Nice work if you can get it: Sled dog Vetrinarian

You know how sometimes you meet someone at a party, and after three minutes of small talk you discover a kindred spirit? You then retire to a corner and spend the next hour swapping stories and periodically yelling “I KNOW!”? This is my story with Justine. If you see us at a crowded house party, we will be the ladies in the corner, talking intensely about what to wear in Egypt. In addition to being a traveler of epic proportions, Justine is an author, a doctor of veterinary medicine and the owner of The Best Dog in The World.

So what’s the deal? What do you do?
To “get out of the office,” I volunteer as a veterinarian for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I’m one of 40 vets who work to ensure that the sled dogs running this 1,049 mile race from Anchorage to Nome are healthy. We examine all 1500 dogs before the start of the race, and run blood work and ECGs on them to make sure they are fit and well.

Once the race starts, I’m then flown throughout bush Alaska (in small 2-man Cessna planes) to various checkpoints, where I work (with a small team of vets) to examine every dog that comes in through the 24 checkpoints. All the dogs are examined at the end of the race also, ensuring dogs are healthy. As vets, we also take care of “dropped” dogs – in other words, dogs that couldn’t continue on with the race for various reasons [like diarrhea, being in heat (and distracting the other dogs), or sore wrists].

Tell us about an average day in sled-dog vetting?
The average day of sled dog vetting includes the following: waking up chilled on the floor of some abandoned building in some small village in Alaska; grabbing a coffee and some instant oatmeal gruel; donning lots of winter gear; going outside in -20F to watch dog teams run in; approaching a sleep-deprived (often grumpy musher) to inquire about his or her dogs; performing physical examinations on the team of sled dogs (typically 14-16 dogs/team); repeating this last step for the next 80 dog teams coming in all day and night long; freezing your hands off; stepping in poop; getting your face licked by lots of sled dogs; getting covered in dog fur/diarrhea/saliva; running to a frozen outhouse to then strip off lots of winter gear; freezing your butt on a frozen toilet seat; donning lots of winter gear; running inside to drink some Tang and hot coffee; grabbing a quick bite; getting surrounded by local Athabascan kids who are excited to see non-villagers; working 18 hours a day followed by an occasional nap, a quick shower every 3rd or 4th day; repeat.

Did you go to school for this? Or get any special training?
I first developed my love for sled dogs at Cornell University, where I attended veterinary school. During my 3rd year courses, I was taught nutrition by a sprint sled dog veterinarian. The world of sled dogs immediately grabbed my attention – I was amazed to discover that Iditarod sled dogs burn approximately 10,000 kcal/day. I was instantly in love with these marathon athletes.

Since then, I’ve done advanced training at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital (associated with the MSPCA in Boston, MA), where I completed my internship, and then went on to University of Pennsylvania, where I completed a fellowship and residency in emergency and critical care. I’m currently a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care (DACVECC), which means I’m a veterinary specialist. Of course, that’s not necessary to be a sled dog vet – one just needs to have 5 years of vet training, and be adaptable to substandard Alaskan conditions!

How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve always loved animals, and knew I wanted to be a vet since I was 7. I didn’t discover the world of sled dogs until later in my life, but have always loved and respected the different relationships and roles that animals and humans have with each other – whether or not it’s for companionship (like my dog sleeping in my bed with me) to working police dogs or sled dogs, I knew I wanted to be able to provide the highest level of quality care for all of them.

Are there any drawbacks to working in this field?
Aside from being sleep deprived, constantly cold, reeking of dog, craving a salad after 10 days of ramen noodles, going 5 days without bathing, and having frost-nip on the tips of my fingers?

What are the highlights?
My two favorite parts of working as a vet for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race are my colleagues and the environment. I work with wonderful, compassionate, fun-loving, adventurous vets that I typically would never meet otherwise (like horse vets from all over the country or Texan vets trying to survive a temperature below 70F). We’re able to work together, share floor space in an abandoned, cold gym or wall tent, and bond over frozen supplies and fingers while exchanging funny work stories. Next, bush Alaska is beautiful – the trail is constantly variable – you may be at a checkpoint that is a deserted ghost town, or at a large fishing village along the frozen Bearing Sea, or at the base of the Alaska Range.

Are there any misconceptions about working in this field?
The biggest misconception is that it’s a glorious position. You’re working like a dog, 18-hours a day during the middle of the night, hungry, dehydrated (no! not the frozen outhouse seat!), sleep-deprived, dirty, cold, and sweaty, and now you’re surrounded by grumpier, dirtier, people.

What suggestions would you give to people interested in getting into this?
If you’re a vet, I’d recommend attending the annual International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) pre-race training seminar (in Anchorage, AK). This is held just days before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (which starts on the first Saturday of March), and offers you the opportunity to learn more about sled dogs. I’d also recommend joining the ISDVMA ( which works to ensure the highest levels of quality care in this field. Veterinary race applications are typically available through the ISDVMA newsletters or via the chief veterinarian.

If you’re a vet tech, or just curious, I’d recommend going to the Iditarod website to check out how to volunteer – it’s competitive, but once you’re on the trail, you won’t regret it!

Any would-be vets out there? Any questions for Justine on how to wrangle Huskies?

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  1. Sal

    Just sitting at my desk job reading this and feeling colossally boring. What an AWESOME job!

  2. Kelly

    Thanks for this! I love the Iditarod!

  3. Dr. Justine Lee

    It’s definitely a perk to get “out of the office” and into the wilderness. It’s a ton of fun… despite the long hours. These dogs are so cool and great to work with – totally different from “lower 48” Siberian huskies (who are crazy to work with).

  4. Sled Dog Action Coalition

    Veterinarians who care about dogs are working to get the Iditarod banned. Here’s a short list of what happens to the dogs during the race: death, paralysis, frostbite of the penis and scrotum, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, pneumonia, lung damage, ruptured discs, viral diseases, torn muscles and tendons, sprains, vomiting, fur loss, broken teeth,
    torn footpads and anemia.

    At least 136 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race’s early years. In “WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod,” a nonfiction book, Gary Paulsen describes witnessing an Iditarod musher brutally kicking a dog to death during the race. He wrote, “All the time he was kicking the dog. Not with the imprecision of anger, the kicks, not kicks to match his rage but aimed, clinical vicious kicks. Kicks meant to hurt deeply, to cause serious injury. Kicks meant to kill.”

    Causes of death have also included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. “Sudden death” and “external myopathy,” a fatal condition in which a dog’s muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also occurred. The 1976 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996, one of Rick Swenson’s dogs died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice. The Iditarod Trail Committee banned both mushers from the race but later reinstated them. In many states these incidents would be considered animal cruelty. Swenson is now on the Iditarod Board of Directors.

    In the 2001 Iditarod, a sick dog was sent to a prison to be cared for by inmates and received no veterinary care. He was chained up in the cold and died. Another dog died by suffocating on his own vomit.

    No one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

    On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

    Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, tells us that the dogs are beaten into submission:

    “They’ve had the hell beaten out of them.” “You don’t just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.’ They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying.” -USA Today, March 3, 2000 in Jon Saraceno’s column

    Beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing anual, “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…”

    Mushers believe in “culling” or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. “On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death in harnesses…..” wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.”

    The Iditarod, with its history of abuse, could not be legally held in many states, because doing so would violate animal cruelty laws.

    Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of sled dogs saving the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum run was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn’t anything like the Iditarod.

    The race has led to the proliferation of horrific dog kennels in which the dogs are treated very cruelly. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture determined that the tethering of dogs was inhumane and not in the animals’ best interests. The chaining of dogs as a primary means of enclosure is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies. A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

    Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse.

    Margery Glickman
    Sled Dog Action Coalition,

    • Online name goes here

      I was going to point out that most of the sources are news companies but then I saw that it was posted in 2009 and that this comment is pointless

  5. Dr. Justine Lee

    That’s why we have vets out there – to ensure that they are safe and healthy!

  6. John

    Good Stuff.. Doesn’t This looks like an awesome place to begin your academic program! The True Blue Campus at St. Georges University.

  7. WDavis

    Dr. Lee,
    I am a current vet student at CSU. I have been racing since 2003 and wish o stay involved in the racing community while in school, as well as after graduation. Do you have any suggestions or know any opportunities for someone like me?
    Thank You,
    W. Davis


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