2012-02-02 / Sports

Mushers Battle Cold To Get Dogs To Vet Check

By Suzanna Caldwell
FAIRBANKS DAILY NEWS-MINER

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) – It wasn't the mushers, or even the dogs, who had objections to almost 50 below zero temperatures.

It was their trucks.

Even veteran racer and four-time champion Lance Mackey had trouble Saturday. Despite plugging in the night before, he had to “light a fire under” his truck and add a battery charger.

“I was supposed to be here at 8 ( a. m.) but showed up at 10, which isn't uncommon for me,” he said. “I'm just glad it wasn't the first day of the race.”

Hugh Neff struggled with a different kind of automobile problem on his drive from Tok to Fairbanks. At a gas station, a fuel hose snapped in half as he went to refuel his truck.

“It was very interesting getting here, it was a very long night,” Neff said. “(Truck troubles) come with the territory. Half the time we're racing just to pay for the truck bills.”

Mackey, Neff and most of the other 24 mushers signed up for the 2012 Yukon Quest were scheduled for annual veterinary checks at Summit Logistics off Van Horn Road. Each team of dogs must be checked by veterinarians before competing in the 1,000- mile race that starts in Fairbanks and heads to Whitehorse, Yukon, starting Feb. 4.

At the checks, veterinarians, with the help of veterinary assistants and techs, are looking for dogs that are “fit and ready to run,” said race head veterinarian Kathleen McGill.

“Have they been well-conditioned over the course of the year or training season?” McGill said. “As we do our physical exam, what we're looking for is anything that might keep them from running.”

That means looking at paws, muscles and joints for injuries; listening to heartbeats and taking temperatures; and checking the dogs' weight and determining whether they have enough fat to compete safely.

“These are highly athletic animals, so they're going to be thinner than our couchpotato dogs,” McGill said.

“The public isn't used to (seeing skinny dogs.) But there is a point where they are too thin and we want to make sure we don't send any dog down the trail that's too thin. They need a certain amount of body fat for the cold and for running 1,000 miles.”

Vaccinations are checked and paperwork is updated, since the dogs cross an international border. Microchips are also scanned and noted for each dog. The microchips not only identify the dog, but are used in connecting dogs to their urine sample, which is used in a drug testing program.

McGill said this year AVID MicroChip donated several top-of-the-line scanners that can identify microchips, no matter where their origin. In the past, the scanners would only read US microchips. Because of that, even dogs that already had been microchipped had to have it redone with US chips.

“It's so much easier than having to re-chip the dogs,” she said.

Veteran Quest mushers have the option of having checks done by local veterinarians, based on how convenient it is for the musher. However, all rookies must attend the official Quest checks.

Rookie Kurt Reich drove approximately 3,533.7 miles (according to his GPS) from Divide, Colo., to attend the checks. He said it was absolutely a relief to have made it. Like seemingly every musher, he too had truck problems. Reich had to change a fuel filter and add two gallons of radiator fluid when his heat quit working at 40 below.

Coming from Colorado, the cold is turning into a learning experience for both him and the dogs.

“I'm learning everything the hard way,” he said.

But with the race approaching, it's a time for everyone to reconnect. Mushers, veterinarians and race officials all are beginning to congregate in Fairbanks, in preparation for next weekend's start.

“It's always fun to see the dogs at this part of the race, especially indoors,” McGill said. “It's easier on us, and easier on the dogs, but especially on the people. We can really get upclose and personal with the dogs.”

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