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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Owner of Langford construction company gets nine months for sexual assault

Kyle Mostowy already spent time in prison for sexually assaulting employees

Victoria Clipper suspends services through April 2021

International travel restrictions, COVID-19 uncertainty lead to decision

Who is the average Sookie?

Statistics Canada, community members offer glimpse into who the people of Sooke are

Storytime transformed in Saanich Peninsula parks

Saanich Peninsula Literacy offering free self-guided StoryWalks

UPDATED: Power restored to Metchosin, Colwood

Monday morning outage impacts more than 2,600 BC Hydro customers

Wage subsidy will be extended until December amid post-COVID reopening: Trudeau

Trudeau said the extension will ‘give greater certainty and support to businesses’

Tree planters get help with COVID-19 protective measures

Ottawa funds extra transportation, sanitizing for crews

Trudeau apologizes for not recusing himself from WE decision

He says his and his family’s longtime involvement with the WE organization should have kept him out of the discussions

Beverly Hills 90210 star’s family selling Vancouver Island Beach Resort

You can own Jason Priestley’s Terrace Beach Resort in Ucluelet for less than $5 million

Islanders want BC Ferries to follow order that lets residents board before tourists

For ferry-dependent communities, ferries are often the sole practical lifeline to work, school or medical appointments.

Washington’s NFL team drops ‘Redskins’ name after 87 years

The franchise was given the name back in 1933, when it was still in Boston

Genetic detectives begin work to trace spread of COVID-19 in Canada

The kinds of genetic technology being used for this project did not exist when SARS hit Canada in 2003

Most Read