Information from Dr. Stu Nelson: Iditarod


The following information comes from Dr. Stu Nelson.

Who is Dr. Nelson?

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the accusations made by Marjorie Glickman and her Sled Dog Action Coalition.  Before specifically addressing those on a point by point basis, I believe that some background information is appropriate.

I have been the Chief Veterinarian of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for twelve years.  Prior to that, I was a volunteer trail veterinarian for nine years.  My primary livelihood is a relief veterinarian.  Obviously, much of my career has been dedicated to the sled dog, and more specifically, those competing in the Iditarod.  I take my role very seriously, and am fortunate to have a large staff of dedicated volunteer veterinarians whose purpose is to examine the canine athletes at each race checkpoint.  Typically, 35-37 veterinarians from all over the world serve as trail veterinarians in any given year, the majority of whom have worked multiple Iditarod races.  One of my primary roles has been to educate mushers and veterinarians about medical conditions affecting racing sled dogs.  Most of those conditions are common to marathon athletes in general, whether they be human, equine or canine.  During my tenure, I have been very proactive in promoting research studies to help us gain the knowledge needed for developing protocols to further protect the health of the four legged athletes.  These studies have always been noninvasive or minimally invasive, resulting in no or little risk to the dogs.  Substantial funding has been obtained from the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA), and the thousands of supporters of the sport, to conduct numerous research studies.   Literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on research to improve our knowledge base, and ultimately improve the care of these great canine athletes.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a single penny spent by Marjory Glickman or the Sled Dog Action Coalition, for the benefit of Iditarod sled dogs.

I have never knowingly met Marjory Glickman or any of her representatives.  She is not a musher, and as far as I know, has no practical experience working with sled dogs.  I do know that her organization is based in Miami, Florida.  For a number of years she has taken it upon herself to launch a crusade against the sport, and the Iditarod in particular.  Her main tactic is to attack the race, sponsors, supporters, teachers, veterinary staff, and anyone else associated with the race, primarily through the use of the internet and mass media.

I prefer to dedicate my energies in a constructive manner, rather than having to spend time responding to her use of distortion and accusations.  However, because of the fact that her assaults are particularly vicious and widespread, it is necessary for me to set the record straight.

Dr. Stuart Nelson

Chief Veterinarian

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

What is Iditarod?

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a marathon athletic event covering over one-thousand miles of trail from Anchorage to Nome.  During the last several years, we annually have had between 1200 and 1300 canine athletes entered.  It typically takes up to 15 days for the last team to finish.  As in any animal population of this magnitude, during a two week period, whether in New York, Los Angeles or small town USA, there is the potential for almost any medical condition to develop.

Important Information:  Facts and Figures

Ms. Glickman’s accusations of dogs being “paralyzed” or having “ruptured discs” are exaggerations to the extreme.  The race is thirty-five years old, and I can’t say that these have never happened, but the statistical probability is almost negligible.  I recall one canine that had a neck injury that was quite serious, but I also saw him running at his home kennel several months later.  He had gone left around a tree when the rest of the team when right, thus resulting in the injury.

“Broken teeth” and “viral diseases” are all encompassing conditions.  During my tenure as the Chief Veterinarian, there has not been a single canine that my staff or I treated for “broken teeth.”  In reality, most mature canines in the general population have a chipped tooth for a multitude of potential reasons including chewing bones, catching Frisbees, chasing sticks, etc.

To deny the presence of viral diseases in any environment would be impossible.  In my general practice routine, I treat animals on an almost daily basis that have viral diseases.  If an athlete has a “viral disease” on the trail that causes it to be febrile, then it can not continue in the race.  The ISDVMA has compiled a list, by which we adhere, of very specific criteria that would prevent any canine athlete from leaving a checkpoint.

“Broken bones”, “torn muscles” and “sprains” fall in the category of musculoskeletal injuries.  This is athletic competition in which all athletes participate very willingly.  Of course injuries do occur, but “broken bones” are uncommon.  Fractures are usually the result of some freak event, which we do not see at all in most years.  “Torn muscles” is another all encompassing term, but the injuries that do occur are rarely career ending and heal quickly.  Strains or sprains are the most likely injuries.

The Iditarod is a winter event in Alaska.  High winds combined with severe cold are required to create frostbite.  Typically, mushers have jackets and prepuce covers for the athletes to wear in those conditions.  Once again, the ISDVMA has defined specific criteria that would prevent a dog from continuing in the race with any indication of significant frostbite.

“Torn footpads” do happen on occasion.  However, anyone who has ever seen the Iditarod knows that these canine athletes wear booties.  These are designed to protect the feet from sharp ice and/or abrasive snow.  Sometimes the booties can come off or become worn, potentially resulting in a foot injury.  If the injury causes extended pain, the athlete would be dropped from the team and treated appropriately.

In her report, Ms. Glickman refers to the use of “massive doses of antibiotics.”   In reality, athletes are allowed to have antibiotics while running, but if used, the doses are standard.  As mentioned before, criteria established by the ISDVMA are defined which would prevent a canine from continuing in the race, including fevers.  Antibiotics are one of the very few permitted medications during the Iditarod.  We have an extensive drug testing program designed to prevent illicit use of performance enhancing substances.  This program is very similar to other high profile athletic events, whether they are human, equine, or canine competitions.

“Bleeding ulcers” and “bloody diarrhea” refer to gastrointestinal disorders.  Marathon athletes, (human, equine, or canine) experience a higher incidence of gastric ulcers than the general population.  The Iditarod has been open in acknowledging the fact that gastric ulcers are our greatest health concern for these dogs.  Diarrhea is relatively common to human and canine long distance athletes, but is rarely associated with severe illness.  Ms. Glickman is using data funded and published by Iditarod supported research teams and then skewing that data in an attempt to promote her agenda.  In recent years, most of the money spent for sled dog research has been devoted to trying to identify potential causes and prevention of gastric ulcers.  We have had some degree of success, but are still looking for answers.  I am convinced that the research we are committed to will ultimately provide for an even greater health safety net for all canine athletes… and ultimately for all canines.

“Pneumonia” and “lung damage” are conditions that are mentioned in Ms. Glickman’s report. Once again the conditions she refers to (and skews) are published by Iditarod endorsed research studies.  Pneumonia is a potentially fatal condition that I discuss with Iditarod mushers and veterinarians repeatedly.  Observing for early signs before they become serious is a priority.  Mushers and veterinarians are taught the acronym “HAWL,” which is a useful reference for routine checkpoint evaluations.  “HAW” is a voice command meaning “Left,” thus explaining the origin for the acronym.  In medical terms the “H” refers to hydration and heart rate; the “A” refers to the attitude and appetite; the “W” refers to weight and the “L” refers to Lungs.  Veterinarians spend the majority of their time auscultating lungs with their stethoscopes in order to detect any abnormalities.

The “lung damage” that Ms. Glickman refers to was taken from published studies whereby endoscopy was used to evaluate the airways of sled dogs both in training and after racing.  What she failed to mention was that these studies were initiated as a potential model for elite human winter marathon athletes who experience a condition known as “ski asthma” or “cold weather induced asthma.”  It seemed logical that if humans engaged in intensive outdoor winter training, i.e., cross country skiing, developed inflammation in their airways, that possibly the same thing might occur in sled dogs.  Thus, the research was conducted to look for a condition that was previously not recognized in sled dogs.  Those studies did detect airway inflammation.  However, the changes were typically not associated with clinical signs and were not diagnosed without the use of endoscopy.

In this final paragraph, I will address “death.”  Death is a risk that we all face, whether athletes or not.  In the life of a sled dog, two weeks is equivalent to approximately fourteen weeks for that of a human.  Generally speaking, a dog’s life span is short, relative to ours.  I am confident that there is no musher or veterinarian that would ever desire a dog to die as the result of race participation.  We do as much as can reasonably be expected to prevent death: including an extensive pre-race screening of every canine athlete preparing to enter the race.  During the month prior to the race start; each and every athlete must have an ECG recording, blood drawn for a CBC and chemistry panel, and a veterinary physical exam.  Throughout the course of the race, over 10,000 routine exams are performed at the checkpoints.  Athletes that are dropped from the race are checked and rechecked several times before being released from the jurisdiction and the care of the Iditarod Trail Committee.

The bigger question relates to the risk for death that the race may present.  With every athletic activity, human or animal, that risk exists.  Calculations have been performed to determine the death rate for dogs competing in the Iditarod.  Based on human data of the risk for death per hour of engagement in activity, the death rate for an Iditarod sled dog lies somewhere between the death rate for humans engaged in jogging and those participating in cross country skiing.  Obviously, zero deaths will always be the ultimate goal, and we will continue to strive forward in that quest.

In Conclusion. . . . .

In conclusion, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is demonstrating a successful growth trend, both in numbers of participants and spectators.  Similarly, advances in canine health care will continue as the direct result of mushers, veterinarians and supporters of the race working together.   Research studies and the practical application of knowledge gained through those efforts have been, and will always be, the keys to the best possible dog care.  We will prevail, in spite of the distortions, misrepresentations and slanderous attacks by the likes of Ms. Glickman.

Race Rules:

To better understand the race, a complete list of race rules can be found at this website link.

Information about Dog Care


Iditarod dogs have some of the most intensive health checkups in the animal athletic world. Mandatory pre-race evaluations commence in the early part of February, which include blood testing and ECG recordings. All dogs are permanently identified with a microchip implant as part of the screening process. (Testing and microchip implants are provided for the mushers at no charge to them). Each dog’s microchip number is scanned before starting the race, to verify their eligibility.

In addition to the extensive pre-race testing, every dog is required to have veterinary physical exam within fourteen days of the race start, and all vaccinations must be current. Last but not least, each must be dewormed (medications provided through the ITC) within ten days of beginning their trip to Nome.

The dogs are usually very calm for these tests. They are used to being handled a lot and typically lie quietly while the procedures are completed.

Follow this link to read dog care articles.


* The information on this website page comes from Dr. Stu Nelson and is used with his permission.


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