One of Allen Moore’s dogs digs into a snack after reaching the Dawson City checkpoint on Feb. 6 during the Yukon Quest. The dog is wearing a fox tail, a piece of fur worn around a dog’s underbelly to protect its genitals from wind and frostbite. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

Sled dogs prepare to face intense health challenges during Yukon Quest

“It’s something you’re used to doing and you don’t think twice about it”

This year’s Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race started with 15 mushers and 209 dogs beginning the 1,600-kilometre journey from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse.

While the mushers’ names are the ones typically remembered and reported on, the dogs really are the stars of the show and it takes a huge amount of time, energy and resources to keep those dogs healthy and on the trail.

Dogs undergo a full pre-race vet check as well as four mandatory vet checks along the race route — at either the Mile 101 checkpoint or Central checkpoint, at the Eagle checkpoint, at the Dawson City checkpoint and at the Braeburn checkpoint.

Dr. Cristina Hansen, the head veterinarian for the Yukon Quest, said the checks are typically done as soon as possible after a team arrives — particularly in Dawson.

ALSO READ: How dog sleds get technical for a 1,000 mile Yukon race

“We try to do those right away, within an hour of them arriving, because then we can identify those little issues,” said Hansen. “Let’s say if we find a dog with a sore wrist, then we’ll tell the musher what we probably want them to work on and we’ll go back 24 hours later and reassess the dog, and a lot of times, they’re better after 24 hours of rest.”

Hansen said there are three common issues that come up during the race — frostbite, diarrhea and orthopedic (joint and muscle) issues.

Frostbite typically afflicts male dogs on the tip of their penis, thanks to the cold wind rushing over the exposed skin.

Luckily for the dogs, there are coats and “fox tails” — bands that dogs wear to cover their lower bellies and genitals — to prevent a lot of problems before they start.

Andy Pace, this year’s Yukon Quest Armchair Musher, said that frostbite is an easy issue to deal with before it starts.

“You can definitely do some things to prevent that,” said Pace, adding that the dogs are used to wearing coats and other items when out for a run. “It’s something that they’ve experienced during training so it’s not a surprise to them and it’s something you as a musher have kind of calibrated to your team.”

He said the worst thing that typically happens is the band loosens a bit, requiring the musher to stop the team and reposition it.

As far as dealing with diarrhea goes, Hansen said dogs are usually dealing with stress colitis, similar to what human runners might face. Sometimes it can be due to infection, as well.

“A lot of that, especially at the start, is just the excitement and the stress of the start and most of the dogs are fine,” said Hansen. “They don’t get dehydrated, they continue to eat, they don’t lose weight. They’ll maybe have diarrhea for a checkpoint or two and then they’re fine.”

For Pace though, the muscle issues that dogs have are by far the most common to deal with both in checkpoints and when camping on the trail.

The routines mushers follow at checkpoints are very similar to what they follow when camped on the trail, said Pace.

“The idea of the whole routine is that you do it so many times that when you’re exhausted , you don’t really have to comptemplate what the next step is,” said Pace. “Your muscle memory just kicks in.”

He said typically while waiting for water to boil dogs are given a check by the musher, with a focus on the flexion, or bending of the limb.

While it may seem like a difficult task to the average person to keep track of physical health of 14 dogs, Pace said that the time spent training the team actually makes it fairly easy.

“It’s a little less tricky than you might think,” said Pace. “Everyone running that race has spent already a couple thousand miles behind those same dogs, watching their gait through all kinds of terrain and you can really tell when there is even the slightest hitch in the giddy up for any of them.”

The gait is the first thing one notices, he said adding that it could be as simple as an issue with a bootie or dog’s paw pad.

Where on the leg the problem is also plays a role in what happens next.

“Over time, you get a sense for what the best course of action is,” said Pace. “If it’s a shoulder, it’s best in most cases not to run the dog. If it’s a wrist, you can work through it a lot.”

Dogs running the Yukon Quest are also typically given antacids as a way to prevent gastric ulcers.

“We recommend them,” said Hansen, explaining that those ulcers used to be the number one cause of sled dog death before an academic paper on the subject led to significant changes in antacid use and today, “almost every musher puts their dog on an antacid.”

The real key to keeping the dogs healthy for Pace is the relationship between the vet team and the mushers.

“I do think it’s worth noting … how much of a kind of symbiotic relationship the vets and the mushers have,” said Pace. “They both definitely unify around the welfare of the athletes in the race and pay heed and counsel to one another in the best interest of the dogs always.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Yukon Quest

Just Posted

Abandoned Neucel mill in Port Alice to cost at least $17 million to decommission

Removing hazardous waste and de-risking the site ratchet up bill to taxpayers

Storm watchers urged to be careful after two rescued from Ucluelet shoreline

“People need to take responsibility of their own actions, the district can only do so much.”

Fire crews put out blaze in Cowichan Secondary outbuilding

Three halls respond to fire in storage structure

Overnight shutdown of Highway 1 at McKenzie interchange for sign installation

Traffic will be impacted in both directions, detour available

Furstenau accuses Horgan of politicizing new Cowichan hospital as premier makes Valley campaign stop

Premier suggests that new facility hinges on re-election of NDP government

Orange Shirt Society launches first textbook on residential school history

Phyllis Webstad and Joan Sorley worked on the 156-page book to help educate students

B.C. Greens introduce all-women slate for Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay ridings

School trustee Nicole Duncan assumes Oak Bay-Gordon Head candidacy

Man who stole truck and canoe in View Royal believed he was fleeing zombies, court finds

Judge finds man not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder for 2019 thefts

B.C. VOTES 2020: Businesses now owe $6 billion in deferred tax payments

COVID-19 relief from remittance to province ends with September

Long-term care study credits fewer COVID deaths in B.C. than Ont. to funding, policy

The study was published Wednesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal

Float-plane crash near Oyster River leaves pilot injured

The plane crashed shortly after take-off from a private property and had no other passengers on board

More sex abuse charges laid against B.C. man who went by ‘Doctor Ray Gaglardi’

Investigators now focussing efforts on alleged victims within the Glad Tidings Church community

Photographer Eiko Jones delivered the 11th Annual Haig Brown lecture at Tidemark Theatre

Jones also screened his newly completed movie Heartbeat of the River at the event

RCMP hope public can help locate missing Nanaimo man

Gary Alexander Davidson, 54, has not been seen or heard from since Sept. 20

Most Read