It’s that time of year. If you lived in Wasilla, you’d most likely be seeing lots of dog trucks on the road. Now true, for those of us who live here, seeing a dog truck at the gas pump next to us or parked nearby in a parking lot isn’t that unusual, but even locals notice a sudden surge in dog trucks about now. For us, it’s one of the first signs that Iditarod season has begun. Savvy locals know many of these trucks are heading toward the parking lot of Iditarod Headquarters.
There, mushers scheduled for that day will be unloading dogs and taking them in and out of an trailer parked in the parking lot. Here, EKG’s will be administered and blood work done on dogs still in contention for an Iditarod team. Dog care, of course, is always a priority, but the closer the Iditarod gets, the more meticulous it becomes. Extensive health testing to ensure the health of the dogs about to embark on such a long journey has been done and continues to be done. “Pre-race blood testing is offered on a voluntary basis during the December prior to the race start,” notes a report on the Iditarod’s website. However, “all dogs must be tested in February to be eligible for the race in March. A complete chemistry and hematology panel is performed in the laboratory and results are sent to both the musher and the chief veterinarian of the race for review.
The blood test results are valuable tools in the decision making process when deciding which dogs will be chosen for an Iditarod team.” For the mushers, what this means is bringing the dogs still in contention for a spot on their Iditarod team to a central point for the testing. Even with endless hours and miles of training and the chore of drop bags behind them, mushers know that if their dogs don’t pass these tests, it might threaten their participation in the race. Even with prior medical exams behind them, there is always the chance a key dog will have to be dropped even before the race begins. Knowing this, every effort is made to make this as painless a process for both musher and canine by the core of volunteer vet techs who perform the tests.
Supplies, which include the obvious, needles and vials to draw and hold the blood samples, as well as the not so obvious, bar code labels to identify each sample, are laid out and ready for each musher’s arrival. Appointments are spread out, allowing about two hours for the process per musher. This is not a process open to the public, I might note, although those lucky enough to be in the parking lot can certainly observe mushers and dogs coming and going from the trailer. Since this is a time sensitive process, however, it’s suggested you only observe from afar. It’s interesting to observe the process.
Each musher seems to approach getting their dogs in and out as efficiently as possible in a slightly different way. Some arrive early, some rush in at the last moment or even late. Some will unload and tie out all the dogs before starting the process, while others will remove the dogs from one side of the dog truck one at a time, in order. Still others do it one or two dogs at a time, sometimes seemingly at random. Some have help, usually a handler or friend; others work alone. No matter how it’s done, however, the key is to do it in as stress-free a manner for the dogs as possible. All this activity is done under the supervision of vet tech Jan Bullock. As the first dog enters the trailer, a process begins that will be followed with each following dog. The first step is usually to check the dog for a microchip.
This is done with a hand-held microchip reader. Iditarod dogs must be micro-chipped. Dogs who haven’t yet been micro-chipped are noted and later injected with a chip, each of which has a unique number and is recorded via a bar code label that’s placed on the musher’s dog sheet. These sheets will later be used to ID the dogs in the race. These chips, about the size of a grain of rice, are also responsible for reuniting dogs and their humans around the world. That’s just the beginning for the dogs, however. After being checked for a micro-chip, blood is drawn from a vein in the dog’s neck. This usually involves at least two vet techs, all volunteers.
One holds the dogs steady and raises the dog’s head slightly to make access to the veins easier. The other draws and labels the vials of blood. Just like humans, of course, it’s more difficult to draw blood from some dogs than others, occasionally meaning blood is drawn from a leg vein, for instance. Most of the dogs, accustomed to being handled from birth, accept it all in stride. Once drawn and labeled, the blood is spun in what is called a centrifuge and shipped to an independent laboratory. Results are then sent to Chief Iditarod veterinarian Stu Nelson, who disseminates the results to the mushers. If necessary, Nelson is available to discuss results with mushers once results are sent out.
The blood work portion of testing is known as a “general health scan.” It reveals a great deal of information, however. For instance, I discovered how important the percentage of oxygen in the blood is. I asked Canadian musher Karen Ramstead, who runs Siberian Huskies, to explain it to me. “One value that Iditarod mushers watch really closely is the HCT level,” explained Karen. “This is a measure of the red blood cell concentration in circulating blood.” The purpose of red blood cells is to carry oxygen to the other cells in the body. The higher the level, the better. Why is this so important? “Dogs with higher HCT levels will recover faster