The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Stu Nelson is the Chief Veterinarian of the Iditarod Trail sled Dog Race, and has been for 16 years now.  Before he moved into the position he was one of the trail vets for 9 years.  That’s 25 years with the race, on the trail, and watching over the

Dr. Stu Nelson

Dr. Stu Nelson

dogs. (Stu will point out that he missed a year a long time ago so the 25 years are not consecutive)  Stu is meticulous in his planning and his execution.  He manages the 41 member volunteer vet corps with professionalism.  He leads by example.  Stu studied veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri, completing his studies in 1976.

Dr. Nelson is pretty happy these days.  A new record was set, the last place team was 2 ½ days faster than the last time she was last.  A fast race, on a hard trail and for the second year in a row, there were no dog deaths on the Iditarod Trail.  “It’s always been the goal.  The process is one of education and vigilance.  If we can keep observing and communicating we will keep improving.”  This year Nelson is doing a musculoskeletal study.  Questionnaires have gone out to mushers regarding all things muscular and all things skeletal.  Taken into consideration will be mushers’ background and tenure in the sport as well as traveling speeds during the race.  Recognizable trends will be looked at closely.  Results will be available in the fall. 

A quick discussion with Nelson revealed that teams at the finish line were a bit smaller than the prior year.  There were many minor injuries that forced mushers to drop dogs, or worse, forced mushers to scratch.  This was a hard trail and ankle or wrist injuries occur more often on a hard trail.  A trail with even a little fresh snow cushions each step and slows down the teams. 

Some 10-15% of the teams were impacted by some gastrointestinal issues.  Diarrhea was evident on the trail.  Most teams had a dog or two impacted but a few teams had all of the dogs feeling under the weather at one time or another.  Overall there were fewer diarrheas than most years and with the warmer temperatures on the trail, there was less than had been expected.

Respiratory issues were also present on the trail.  Kennel Cough, which is a tracheal bronchitis, went through a few teams.  In most cases, the dog coughing is not suffering other symptoms and performance is not hindered.  There were some cases of pneumonia during the race.  Nelson thought pneumonia would be a bigger issue due to the warm temperatures.

Ulcers have been reduced tremendously.  The leading cause of dog deaths in the past has been ulcers or ulcer related issues.  The cause of ulcers is not totally clear, it could come from a high energy diet, or a high in fat diet.  It could be a physiological response to exercise.  While the cause is still unclear, how to reduce ulcers is doable.  Nelson stated “I knew that if we could control ulcers, we could have zero deaths.  In the past we did nothing, and then three years ago, ongoing research by Dr. Mike Davis showed that an acid suppressant could control ulcers.”  Davis does off season research on sled dogs in cooperation with kennel owners.  Stu has taken that research and encouraged mushers to give acid suppressants to their teams.  90% of the mushers are giving Prilosec or Pepcid every day during the race.  Stu said the results are evident.  “I’m ecstatic.  Last year zero dog deaths were considered an anomaly.  Two years in a row with no deaths is a statement.  The animal rights people who attack the Iditarod and the sport are not really interested in dog care.  They have not spent one cent on research, not one cent on improving animal care.  They need to put their money where their mouths are.  I’m not impressed.”

Nelson is Iditarod in a lot of ways.  He practices in Idaho and in Alaska providing relief at clinics when staff takes vacation.  He’s been involved with the race for a long time and he’s eager to explain why.  “It’s about the people, the mushers, the volunteers, the villagers; there is a camaraderie that comes with sharing the event.  It’s about the beauty of the land, this is not Indiana.  But ultimately it is about the dogs.  They are fun loving and happy go lucky.  I’m honored to be the Chief Vet, it’s pretty rewarding.

Things you might want to know…

  • 41 licensed veterinarians volunteered an average of 10 days each.  Estimated value is $400 per day.  That’s about $164,000 in donated services.
  • Dr. Samantha Yeltatzie, DVM from Palmer, AK was honored by the mushers with the Golden Stethoscope Award.  The coveted award goes to a vet that has gone a step farther than just checking dogs at checkpoints.  Sam was a vet at the Nikolai, Iditarod, and White Mountain Checkpoints.  Sam arrived a day early in Nikolai and while there she provided rabies vaccinations to some 50 dogs in the community of 80 people.