Veterinarian Team Helps Ensure Dog Safety on the Beargrease

Baihly Warfield
Updated: January 21, 2020 10:37 PM

With less than a week until the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, mushers are busy picking their final team of 12 dogs who will take them 295 miles to the finish line. 


Many mushers will say their priority is not necessarily finishing first, but rather with a happy and healthy team. 

John Fisher has seen the four-legged athletes in action, both as a musher and as part of the veterinarian team. Fisher owns the Vermilion Veterinary Clinic in Cook, Minn. 

"These dogs can go out and run 50 miles nonstop. It's pretty amazing," Fisher said. "One of the cool things about the sport is a phenomenal level of concern about animal care by the mushers."

The Beargrease primarily features teams with husky blood, dogs that are bred for a purpose. 

"A labrador, they've been bred for and have a little computer chip that says, 'Retrieve,'" Fisher described. "But huskies want to run. They want to run." 

They get plenty of opportunity on the Beargrease. The 2020 course is 295 miles long. At each of the six checkpoints along the way, a team of veterinarians looks the dogs over. 

"We want to make sure the dogs are real hydrated. We can do that by checking the skin pinch and how quickly the skin bounces back. And it should be less than a second," Fisher said. 

Vets also check with the mushers to see how the dogs are eating. They need to eat well because they burn more than 3,000 calories a day during a race. 

The vet team also keeps a close eye on the dogs' joints. 

"One of the most common things we'll see in sled dog races is shoulder injuries," Fisher said, "especially on those steep Beargrease hills."

Veterinarians flex and extend the dogs' shoulders and hips to see if they shows any pain. If so, the dog may have to be dropped from the team. Mushers start with a maximum of 12 dogs and must cross the finish line with at least six.

Aside from all the physical aspects, Fisher said a successful race is also mental - sometimes coming down to trust between a musher and team. 

"No. 1 thing is that you can't make them do it. You can't force them," Fisher said. "If they don't want to do it, they won't do it."

The marathon begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at Billy's in Duluth. It's expected to wrap up sometime Tuesday afternoon at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. 


Baihly Warfield

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