletes and so there are different things we are looking for."
Geared with a stethoscope and a thermometer, the veterinarians give each dog who makes a stop at any given checkpoint, a full look over.
"We listen to heart and lungs. We can take temperatures," Connolly said. "We put our hands on the dogs and see how their body weight feels."
Connolly is one of over 50 volunteer veterinarians from five different countries working the Iditarod. Michelle Barton traveled to Alaska from Brisbane, Australia to volunteer.
"I'm from what you'd call the more tropical part of Australia," Barton said. "I'm here for the dogs and the people."
Oddly enough, Barton helps with sled dogs races in Australia.
"[It] has people looking at me puzzled wondering how they do dog sled racing in Australia," Barton said. "We do have some snow areas but the majority of our dog sled racing is dry land. We use gigs and scooters and that sort of stuff and I've been helping with dog sled races in Australia for over 15 years."
This is Barton's fourth year working the Iditarod; she took 2018 off before coming back for the 47th annual event. Barton says the biggest challenge she has is converting her thermometer from Celsius to Fahrenheit.
"I know what normal temps are in Celsius," Barton said. "So I use my Celsius one but I can't get a Fahrenheit one in Australia anyway. If I have to write a temperature down on a form, I just use my iPhone to convert it. That way no one has a problem trying to convert it for them. If someone tells me a temperature in Fahrenheit, I haven't the foggiest at what they are saying."
No matter where the volunteers hail from, the quality care they provide is critical.
"With the warmer temperatures, dogs can overheat pretty quickly," Barton said. "That's primarily what we are looking for."
New rules lined out by the Iditarod Trail Committee for 2019 are meant to protect the four-legged athletes. Mushers must certify their dogs' kennel meets certain standards. The ITC also limited the maximum amount of dogs to 14 and expanded canine drug-testing requirements.
The term "returned dog" now replaces "dropped dog" in race vocabulary. A spokesperson for the race said the Iditarod changed it in 2019 because of the potentially negative connotation. It also more accurately explains that the dogs are "returned" to their home kennels.
Just like other professional athletes, the dogs of the Iditarod need specialized care to keep them on the top of their game. Dedicated teams will help decide if they mush on toward Nome or get sidelined for safety's sake.
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