VCA Big Lake Animal Hospital is a unique facility, and not just because it’s the northernmost VCA site, located in Wasilla, Alaska, a little less than an hour north of Anchorage. It just so happens that their patients include some of the world-famous athletes of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Alaskan Huskies are a distinctive type of dog. Throughout Alaska's history, wild dogs from indigenous villages bred with Siberian Huskies, Greyhounds and German Shorthair Pointers to create the resilient Alaskan Husky. First and foremost, Alaskans are working dogs who thrive on constant physical activity, whether that be sprinting, long-distance running or even pulling freight. They are highly intelligent, loyal, trainable, and able to operate independently or as part of a collective team. Because they are remarkable problem solvers, Alaskan Huskies are often known as escape artists. They've never met a fence they can't get over (or under)!
Although they thrive on human companionship, they're not accustomed to a quiet, indoor life on the couch; in fact, Alaskan Huskies can become destructive or despondent if denied an active, outdoor, working lifestyle. The “call of the wild” is strong within them.
Raising healthy and happy sled dogs is a team effort between the mushers and kennel employees who provide regular care for the dogs, and the veterinarians who visit them regularly. According to professional musher Wade Marrs, raising healthy, athletic dogs starts with proper nutrition and vet care. Wade co-owns Stump Jumpin’ Kennel with his wife, Sophie, a veterinary technician.
“The nutrition is very important, that they're having the right supplements, the right diet, the right food, stuff like that, and then that they're being taken care of well,” he explains. “We have the veterinarians come in regularly to check up on the dogs.”
Adriana Fisher, DVM, CVA, of VCA Big Lake is one of the veterinarians privileged with the task of regularly caring for Wade’s dogs. In addition to making sure they get their immunizations and regular check-ups, Dr. Fisher is trained in alternative medicine, using acupuncture and chiropractic care to keep the dogs feeling and performing at their best.
Dr. Fisher and Wade were some of the first to incorporate acupuncture and chiropractic treatment into sled dog care. Dr. Fisher’s ability to help manage soreness with alternative medicine is important, since pain relieving drugs are banned in sled dog competitions. A common misconception about sled dogs is that they are forced to run races against their will. Wade and Dr. Fisher say this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“All you have to do is watch some footage of dogs at the beginning of a race, and they are pulling on their harnesses – they are screaming to go,” says Dr. Fisher. “They want to run and they love their musher.”
While the majority of Alaskan Huskies love to run, Wade says he will occasionally come across a dog that is better suited to life with a recreational musher or as a domestic pet.
“It's up to them what they want to do, and it's very easy to pick up on signs and different attitudes to tell if the dog is happy,” he explains. “If they don't want to be doing what we're doing, there's no point in making them.” Wade shares photos of dogs who left the kennel for new homes in California, Texas, Michigan and other states. "They didn't find happiness in racing, but they've found their own happiness elsewhere."
The Iditarod is an annual competition across 1,000 miles of trail stretching from Anchorage to Nome, AK. Teams of 14 dogs, with their "musher," typically make the journey over the course of 8-15 days. It’s a major physical feat for the Alaskan Huskies who compete each year.
Iditarod officials go to great lengths to protect the health and safety of the dogs and ensure they are well cared for. When it’s time to race, every athlete is given a physical before they can participate. The care continues at multiple checkpoints along the way, where teams of veterinarians, vet techs and volunteer caregivers assess dogs for any injuries or care they might need. If a dog cannot proceed further with the race, they are pulled from competition.
“It’s no easy task to run 1,000 miles,” says Dr. Fisher. “From a cut paw pad or respiratory issue or a moose encounter, it's really important for there to be veterinarians all along the race, so that they can provide care firsthand, right there.”
The typical Iditarod athlete races for eight to ten years before retiring, yet the average lifespan of an Alaskan Husky is 17 years. Mushers like Wade will therefore train retiring athletes for domestic life so they can be adopted by families who will care for and love them the rest of their lives.
Dr. Fisher stresses that the Iditarod isn’t just a race to Alaskans. Mushing represents a way of life and an important part of Alaskan culture and history.
“Alaska has had this as a form of transportation for over 100 years – it’s part of our culture,” she explains. “It's how, still to this day, in villages up north, people get from one village to another and how they transport goods. Dogs are an important part of Alaskan life.”
Dr. Fisher hopes that her role in caring for the sled dogs helps to preserve this important aspect of Alaskan culture.
“And my role up here, specifically, is to provide the best care for these athletes, and help keep them running,” she says. “I hope my son can continue this tradition.”
In addition to caring for Iditarod athletes, VCA Big Lake offers general veterinary care to canine, feline and zoological pets including advanced surgical care, dentistry, pain management and acupuncture.
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“VCA Big Lake was one of the first animal hospitals to incorporate acupuncture and chiropractic treatment into competitive dog care.”