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Dr. Mark May
Dr. Mark May was interviewed on May 19, 2011 by William Schneider and Karen Brewster at his veterinary clinic in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Dr. May talks about how he got involved with long-distance dog mushing, advances in dog care, research on dog physiology, training dogs, assessing a dog's health and condition on the trail, use of medication, and disease within dog teams.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2011-19-02

Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska
Date of Interview: May 19, 2011
Narrator(s): Dr. Mark May
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
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Coming to Alaska from the Midwest

Using dogs for a trapline

Father running the Iditarod Sled Dog Race

Education and becoming a veterinarian

Returning to Alaska and starting his own dog sled racing team

Getting married and his wife's connection to mushing

Long distance trips with dogs

Advances in dog care

Research and testing on racing dogs

Changes in training which help prevent injuries

Assessing a racing dog's health

Internal medical issues

Medications for the dogs on the trail

Intestinal diseases on the trail

What mushing means to him

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BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is May 19th, 2011. I'm Bill Schneider, Karen Brewster is here, too, and we have the pleasure of doing an interview today of Dr. Mark May, and we're here at his clinic. So thanks for taking the time to do this, Mark.

DR. MARK MAY: You're welcome.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let's start by having you talk a little bit about your family history, where you were brought up and a bit about your parents.

DR. MARK MAY: I grew up in Rural Wisconsin, and lived next to a big mink ranch when I was a boy, and my mother's parents had a small dairy.

And we moved across the lake to Michigan in high school, and maybe we'll discuss later, but as soon as I finished high school, I left and came to Alaska. So a typical Midwestern transplant.

It was a day and age where America was changing rapidly, my parents separated when I was just finishing up high school, and like many Midwesterners, my father had been dreaming about Alaska most of his life, liked the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and Alaska was really booming or opening up, so after my parents separated, he moved to Alaska.

And it was '72, I think, when he moved up. I graduated high school in '74, so as soon as I was done with high school, my friend Curt and I hopped in a Rambler station wagon and drove across America.

At that time, my father was living in a 16 by 16 cabin in a -- in a rural area, a community called Trapper Creek just south of the Alaska Range near Talkeetna.

So I -- I lived with him for the first two winters that I was in Alaska. And at the time, the Iditarod was just starting to develop, and so we fell right into the first part of the Iditarod.

He got lucky and fell in with people in the community that had had sled dog ties back into the '40s and '50s, so he was given some very fine dogs right out of the chute.

We, of course, were trappers. The credible acceptable thing to do with the sled dogs before the Iditarod became the going thing was to trap, you know.

So we lived in that community south of the Alaska Range and we had traplines and we used these dogs as trapping dogs.

And I made it two years after high school before I realized young people really didn't have an option in Rural Alaska, and so I left for three years to -- in the Navy. And during that time, my younger brother came up and helped my father with the dogs.

I think my father ran the Iditarod five times, he won in 1980, and so it was a very exciting time to be involved in sled dog racing, and especially in the Iditarod.

I remember in 1980, we had this team that just could not be beat, and the dogs were really nothing special, they didn't cost a lot of money, but they were old racing stock, and the dogs raced five times that year and were never beat.

So it was a very -- a very exciting time. I was -- I was sad I had to leave to go in the Navy, and all the time I was in the Navy, you know, I just burned to come back.

Talking about my life as a veterinarian, my wife will tell you, it's the only thing you can do, it's the only thing you've ever done.

So I did not have the silver spoon in my mouth when I was a kid, I had no promise of college, I had no inclination to go to college until I got out of the Navy, and then I had to do something.

I had kind of a limited GI Bill. The State of Alaska used to really have an outstanding student loan program.

And so I grabbed hold of all the free money, all the loan money I could, and I settled in Fairbanks, went to UAF , lived on campus the first year.

Second year I started working with sled dogs while I was still going to school with friends I knew here in the community. So for those college years here at UAF, I was involved in sled dog racing around Fairbanks.

I didn't have my own sled dogs, but I was race marshal, race judge. I was working as a veterinary technician, or kennel boy, with Val Stuve at Aurora Animal Clinic, and so when I finished up with my Bachelors in Biology, I was accepted to Colorado.

And went out to Colorado for four years. So, you know, it was in and out of Alaska trying to establish a career, if you will, or a life style, and so I graduated from veterinary school in 1989, came back to Alaska.

We'd owned property in North Pole, so we never really left Fairbanks, and immediately went to work putting together a racing team. Bought out some of the dogs that my dad had sold when he got out.

He had been through a change of life where he burned his snowshoes, bought a sailboat, and his wife and he were going to sail the world.

Well, if you talk to them, they'll tell you all about pirates and other hazards of sailing, and they lasted on the boat for about a year and a half, and then they settled into Southeast.

And Southeast was way too rainy, so they eventually wound up back in Trapper Creek across the road from their first place, but in a nice, old homestead with a view of McKinley.

So he's still here in Alaska, and I visit him two or three times a year. He's still interested in sled dogs, but he doesn't run them. So that's it in a nutshell.

I've been over here at this location for 16 years, I've raced many long distance races. I still have a kennel of sled dogs and I race as often as I can.

I've got three children, and they are a priority, so I really haven't had an opportunity to race the thousand mile race in at least 10 years. And that's it in a nutshell.

BILL SCHNEIDER: When did you get married?

DR. MARK MAY: Oh, I better get this question right. Let's see. We were --

BILL SCHNEIDER: Just in terms of the chronology.

DR. MARK MAY: '85. '85. I met my wife in Freshman Biology class, probably in Schaible Hall, and so we knew each other while we were at the university. And then it was in '85 as we were finishing up two bachelors in biology that we decided to get married.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And she's very tolerant of your mushing?

DR. MARK MAY: My wife grew up out in Salcha, which was a sled dog mecca at the time.

Her brother, who is a little older, was involved in sled dog mushing as a young boy, and so she not only grew up in a hotbed of mushing, she grew up with a family member that was a -- involved in it.

She didn't know that I was a musher until we had been dating for at least a year and a half, and it's a mixed blessing, you know, being a musher, and it's not always a good thing to put on your resume.

So it was a year and a half after we had been dating that her brother finally said, "You know he's a musher?" And she said, "Get out." And he said, "Yes. His father won the Iditarod." And so she had no idea. I kept it perfectly hidden.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we should mention also you've done some nice trips with dogs, too.

DR. MARK MAY: Right. When I first came back to Alaska, I really wasn't ready to race, and I've always -- always wanted to travel with dogs, and I'd just come back as a veterinarian, so I combined travelling and research, and I was working on training young dogs.

And so we made a Serum Run from Nenana to Nome to Kotzebue shortly after I got back. I think that was probably '94. And had done several other trips like that. I think I'm probably the only person I know that has been over the Allakaket to Tanana and Portage, both ways.

I've done it three times. And so I've -- I've been around a little bit with dogs. Raced most of the races and seen a lot of the state from the back of a dog sled.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Well, let's talk a little bit about advances in dog care, in particular with reference to sled dogs that you've seen over the years.

DR. MARK MAY: Well, I refer you back, if you ever have an opportunity to watch one of those old VHS tapes of the first Iditarod, the day and age is incredible.

Now we're all digital and compact, but if you watch the videotape of the 1973 Iditarod, you realize in the back of your mind that this photographer was toting a unit on his shoulder that was the size of a bazooka, it was not plastic, it probably weighed 80 pounds, probably had a heavy lead battery in it, and they were filming with real film.

So the fact that they could videotape any of those events is just incredible.

And you go back and you look at those, and they are going through the process of rediscovering some things that ancient cultures already knew about dogs, but they are also incorporating new technology, you know.

A hundred years ago the only fabrics were leather or cotton.

So during those first Iditarods, they had been running dogs a thousand miles, they didn't have dog booties. So they brainstormed or daydreamed up dog booties. Well, it's something the Indians and the Eskimos had been doing with leather.

How do you fasten them on the foot? Well, the first thing they used on the feet was electrical tape.

You can imagine that caused some problems. So we've been through this basic husbandry process where we develop coats, boots, our gang lines and our sleds now contribute, too, to the safety.

Our training techniques prevent a lot of injuries. So we really worked hard at that end of the deal. In addition to that external development, we've also been working on the inside of the dogs.

The first trip that I took I called the Serum Run, and had worked with Ken Hinchcliff and some of the other veterinarians that were just starting to take a keen interest in the Iditarod dogs at looking what happens to the muscle, what happens to their thyroid hormones when you stress them.

So that trip we actually stopped in the middle of nowhere 12 times and took blood samples from 24 dogs. We did full chemistry panels on the serum. And so, you know, that wasn't the first blood work study ever undertaken on sled dogs, but it was kind of the forerunner.

And now, of course, when you sign up for the Iditarod, you're automatically enrolled in blood testing programs. So they've been looking specifically at issues like muscle damage through chemistry and enzyme studies.

They also do ECGs. They are looking for heart changes, heart damage, and there have been some other studies, gastrointestinal studies.

They look into the stomach with an endoscope, looking for ulcers. They'll also do studies on the other end of the dog. I went to Kotzebue to serve as race vet for the 440 once, and they had a team of researchers up from Texas A & M.

And Professor Mike Willard was working in a makeshift veterinary center in a police building up there, and they would bring these working sled dogs in immediately after the race, they'd anesthetize them, he examined them with a proctoscope, get biopsies from their colon.

And so we have looked at this sled dog under stress, in training, at rest from the nose to the tip of his tail. And we're trying to prevent injuries, improve their environment, their health, and so we have really poured a lot of money and time into research.

And the premier researchers, the premier physiologist and echocardiologist in the world have a unique fascination with the Iditarod dogs, the Quest dogs, because they are incredible animals. They consume more energy, have more athletic potential than people could ever imagine.

So we have a world renowned class of researchers working on these dogs to take care of them, promote better health.

BILL SCHNEIDER: You mentioned that training to prevent injuries. What specifically have you seen in changes in training?

DR. MARK MAY: Well, I'll put in a plug for my father. My brother, who was in Trapper Creek in the '70s, says that he was the guy that thought to put a snow machine drag behind a sled to slow the dogs down.

When I first ran a big team of dogs, all we had was what we called a claw brake, and so training dogs, especially in the early year, was fraught with peril.

People were always cracking their heads, breaking their backs, dog teams were breaking away, and so we just didn't have control of the dogs;

it's very dangerous for us, for the dogs. And so as we developed a logical training regime for these long distance races, we incorporated -- first we used small pickup trucks.

Well, the advent of the four wheeler and the modern recreational vehicle was occurring, so we would hook them in the four wheelers and large heavy objects to prevent them from getting away and from hurting so we could control the speed, we could brake.

And then a fair number of us had started using snow machines to train dogs on. And it seems kind of ludicrous and the purists scoff at it, but it has really helped prevent the catastrophic injuries that you get into with breakaway teams.

But it also helps you cross train. You can control the speed and you can do endurance work one day, you can do speed work the next, and so it's really kind of opened up the area to explore and see what works the best for distance race, see what works best for a sprint race.

And so we've had -- once again, we've had researchers monitoring us doing biopsies as we go through training.

And I'm not certain what the end result will be, but certainly, if you're training to go fast, you don't want to be doing a lot of endurance work, And so we all -- we all go through seasons in our life where we're doing different races and from year to year would change the way we train dogs.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Here we are with a hot dog. So what do you look for when -- assuming a dog has just come in from a hard run? How do you assess a dog in terms of its health?

DR. MARK MAY: I have to set in context specifically because many of the times I'm racing dogs, and so if you've been running a dog, you are intimately familiar with all of the weaknesses of the dog and you're constantly scanning them to see for a fact that he's not going to fall down or you're going to have to load him.

When these dogs come in at checkpoints, it's a little bit hard to get an accurate assessment on them initially because they are very excited to be coming into a checkpoint.

Dogs that are raced, even single day sprint races, know all about villages and checkpoints and crowds, so a dog that is dragging, tired, ready to cave in and collapse would put on a burst and develop a new enthusiasm as it nears a crowd and a checkpoint.

So as a veterinarian, you want to be at the finish line watching the team from as far away as you can.

And you may see, if you've got decent vision, 2 or 300 yards out that a dog is not pulling, is tired, but by the time they get to the checkpoint or standing next to their truck or standing on straw beds, you've lost an opportunity to assess that dog at the end of his run.

And they recover very rapidly. Certainly dogs that come in and immediately flop, lay on their side, and pant so hard that you can look right down their trachea are overheated, exhausted, and run near the limit of their capability. You want to be looking for dogs that come in and are immediately looking around, twitching, jumping, barking.

Those are dogs that are in good health, haven't been winded. And then you want to work through the process of going over each dog, looking for orthopedic injuries.

Certainly if you're next to a dog team as it finishes and it's still standing, whether it's a sprint race or a distance race, you'll be able to quickly scan the team and look for dogs that are obviously lame, holding up their feet.

And after you get over that stage and those dogs are either bedded down or put in their truck, some of that may develop muscle soreness that was not obvious while they were still cooling down.

So after you go through the team immediately after the race and verify injuries or write them a clean bill of health, you'll want to come back and check them occasionally. Depending on the race, the use of the dog, they may or may not feed water immediately after the race.

Watching dogs to see who is eating and drinking will help you determine who to watch closer down the trail, if it's a multi day event, or if it's a long distance race where they will have to continue.

The dogs that eat and drink all the time are going to be more likely to complete races in good health than dogs that are picky eaters or that are run so hard they are kind of nauseous and they don't eat.

So you want to come back to a dog team, if you can, if it's a multi day race, or if it's a long distance race, actually pick up the parts on that dog.

And so with a dog like Zeke, if he was a nice, social dog, you would come up, pick up a leg, just do some light range of motion. Bend them at the wrist, flex the elbow, especially the shoulders in these dogs, you want to stretch out an arm.

And then you want to work on their back. Dogs use these lumbar muscles as they run and they flex, and so one of the key places that they will fatigue is up here.

They will develop lactic acidosis, so a lot of times these dogs will be sore and stiff up here. And then certainly the rear limbs also.

We see a fair number of Achilles tendon injuries with long distance racing dogs especially, and those will develop because of lactic acid buildup back in those big gastroc muscles.

So sometimes you can go back to a dog that came in fine and you can detect a stiff shoulder or a cramping muscle in the rear end, and those are dogs that may or may not be able to continue racing.

Certainly the feet are very important on these dogs. These dogs don't go anywhere if they have sore feet.

So part of your job as a race veterinarian is picking up these feet, and you want to look at toenails, you want to look inside that foot at the interdigital tissue, you want to look at the pads, you want to make sure that those feet are being cared for.

And you can look at the joints, the wrist, and the hock for swelling, too.

Sometimes over the course of these races, you get repetitive motion type injuries, you develop synovitis and inflammation in the wrists or the hock, and those are problems that can be treated on the trail while they are still racing, using liniments and wraps.

So you want to work them over immediately after they come in, you want to work them over two -- and probably two hours after they come in, and then certainly if it's a distance dog, he's going to get up in five or six hours and go.

If he's a sprint dog, he's going to get out of the box the next day in the starting chute, and you want to look at them there and you can sometimes pick up dogs 24 hours later or 6 hours later, they are obviously unfit to continue.

So you want to just keep constantly watching these dogs, and you can tell by their behavior. Dogs, when they are healthy, just have a bright look in their eyes, their heads up.

As they become weary, they'll drop their head like we do and their ears will hang, they just look depressed. So you want to assist in evaluating those dogs and keeping them out of trouble.

So that's it in a nutshell. And certainly there -- there's a lot of working that goes into these dogs before they get into the race.

Many of these races have pre race veterinarian checks, so by the time a dog actually makes it to the starting line of a race, he's been trained, examined, and nobody wants to take a dog that's unfit.

So by and large, the dogs that you're seeing at the start are the cream of the crop and they are all exceptional athletes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are there any other internal issues that you look for?

DR. MARK MAY: Well, there's certainly a lot of other medical issues that affect a dog's fitness as an athlete.

One of the most overlooked ones is dental health. These are eating, drinking, living organisms, and we just take for granted with ourselves that we need to brush our teeth, go to the dentist.

It is only in the last 10 or 15 years that anybody thought of assessing a dog's dental health.

So something internal as basic as a tooth root abscess will take an important dog out of the race, it will ruin your lifetime of preparation for your one shot at the Iditarod.

So as I said, these dogs are all checked internally with blood work, ECGs, general physical exams.

Certainly most of them are intact reproductive animals, so there are many things associated with their reproductive status that will make them fit or unfit for a race, too.

You can imagine being in a thousand dog racing event with a bitch in heat, things like that are definitely internal and they will affect the health and wellbeing of a team and a race.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. What are we forgetting?

KAREN BREWSTER: Medications for the dogs on the trail, and the rules about that and hear your thoughts about that.

DR. MARK MAY: Medication, vaccination, health risks, you know, we are taking a stressed animal, combining him in a very dense social structure, and also we're importing them from around the world, so we are not only setting them in a pressure cooker of disease, we're bringing it all together from the far corners of the globe.

So these dogs have to be vaccinated and dewormed, fed to the nth degree, and also nursed with dewormers, some of them take Vitamin E as a prophylactic therapy to prevent muscle damage.

Some of them take Famotidine to block acid production. Looking at these dogs, you can see that some of them are stressed.

Some of these dogs are high strung dogs, and they will develop stomach ulcers, so we have to avoid using performance enhancing drugs in these dogs, so as a general rule, you cannot use a corticosteroid or an anabolic steroid.

All of your muscle building and blood building schemes to capitalize on athletic performance have to be natural, nutritional, or holistic.

Nobody wants to hear that we are using performance enhancing drugs to drive these dogs beyond their capability.

So generally speaking, when you're racing a dog, if he has to have an injectable medication, or IV fluids to address a medical condition, he's removed from the race, either put in the dog truck or into the veterinary -- the care of the veterinary hands.

So in between that situation and the start of the race, you know, we're doing everything we can with nutraceuticals, vitamins, probiotics, prebiotics, to keep them happy and healthy.

So there's certainly some folkloresy things we do with these dogs.

Some of our liniments stink like turpentine, and you'll see us dressing these dogs up in fine florescent clothes, and some of those clothes have big, whole body heat packs in them, so we really pour the attention and the TLC to these dogs to keep them comfortable and performing.


KAREN BREWSTER: Alright. Two -- two more questions. One is about the prevalence of intestinal diseases that spread through teams when they're in those big races, what do you do about that?

DR. MARK MAY: Right, you know, ask me something that I know. Because these dogs eat raw meat, there is concern about having them contaminate the environment for us, so there's a public health aspect to this that many people aren't aware of.

Dogs also transmit some tapeworms that are deadly for humans, like echinococcus, and they can be contracted and passed on to humans. So we -- we have to feed them as they have naturally evolved, and so they eat raw meat, as a general rule.

We -- we look at the protein and the fat and the carbohydrate, so they will get some grain, like rice, they will often get fish.

Historically speaking, when they lived with the Eskimo, they ate marine mammal. And when they lived on the tundra, they ate caribou. And there are still some subsistence -- subsistence cultures where they can eat that.

The average dog here in Fairbanks, during the summer, eats what we commonly refer to as commercial kibble. And it's essentially a grain based diet with some byproduct meal.

So as we train them harder and prepare for the racing, their diet shifts to almost predominantly meat and animal fat type food. Once again, in the big world structure of veterinary politics, we have concern with transmitting diseases associated with certain meats like beef.

We are concerned especially about diseases that infect humans, like salmonella, and e coli. Dogs, just as an evolutionary development, have become resistant to many of the things that will make us sick.

So there have been many studies testing fecal cultures from dogs, dogs under stress, dogs at rest, looking for parasites like giardia, and other illnesses. Zoonotic disease, as we call it, that would be transmitted from dogs to humans.

KAREN BREWSTER: It seems like often you hear on the Iditarod or the Quest, you know, somebody's team being struck by some kind of intestinal disorder, and they have to take out a number of dogs out of the race.

DR. MARK MAY: Yeah. And as a sled dog racer, I think many a time it's just bad luck, and it's not always that a pathological organism like a virus or a parasite has went from one dog team to the next to the next to the next.

It may be that during shipping the meat heated up and spoiled, or the fat went rancid, and if you are not dealing with the finest kind of nutritional products, these dogs won't perform because they'll have a big tummy ache, they will do an intestinal flip flop that we refer to as bacterial overgrowth.

A normal organism in the stomach called clostridium will go into hyper drive and overgrow, secrete a hemotoxin and an enterotoxin, and all of a sudden that dog is dehydrated and aches, so he will quit performing and have to leave.

KAREN BREWSTER: My last question, why -- what is it about dog mushing that you love it so much?

DR. MARK MAY: Well, as I said, my wife told me that it's the only thing I can do. So it's a combination of growing up in the country and man's natural love for dogs, and then just kind of falling into -- falling into it.

And you can call it serendipity or God's grace, or luck, whatever you will, but I just happen to be a young man in Alaska at the time where sled dog racing went through an incredible rebirth and boom, and I was fortunate enough I could develop it as a profession and work with these dogs and still pay my bills. Call it what you want.


DR. MARK MAY: Yeah. Well, that was fun.