The Evolution of Sled Dog Veterinary Care

The veterinary care that sled dogs receive from their drivers and the veterinary team has changed dramatically for the Yukon Quest the years.

Musher dog care goals have evolved beyond just getting the team across the finish line to incorporating the musher's driving, strategy, and preparedness skills with their ability to detect subtle health and attitude abnormalities in each dog, to develop a sound nutritional program, and to provide foot care, massage therapy, and psychological support to each individual dog as well as to the team as a whole. 

At the same time, the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA), to which all Quest veterinarians belong, provides a venue to share research findings and general information on topics of interest to both mushers and veterinarians throughout the international sled dog community. The ISDVMA's official publication, "The Musher & Veterinary Handbook," is used to supplement the veterinary policies of every sled dog race event, including the Quest. 

The Quest veterinary staff uses this handbook as a training tool for all rookie vets. The handbook addresses such topics as nutrition, orthopedics, checkpoint protocols, athletic heart syndrome, sled dog myopathy, gastric ulcers, diarrhea, foot care, heat stress, hydration, frostbite, physical therapy, and sleep deprivation (the musher's). The handbook is supplemented periodically with updates on new research findings, treatment protocols, and other topics guided by musher concerns, interests, and problems encountered on the trail.

Today, veterinarians treat these amazing canines as athletes, not just pet dogs in a sled dog team.  Research revealed that these dogs require 8,000 to 10,000 calories of food per day during a long distance race. Sled dog nutrition evolved to accommodate those findings.  Research also demonstrated that Vitamin E supplementation was needed for these working dogs and the dog changed again.  Diarrhea treatment protocols were broken down into categories of mild, persistent, and severe, with different treatment modalities developed for each.

Mushers developed better dog botties through trial and error.  Foot ointments were adapted for different trail conditions and foot problems.  Novel, anti-inflammatory massage ointments have come into widespread use to address both sore feet and sore muscles.  New, injury-preventing harnesses and wrist and shoulder wraps were co-designed by mushers and veterinarians and are now in common use.  Massage techniques have been adapted to provide therapy for sore and tired canine muscles. 

As each new problem has been identified and teased apart and treatments developed, dog care techniques have changed to meet the challenge.

Research and interest continues in areas such as exercise-induced asthma, vaccination protocols, wilderness critical care, medically-necessary supplies, hypothyroidism, and the ever-expanding fields of physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and holistic medicine. Coupled with traditional veterinary medicine, mushers and veterinarians are working together to not only help individual dogs but to bring the dog team to its full athletic potential.

This partnership between musher and veterinarian will continue to foster future innovations throughout sled dog medicine for many years.  There is an ever-expanding body of information that will require both the musher and the veterinarian to stay current on the newest training techniques, harness and sled designs, field medicine advances, nutrition, and the like.

To that end, many of the trail veterinarians on the Yukon Quest have hands-on experience, not only with sled dog medicine, but with training sled dogs, driving teams, and competing.  Trail veterinarians travel from as far away as Australia and Germany, to join the North American veterinarians on the Yukon Quest trail.  They all bring their interest, experience, and enthusiasm for the sport of sled dog racing.  And, they all share a deep respect for the relationship between the musher and that amazing endurance athlete we call, the Racing Sled Dog.

Dr. McGill is the former owner of two small animal hospitals near Columbus, Ohio.  At the 2000 Iditarod she was one of five veterinarians awarded the Golden Stethoscope by the mushers for her role in saving an injured dog's life.  Dr. McGill has served as a trail veterinarian multiple times since 1997 on the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the UP 200 Sled Dog Race, the Grand Portage Passage Sled Dog Marathon, the Iditarod Trail, the Eagle Cap, and six times on the the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, including three as Head Veterinarian.  She is a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association and the International Sled Dog Racing Association.

Author: 
Kathleen McGill, Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian (2004 - 2006)