Iditarod's 'little athletes' fascinate local veterinarian

Juneau vet helps care for dog teams on 1,000-mile trail

Posted: Monday, March 05, 2001

About 30 veterinarians donate time as trail docs for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Juneau's Elizabeth Wolfe has been one of the pack since 1994.

What attracts her to the duty is "the dogs - definitely the dogs, and the mushers and all the people you meet along the way."

Veterinarians leapfrog by bush plane among 26 checkpoints, tossing rucksacks and sleeping bags into the corner of a tent or cabin at each stop. Work comes in frantic spurts.

"It's like a big family because you see many of the same people every year at the same checkpoints, and you get to meet veterinarians from all over the world," Wolfe said.

Mushers are allowed 16 dogs per team and nearly 70 teams, totaling almost 1,100 animals, started the 2001 Iditarod on Sunday.

"It's a huge support system," Wolfe said. "Well over a thousand volunteers work on this race in all sorts of capacities."

Another Juneau resident has left for the 1,150-mile course. Virginia Ray, a technician from the Southeast Alaska Veterinary Clinic, has been in Anchorage drawing canine blood. The blood testing is part of research sponsored by Bayer Drug, the pharmaceutical company that donates drugs used in the race. One of the most common drugs is Baytril, an antibiotic prescribed for severe diarrhea, pneumonia and deep infections, Wolfe said.

Blood samples also are taken at the end of the race, in Nome, Wolfe said.

"It's to see what changes take place under stress. The testing is offered to all mushers, but not all take advantage of it," she said.

All dogs are also urine-tested throughout the race by volunteers, Wolfe said. No musher receives his or her winnings until the urine from their dogs tests clear.

Veterinarians at the checkpoints watch each team mush in and examine the dogs once they have settled down.

"We check for wrist, shoulder and hock problems and foot problems. We want to make sure the dogs are well hydrated, have stable heart rates and their lungs are clear (healthy)," Wolfe said. The dogs are also checked for harness rub.

Wolfe, whose presence on the Iditarod is sponsored by Alaska Airlines, doesn't work the entire race, preferring the end. Annually, she arranges with the Southeast Alaska Veterinary Clinic to take 10 days off. She will leave Juneau on Friday and fly to the village of Unalakleet on Norton Sound to work the checkpoints from there into Nome.

"The musher and the dogs seem to hit the wall around 400 miles. They lose body weight and condition. About that time, they take mandatory rests to build up again. Then they get better and really hit their stride," said Wolfe, who also volunteers for the Yukon Quest.

"The conditions are extreme along the coast near Unalakleet," she said. "The dogs have already gone 850 miles. There might be big blows that they'll need to wait out for 24 or 48 hours. A lot of mushers drop dogs at that point. It's a fascinating thing to watch. The dogs already have a thousand miles of practice on them for the season, and are real little athletes."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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