At Skwentna, “the first musher came in at 8:30 at night, and they just kept coming and coming until 6 in the morning,” says Leverone. “That was a long night, especially at 20 below. We check each and every dog. Sometimes they’re just blasting through. You only have a few minutes to check their gum color and heart sounds and make sure nobody is anemic, lame or frostbitten or breathing harder than normal.”
As they race at speeds up to 15 miles per hour, sled dogs can experience a host of medical problems not usually seen by veterinarians who care for pets in the Lower 48—sore shoulders and swollen wrists, foot pad tears from pounding over the ice, and diarrhea, which can quickly cause an animal to become dangerously dehydrated. The veterinarians are also on the lookout for aspiration pneumonia, which can occur if a dog vomits while running, and exertional rhabdomyolysis, also called tying-up syndrome, a potentially fatal breakdown of skeletal muscle caused by nutritional deficiencies.
Leverone reports that he had to pull just one dog out of the race, for dehydration, which was quickly remedied with IV fluids. Despite the extreme physicality required to run the Iditarod, he believes the dogs love it. “You can see that,” he says. “That’s what they live for.”
Apparently Leverone has come to feel the same. He’ll volunteer for the 2013 Iditarod, which will take the southern route, from Nome on the Bering Sea to Anchorage in south-central Alaska. “It was cold, the hours were long at times, and the sleeping arrangements were rustic, but it was a great experience,” he says. “I’m ready to go back.”
Leverone is volunteering once again this year at Iditarod. This article first appeared in the winter 2013 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.