FORT KENT, Maine — Dr. Karen Stasiak’s colleagues at her animal health pharmaceutical company know not to count on seeing her around the office the first week in March.
The Houston, Texas, veterinarian is among 18 vets, vet technicians and veterinary students who volunteer at the annual Can-Am Crown Sled Dog Races in Fort Kent, held last weekend.
“I’ve been coming for nine years,” Stasiak said as she prepared to check dogs at the race registration Friday afternoon at Lonesome Pine Ski Hill. “When I get back [to Texas] I’ll request this week off for next year.”
For the race vets, working the Can-Am offers a break from treating small, household pets in their regular practices and devote several days to fine-tuned canine athletes taking part in the annual 30- and 250-mile races and the inaugural running of the weekend’s 100-mile race.
“It’s really nice to see these dogs do what they are bred to do,” Dr. Laura McConnell of Denton, Texas, said. “These dogs are really in great condition.”
In addition to the duo from Texas, Can-Am race vets came to Fort Kent from Minnesota, Massachusetts and Maine.
“Without them we would not have a race,” Beurmond Banville, Can-Am Crown president, said. “Dog care at the Can-Am is of the utmost importance.”
Banville figures by the time the race weekend wraps up Monday, the vets will have examined more than 500 dogs among the three races.
“The dog care in the races is phenomenal,” he said. “These vets are really a huge part of the Can-Am team.”
Wrangling the vets and keeping track of the dog care is the job of Chief Veterinarian Dr. Nick Pesut of the Presque Isle Animal Hospital.
“The secret is bringing in good people,” Pesut said Friday. “We have a very experienced crew. Many of these vets come back year after year [and] volunteer time at other races.”
Among the staff are veterinary students getting some hands-on experience with racing sled dogs.
“This is something really unique for these students,” Pesut said. “You don’t get to go to a lot of sled dog races while at [veterinary] college.”
On Friday the vets and their assistants were busy inspecting each arriving team as part of the mandatory race registration process.
Dogs were unloaded from their travel trucks and one by one had their joints and limbs examined, hearts and lungs monitored, weight checked, teeth examined and overall appearance appraised.
Some dogs looked as though they were getting the spa treatment of a lifetime as veterinarians and their assistants gently stretched out the legs, prodded areas to determine body mass, checked their ears and used stethoscopes to check breathing and heart rates.
Others looked as though they were enduring an affront to their doggy dignity from which they may never recover.
Either way, once a dog passed the veterinary inspection, a volunteer used a giant wax pencil to mark the dog and show it was race ready.
Throughout the races, the vets keep close tabs on the four-legged team members, especially during the weekend’s flagship 250-mile event, where there was a vet team at each of the four checkpoints and at the finish line.
“We really work in partnership with the mushers,” Pesut said. “They let us know when they come in [to a checkpoint] if they have a concern with a dog [and] we can assess each case to determine if the dog just needs some rest or needs to be pulled from the race.”
Common issues for the dogs include sore shoulders or wrists and “stress” diarrhea, according to Pesut.
“It’s extremely important that the vets are here,” New Hampshire and Can-Am 250 musher Jaye Foucher said. “Our dogs rely on them [and] they are an integral part of this race. I often call the vets over at checkpoints to have them just look at the dogs and check things out.”
Those observations can be invaluable in assessing the condition of a team, according to Rico Portalatin, Can-Am 100 musher.
“They really are fresh eyes on a dog,” Portalatin said Saturday at the race checkpoint in Allagash. “As a musher, when you see something over and over again, you can be unsure of what you are seeing. The veterinarians come in with a new point of view, and that can be so helpful to the musher.”
A solid staff of race veterinarians is crucial to the sport, according to Bruce Langmaid, Can-Am Crown 100 racer.
“They are a part of distance racing,” he said. “Racing dogs is as much about sports medicine and care of the dogs as it is about the race itself.”
It’s that opportunity to work directly with these elite canine athletes that keep the Can-Am Crown race vets coming back year after year.
“I used to live in southern Maine, and I love sled dogs and the sports medicine that goes along with the races,” McConnell said.
Pesut said the dogs at the Can-Am come into the race in excellent condition and ready for the trails.
The job of the veterinarians, he said, is to help identify and treat any injuries the dogs may sustain on the trail so they can get back into the race or run another day.
“We look at the dogs and determine if all they need is to ‘walk off’ an injury, have the [injured] area massaged or put on some topical liniment or just get some rest before heading back out on the trail or if they need to be pulled from the race,” Pesut said.
The veterinarians travel from race checkpoint to checkpoint, carrying field kits of medical gear and medicines to help treat injured or sick dogs.
A solid core of volunteer drivers remains on standby, ready to evacuate any dogs dropped from teams because of injuries or sickness and get them back to Fort Kent for rest and further care, if needed.
Pesut said the goal of veterinarians and mushers is to ensure the dogs get the treatment they need to stay competitive and healthy.
“Ultimately we want to work with the musher so the dog is able to be fully rehabilitated to race again,” he said. “It’s what the musher want, it’s what we as veterinarians want and it’s what the dogs want.”