The Canadian Challenge veterinary team. From left: Julianne Wilson, Dr. Ruth Sims, Dr. Romany Pinto, Christina Tollett, Dr. Daren Mandrusiak and Dr. Kate Robinson. Photo by Christina Tollett.
The Canadian Challenge veterinary team. From left: Julianne Wilson, Dr. Ruth Sims, Dr. Romany Pinto, Christina Tollett, Dr. Daren Mandrusiak and Dr. Kate Robinson. Photo by Christina Tollett.

Veterinary team key at Canadian Challenge

As mushers pulled their teams into checkpoints along the 394-kilometre course of this year's Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race in northern Saskatchewan, one group they could always count on for help and advice was a small team of veterinarians and students.

Members of that team included volunteers from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM): Drs. Kate Robinson and Romany Pinto, as well as fourth-year veterinary student Daren Mandrusiak and third-year student Julianne Wilson. Another University of Saskatchewan student — master's student Christina Tollett — also assisted with the race.

Head veterinarian Dr. Ruth Sims, along with Robinson and Pinto, began their duties with an official vet check one day before the race. To ensure that all animal competitors are fit, the veterinarians conduct a physical exam on every dog entered in the race.

The event includes three races that run concurrently — an open race for anyone including junior mushers, a race for eight-dog teams and a race for 12-dog teams. Since the Canadian Challenge's 12-dog event is a qualifying race for the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, its list of competitors regularly includes some of the best sled dog teams in the country.

This year, 11 teams started in the 12-dog race with eight teams finishing. Over five days, from Feb. 21 to 25, the teams followed a course that looped from Elk Ridge, north to Grandmother's Bay and then back to La Ronge, Sask.

Once the teams leave the first checkpoint, the race veterinarians spread out, leap-frogging along checkpoints so there's always a veterinarian present when teams pull in. The Canadian Challenge usually has nine checkpoints, but because of poor snow conditions, this year's race was shortened by about 112 km and included fewer checkpoints.

"It's a bit of a challenge to stay spread out and to get [to checkpoints] before mushers arrive," explains Pinto, who began volunteering for the Canadian Challenge in 2015. "There's very little sleep, but I don't think any of us notice. We could be checking dogs 24 hours a day – you catch sleep wherever you can, in a vehicle or on the floor if there's a building."

"It can be cold depending on the year, because you're outside almost all the time. But it's fun," adds Robinson, who has been a race volunteer since 2010. "This race in particular has a very family atmosphere – a lot of the same mushers and volunteers return year after year."

Teams take mandatory five- and eight-hour rest breaks during the race, but beyond that, Robinson says every competitor uses a different strategy. "Some take frequent short breaks, some take longer breaks with longer runs in between. Some choose to stay longer at the mandatory breaks. They also camp along the trail – they carry everything with them that they need."

In addition to volunteering for the race, a vaccine and wellness clinic was organized for the northern Saskatchewan community of Grandmother's Bay. Sims conducted wellness examinations on about two dozen local pets and administered vaccines, some of which were donated by the WCVM's Veterinary Medical Centre. The wellness clinic was done on site at one of the race's checkpoints where the community's dogs were kept separate from dogs competing in the race.

"Our community has luckily not gotten parvo[virus] yet," says Lora Batten, the Northern Animal Rescue's liaison in Grandmother's Bay. "But it's spreading across Saskatchewan. Some neighboring reserves are having parvo problems. So for the community, if it [parvovirus] does reach up here, it means their animals are safe from that [disease]."

In terms of dog welfare, Robinson describes the 2017 Canadian Challenge as "the healthiest race I've ever been on." Pinto credits Sims for creating such a positive environment.

"Ruth has been head vet for 11 years and has provided a fantastic education for the mushers and for us," adds Pinto. "Her approach has been really important – Ruth emphasizes that we're here to help. She's created a very unique culture for the vet-musher relationship on this race."

One of Sims' innovations is free veterinary care during the race. At other races, mushers are often charged for animal health care or penalized with a fee when a dog must be withdrawn from the race. But that's not the case at the Canadian Challenge. Sims provides veterinary supplies free of charge during the race — either through donations or through her clinic's own stock.

Most of the mushers concerns during the race involve soft-tissue injuries in the dogs – muscle cramps and soft-tissue swellings that any human runner might fall prey to. While the race veterinarians aren't allowed to treat dogs that remain in the race, they can advise mushers on the use of massage, cold wraps and a passive range of motion exercises that will relieve most symptoms. They also see occasional cases of mild dehydration that are treated pre-emptively with intravenous (IV) fluids.

For Pinto, one of the enjoyable aspects of the race is working with experienced mushers who have a good understanding of their dog teams and can recognize potential issues.

"Sometimes when they pull into a checkpoint, [the mushers] will identify the [dogs] they want checked, and often, they have already identified their injuries. They will pull their dogs themselves before we have to enforce anything. We saw a lot of very smart decisions this year – [mushers] putting dogs' long term welfare first, wanting the dogs to feel really motivated and positive to come back next year," says Pinto. "It's all about trying to create a culture of good dog care. The dog is number one."

Gill Gracie, past-president of the Canadian Challenge's organizing committee, agrees. "Without good vetting, we can't have a race. We have to ensure the safety of the dogs is paramount, and the vets are entirely in charge of that. They've been fantastic. They love coming, they've been really committed to it. It really helps us out."

Visit the Canadian Challenge web site to view this year's race results.
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