The Future of Sled Dog Veterinary Medicine

The future of veterinary medicine on the trail is all around us in the everyday world.   Digital cameras are smaller than ever and affordable.  Tiny digital video cameras can record movies directly to a disc.  Retailers are embedding small microchips in a garment’s price tag--no more bulky magnetic tag, but a sleek hidden chip to foil shoplifters.  Cell phones are omnipresent not only for talking, but for e-mailing, text messaging, sending photos, playing music, or surfing the web for street directions.

And, so it goes for veterinary medicine.  Small helmet cameras can be used to capture the movement of an individual dog or the entire team during a training run or under race conditions.  The images can be uploaded and beamed thousands of miles to experts for analysis of gait and movement to identify any subtle lamenesses.   Ultrasound technology has gone from room-sized machines to compact hand-held devices.  Ear thermometers for animals are replacing rectal thermometers for obvious reasons.

ECG machines and pulse oximeters also are becoming diminutive and widely available for field use.  In fact, Halter monitors worn by human heart patients at home to obtain readings over many days have been adapted for dogs in research settings.  Endoscopes are now more useful in small animal medicine due to the decreasing size of the instrument.  Electronically boosted stethoscopes amplify soft or muffled heart sounds and cost the same as a good cardiac stethoscope.

Complete blood count and blood chemistry analyzers are now manufactured in desktop sizes for use in a veterinary clinic or hospital.  There also are units developed for field and emergency use that plug into a car cigarette lighter for power.  Some of these units are the size of a TV remote.  And, of course, into this mix add the laptop computer to download all the information for future analysis by veterinarians and drivers.

Telemedicine, the wave of the future, allows veterinarians to send images and information around the world with the click of a button. 

Specialists, such as radiologists or cardiologists, can receive radiographs, EKG strips, endoscope videos, and ultrasound images over the internet to provide further interpretation and confirm a field diagnosis.  This is especially valuable to remote veterinary practices as well as for race trail and field medicine.

Veterinarians also are adding alternative medicine modalities to their traditional methods.  Acupuncture, acupressure, and chiropractic are offered by more general practitioners and are more consistently available to all mushers.  Physical therapy already has gained a foothold in sled dog medicine.  Swimming, range-of-motion exercises, and underwater treadmills have brought many injured sled dogs back to full racing condition.  Drivers massage their dogs at every checkpoint as a matter of course.  Massaging with anti-inflammatory gels and applying heat, if necessary, under wrist and shoulder wraps, are ubiquitous activities up and down the race trail.

Veterinarians are learning how to use all of this technology in general practice, and the they're making it more affordable and available to pet owners and mushers, as well.  The major limitations are still the high expense of the equipment and the effect of cold ambient temperatures.  The cost is always problematic for race-giving organizations.  Using a piece of medical equipment for only two to three weeks out of the year is a very expensive investment.  Unless research is being conducted, specialized equipment is fairly scarce along the trail. The effect of extreme cold and large temperature swings when moving in and out of hot buildings damages microchips, circuitry, monitors, and printers.  But, these hurdles will be crossed in the years to come.  As medical equipment becomes further miniaturized, weatherproofed, and affordable, sled dog veterinarians will be putting space-aged technology to use along the trail to diagnose and treat sled dogs.

Although alternative medicine and technology are spreading from the specialty practice to the general clinic and then into field medicine, the good old-fashioned hands on physical exam with a standard stethoscope is where all good medicine begins.  With that in mind, every veterinary team assembled has experience with high tech medicine, alternative medicine, and emergency medicine, as well as years of experience in traditional sled dog medicine.  Sled dog veterinarians come to the Yukon Quest from many parts of the world equipped with these attributes.  In addition, the veterinary team brings a passion for the sport of sled dog racing and a love of the canines of the north country.

Dr. Kathleen 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 A. McGill, DVM, Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian (2004 - 2006)