Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Dr. R.W. Van Pelt
Dr. Rollo "Van" Van Pelt was interviewed in 1982 by Susan Cortte for a radio series about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In this interview, he talks about duties of a pathologist and race veterinarian, caring for race dogs as athletes, the specialized physiology of a race dog, health and physical problems of the dogs, dog breeding, and use of medication for dog teams.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 87-77-07

Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska Project Jukebox
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Dr. R.W. Van Pelt
Interviewer(s): Susan Cortte
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Role of a veterinary pathologist

Caring for race dogs as a type of sportsmedicine

Changes in dog care and dealing with injuries

Learning how to care for race dogs

Caring for race dogs as athletes

Physiology of the sled dog

Ailments typical of race dogs

Differences between sprint dogs and long distance race dogs

Breeding dogs for desired traits

Changes in health issues among sled dogs

Problems a musher might face in terms of dog care out on the trail

Use of medication for dog care in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


SUSAN CORTTE: Dr. Van Pelt, you're the only certified pathologist in the state, as far as I know. What does a pathologist do, first? And how is that work different than -- than a normal vet or a regular vet?

R. W. VAN PELT: Well, basically, I perform the autopsies on dogs either dying of natural causes or other reasons. We do a gross autopsy where we determine the basic cause of death, and then usually I collect various representative tissue specimens for examination under the light microscope,

or maybe submission to a lab for bacteriologic cultures or viral studies, essentially trying to determine the cause of death, or in the case of a biopsy for a tumor or something like that, fundamentally whether it's benign or malignant.

SUSAN CORTTE: Okay. You mentioned once while I was here that you feel that you're in a branch of sportsmedicine. Just judging -- just judging by the amount of dog mushers and dogs that go through this place, I'm sure that's true.

Could you expound on that idea a bit, you know, what you think about sportsmedicine and why you think you're in a branch of it.

R. W. VAN PELT: You know, that's correct, we are in a branch of sportsmedicine, or I should say I am, and that fundamentally, we're -- you know, we have injured dogs come in, we have ill dogs come in, and I feel I'm in no different -- in no different position than I would be if I were, say, a team physician or a physician with an Olympic team.

And the East Germans and the Russians have advanced sportsmedicine so greatly to their advantage that I feel that while the U.S. has lagged behind it, and I feel that working with dogs or trying to overcome some of the problems in the racing dog, whether it be a sprint dog or a distance dog, is fundamental to the dog's health and its performance and well being.

SUSAN CORTTE: Okay. You were mentioning one thing like ten years ago, for instance, a dog might -- maybe even five years ago, a dog would get --

maybe longer than ten, but a dog would, like, for instance, get a fracture in a foot, and you know, the -- I don't want to get down on the old timers but it would be more or less,

well, that's the end of the dog, you know, you couldn't use the dog again, whereas now, that -- that isn't necessarily true.

R. W. VAN PELT: That's correct. You know, ten years ago, and particularly, I hate to say it, in some of the old time mushers, they were more prone if the dog, say, had a minor fracture in the foot or a strain or a tear in a ligament or tendon, there's a tendency to put the dog to sleep;

where now we can go in and fractures, even major fractures, correct and repair the fracture, correct and repair tendons and ligaments, and we can usually have that dog back on the next racing season.

If we catch a minor injury early enough, even a minor fracture, we many times can get that dog back in -- in racing form within the same season very easily. This wasn't done much 5 or 10 years ago, and certainly not 15 or 20. It was unheard of then.

And frankly, I have no -- I sort of had to learn it on my own in that we have no source textbooks to go for, for racing dogs.

And I've applied most of what I know on the racing dog here in Alaska from experiences on the horse racing tracks in the Lower 48, and I did work the greyhound tracks at one time.

And there's very little information on racing greyhounds either, either in textbook or literature.

There's just practically none. So I sort of had to learn it on my own, and basically apply the fundamentals of anatomy, the physiology, and your use of various pharmaceuticals to the racing dog to the best advantage.

SUSAN CORTTE: What about you also mentioned that you -- you know, you look at the dog, and just listening to you discuss dogs, you treat them as like superior athletes, athletes that are like Olympic athletes.

What about that, what kinds of things do you think about with the dogs? And I guess it's everything from diet all the way up to training.

R. W. VAN PELT: You know, that's correct. Even diet has come a long ways within the last -- even the last two or three years, and fundamentally, when we -- I examine a dog, basically, I look at the dog as far as his overall health.

And he is an athlete and probably a very superb one, certainly far more superior to we as humans in that not many of us can go 50 or a hundred miles day after day or, for that matter, sprint 20 to 25 or 30 miles and maintain the performance over a two or three day race as the dog is, but he is a superb athlete.

Probably the best animal athlete we deal with at the time, probably next would be the race horse.

The greyhound is certainly up there, but he's in a sprint category, much like a racing quarter horse or a thoroughbred, but the -- the mushing dog is a distance animal and is an absolutely superb athlete.

And the dogs we have come in that are in training are absolutely in superb condition and health. They have to be to perform.

You just couldn't perform with dogs that are either in ill health or not up to health standards or not up to training performance.

SUSAN CORTTE: What about, like, the physiology of the sled dog. Now, there was two things that I recall hearing.

One -- one that surprised me as someone that didn't know much about dogs is that the sled dog's heart may be twice as big as a normal dog's heart; and also that the -- something about the fat on the dog is located inside the ribs or something like that.

What about the difference in the physiology of the dogs?

R. W. VAN PELT: That's correct. The sled dog, from doing a number of autopsies on sled dogs that have been brought in to me, I've ascertained that the heart on a sled dog is about a third larger than that of the average pet dog.

The same holds true for the racing thoroughbred, his heart is also about a third larger than the average horse.

And I feel that with the racing dog, or the dogs on the northern tier here, that they have a fundamental ability to store fat internally,

even though they may appear thin outwardly, and I feel this is probably an adaptation over the years to the cold northern climates.

In other words, he does have a reservoir of energy or fat which is internal.

I see this also on the Malemute dog, too, and this was something that I had not seen or do not see in pet dogs or dogs from -- developed in the Lower 48 or in European countries.

SUSAN CORTTE: Let's talk a little bit about the things that you'll find in, let's say -- first, let's just talk about Iditarod dogs.

What kinds of things will you find in an Iditarod dog, I guess, in terms of problems that you might not find in other types of dogs?

R. W. VAN PELT: Well, probably the first and foremost problem that comes to mind will obviously be the foot problems, depending on the terrain and the snow and the snow conditions.

When a dog -- these dogs are forced to go over, or not forced, but have to go over a terrain- -- they don't have groomed trails, the dogs are in and out of drifts, where trails are drifted,

so these dogs would be prone to various types of frostbite, not necessarily of the feet or the pads, but it will be on the ventral aspect of the abdomen and down between the hind legs.

Other problems that would afflict the Iditarod dog and/or distance dog and particularly on a long race with a lot dogs is they seem to pick up various intestinal ailments, which with any large grouping of dogs would be expected.

And certainly the sprint dogs get it, but usually they have contracted these things around town, and by the time they arrive at a race or a sprint situation, they are over them.

SUSAN CORTTE: Let's compare Iditarod dogs to sprint dogs. What -- what differences were you aware of, let's say a sprint dog have that maybe an Iditarod dog may not have?

R. W. VAN PELT: Well, basically, they both are essentially the same type of dog. There's a tendency now in Iditarod dogs for the Iditarod racer to move on to a slower type of sprint dog, maybe a dog that's even a little larger, although some of them are down now in that 35, 40, 45 pound range that most of the sprint dogs seem to run in.

However, they seem to prefer a dog that will trot for miles at perhaps a 10 or 12 mile gait, as opposed to a dog who will be loping a good distance of the race.

The sprint dogs will lope pretty well throughout the race, if it's any kind of a short race.

It's fundamentally the same dog, though it's just a slower type of dog, and he's gaited down slower than a sprint dog because he's got to, to pace himself out for the distance.

SUSAN CORTTE: With that breeding, I guess it's from my own experience of knowing mushers, they -- they really breed for different types of traits in their dogs.

Could you talk about the breeding for a while, like what -- what -- it seems as though it's been going on for years and years, people breeding in different things, breeding out certain things.

R. W. VAN PELT: Right.

SUSAN CORTTE: A lot of people seem to think that if, you know, for instance, dogs out on the coast that are out there now, they wouldn't be out there if genetically -- genetically the poorer ones didn't make it and they are not there, like with bad feet, for instance.

R. W. VAN PELT: That's right. It is as sort of, in a sense, a survival of the fittest in that basically, they try to breed for the dog who will maintain the desired performance.

And they've introduced other lines of dogs; for instance, the Irish Setter has been introduced for its speed and stamina.

The hound dogs have been introduced into the lines for stamina, the hound having a lot of stamina. They may be a little bit slow.

They've tried other pet dogs. I've seen Airedale introduced into them, we've seen various hunting breeds, particularly the Labrador Retriever introduced, and I understand among some of the coastal dogs where at one time they had reindeer herds,

the Australian Shepherd was introduced to herd reindeer and ended up intermingling with the coastal sled dogs, which gives them their odd tricolor that they have now and then, or the black and white dogs we see are what we call a Blue Merle type of dog, much like a domestic Collie.

SUSAN CORTTE: What about along with the good points, there's always the bad points. You know, you start stressing -- stressing a dog, and of course, there's going to be some things cropping up.

You mentioned before that there were some things that you've started to see in sled dogs that weren't there, perhaps, 10 or 15 years ago. What about that?

R. W. VAN PELT: That's true. There's been quite a bit of interbreeding or line breeding or very close breeding.

In other words, oftentimes a person has two desirable individuals, they'll breed, say, a brother sister mating, or perhaps a sire back to a daughter, or a mother back to its son,

and this has introduced things like epilepsy in some of the dogs.

We are starting to see things like one or both eyes being somewhat small in the dogs.

We're starting to see some bone deformities, but usually these dogs are eliminated from the dog lot before they become too major because those dogs just will not run.

We're seeing primarily now a condition that afflicts most dog yards and many of the top dogs, and that's where they have very low thyroid activity, and this seems to carry on down through family lines.

It may skip generations, one or two generations, or it may show up every generation. And it's very definitely become a problem. Very much as many of the pet dogs.

In other words, we're seeing the same genetic problems that are seen in the show or pet dogs. The one exception being is that we do not see the poor hips or dysplastic hips that we see in so many purebred pet dogs.

The sled dogs have superb hips and obviously have to have superb bone formation and confirmation in order to run.

They just can't do it without it. They are like a race horse or any running athletic animal.

SUSAN CORTTE: I think I'm going to run out of tape there. R. W. VAN PELT: I get longwinded, too.

SUSAN CORTTE: Oh, no. It's one of the best interviews I've ever done.

What kind of -- this might be a little repetitive, but what kinds of -- could you go over some of the problems that an Iditarod musher is going to face with his dogs out on the trail.

I know, for instance, like dehydration, foot problems, and stuff like that. Could you just sort of go over those briefly.

R. W. VAN PELT: Probably the first thing that the Iditarod musher is going to face when he leaves Anchorage or wherever is his jumping off point is fundamentally probably most of the dogs are going to pick up some form of viral diarrhea like an influenza much in humans.

And obviously, if this diarrhea is not brought into control or if there's any vomiting associated with it, we're going to be faced with a problem of dehydration.

Normally the dogs don't have a problem with dehydration. Perhaps some if the weather conditions turn very warm, but basically no.

The next problem they're going to have, and it's an obvious one, is going to be foot problems, particularly with poor trail or snow conditions, and maybe, as in years past, where they are going to have to run over open spaces of rock or sand, and it's going to be tough on the dog's feet, it's going to be tough on the sleds and the runners.

And another problem that we do see in distance dogs, because of the physiology of the dog, is that we may see dogs show up with some exhaustion pneumonia.

And this will be more pronounced if the weather turns warmer. The dog is an animal that must sweat through the lungs and oral cavity, unlike we humans or unlike horses who race, and so we do see fluid accumulate in the lungs on long runs with prolonged elevation in blood pressure, and particularly under warm conditions.

And I do see this problem in sprint dogs on warm days, they salivate quite heavily, and they do have pulmonary problems with the heat. That's the only way the dog has got of cooling himself is through the lungs and via the oral cavity.

SUSAN CORTTE: Okay. Okay. Now on to one -- one question that I'm going to read this directly so we can make sure I don't phrase it incorrectly, but there's two different types of thought on the drug rule of the Iditarod.

One school seems to think that no drugs at all are -- you know, that that's the way it should be; and then there's another school that seems to think that drugs such as like take aspirin or foot medicine would be actually better for the dog than nothing else.

For instance, I guess the argument is that, you know, like if you've got a headache, it makes sense to take an aspirin rather than sitting there and ending up, you know, with a headache, you can function better.

What do you feel about -- about drugs on the Iditarod?

R. W. VAN PELT: Well, drugs kind of brings up in people's mind the connotation of either using drugs that are stimulants or depressants.

I like to think of them as medications much as you or I would take, for instance, if we have intestinal flu or going to take something to control the infection and control the diarrhea or vomiting.

If we should get a blister on our foot or sore on our toe inside of a boot or something, we're going to do something about that rather than let it go.

I personally feel that a lot of the medications should be allowed. I don't approve of either stimulants or depressants and wouldn't advocate their use.

I personally don't think they do that much good, particularly over the long span of time, or long run. I definitely feel that there should be some sort of medication permitted so that the dog can maintain himself in reasonable health.

The medications I would have in mind would be of a minor nature with respect to the overall health of the dog; and certainly if he became seriously ill or incapacitated, the musher would be dropping him off at a checkpoint anyway, and certainly the race veterinarians would ask that the dog be also dropped off.

But he's going to be encountering things, the foot problems could be medicated while on the trail, the frostbite problems could be taken care of, the diarrheas could be taken care of, combating the dehydration associated with the diarrheas, and also some of the early pulmonary problems before they got severe could be very nicely taken care of.

And I just see no reason why that can't be done. I'm not advocating stimulation or depression at all.