DAWSON CITY, Yukon — The Yukon Quest mushers aren’t the only ones who feel the frigid low temperatures along the trail. The teams’ dogs are also at risk as they make the 1,000-mile run from Fairbanks to Whitehorse.
Like humans, dogs can experience frostbite. With temperatures hovering near 35 below in Dawson City — the first checkpoint on the Canada side — the veterinary staff is on the lookout for dogs affected by the cold.
“We do look for (frostbite),” head veterinarian Dr. Cristina “Nina” Hansen said. “At these temperatures, I would expect to see some of it. Especially with the male dogs, they get it on the front of their penis.”
While Hansen said she and her staff will thoroughly look for frostbitten dogs during the mushers’ mandatory 36-hour stay in Dawson City, she also noted that the mushers are keen to the potential harm and take precautions to help their teams run in the extreme cold.
“The mushers are aware of it and most of them will run with something called a foxtail,” she said. “It’s kind of like a ruff and it goes right around their waist and blocks the wind and prevents that from happening.”
Although many male dogs will be wearing foxtails when they pull into Dawson City, where the temperature was 34 below when Two Rivers’ Allen Moore’s team was the first to arrive Wednesday night, there still are steps to alleviate frostbite on dogs.
“Usually it’s handled,” Hansen said when asked if frostbite could be a reason for a musher to pull a particular dog from the race. “We have some ointments that help with it and if they put one of those foxtails on, that usually stops it from getting worse.”
Running while frostbitten isn’t the only problem the dogs face in extreme weather. Hansen said the low temperatures also can have an impact on how the dogs keep their weight on, which could hinder their ability to perform.
“Sometimes they’ll have a little bit of a harder time keeping their weight on with the temperatures because they have to burn more calories to stay warm,” she said. “The mushers run them with coats on and a lot of them have blankets, and we have blankets, too.”
Hansen and a few members of the veterinary team made themselves at home Wednesday at the “Vet Shack,” which is next to the dog yard 2 miles past the checkpoint on Front Street in downtown Dawson City.
Not only does the team have a different location this year, its amenities have changed, too.
“It used to be in a different campground across the river,” Hansen said. “It used to be in a park pavilion and it had a concrete floor, half walls and a roof. They used to put Visqueen in the woodstove, but this is brighter and there’s carpet on the ground. It’s really nice.”
Because the dog teams are on a slower pace than last year, Hansen hasn’t had much time with the dogs the past few days. Although her veterinary team stuck around Eagle — the checkpoint before Dawson City — she had to get on the move before Moore’s team was the first to arrive.
“I actually didn’t see any dogs in Eagle myself, which was unusual,” Hansen said. “The last time I saw dogs was Circle and then I spent about a day in Eagle. Our flights are scheduled and we’ve got to take them, especially our international flight from Eagle to Dawson City.”
She said she plans to stay in Dawson City for a while before continuing on to Pelly Crossing. Even if she isn’t the first to arrive at the next checkpoint, some of her staff will be there when the first team pulls into Pelly Crossing.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMQuest