PELLY CROSSING, Yukon — Every person affiliated with the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest has a job to do. The mushers lead the teams, the race judges keep order and the volunteers lend help wherever it’s needed.
The race veterinarians are in charge of making sure the dogs stay safe as they run through the frigid temperatures and sometimes brutal trail conditions during their runs from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks.
Although there haven’t been too many scares for the race’s head veterinarian, Dr. Nina Hansen, and her team of 12 vets, two vet technicians and a vet student, that doesn’t mean Hansen and her colleagues haven’t been ready to help injured dogs in need.
On Sunday, as teams rested at Pelly Crossing, the third checkpoint on the Canada side, Hansen discussed some of the areas her team has been focused on as they examined the dogs during the first portion of the race, which has been about 250 miles to Pelly.
“It was cold the first couple days of the race,” Hansen said, alluding to the minus-30 temperatures the teams have faced on the trail throughout the first few days of action. “When it’s very cold, we mostly worry about keeping weight on the dogs. They burn a lot more calories to stay warm when it’s cold.”
It’s not uncommon to see a team of dogs lay in straw outside of checkpoints, munching on snacks between runs. Hansen said the best thing mushers can do to ensure their dogs are eating is to serve them a meal the exact way they want it.
“Some (dogs) have preferences,” said Hansen, a 10-year veteran of the Quest in her fifth year serving as head veterinarian. “One of the testaments to how much mushers pay attention to their dogs is some of them will know, ‘This dog prefers this food. This dog doesn’t like their food in the bowl, they just like it dumped on the snow. This dog likes fish snacks and this dog likes meat snacks.’”
Making sure dogs are filling themselves with enough food to have the calories they’ll need during runs is one part of the vet team’s job, but that’s not all.
“We’re really looking for frostbite, especially on the boys,” Hansen said. “The (girls) can get it, but it’s just not as common. The boys have some more dangling bits there that can get frostbit much more easier.”
One common misconception about dog care is that the dog booties — the little, oftentimes neon-colored, items dogs wear on their feet — are made to keep feet warm.
“Their feet stay really warm when they’re running because they have a lot of blood flow to them,” she said. “The booties aren’t to keep their feet warm, it’s to keep the ice and snow from building up between their toes and to keep splits from forming.”
Hansen or a member of her team looks at every dog during each checkpoint, and they conduct body condition scores to confirm the dogs are able to keep running on the trail.
After teams made it through blistering cold conditions on their way to Pelly, they caught a break Monday when temperatures climbed to 15 below zero. Hansen said that temperature would be ideal to ensure the dogs remain healthy and happy as they continue on to Fairbanks.
“I hope it kind of stays where it is,” she said. “I don’t want it to swing too far the other way. If it stays where it is now, I think we should be in good shape the rest of the race.”
Although it’s only the third day of the race, the head vet said she’s been happy with her team’s work so far.
“They’re working really hard,” Hansen said. “They’re doing really great. Everybody has done a fantastic job.”
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter at @FDNMQuest for updates from the Yukon Quest trail.