Every dog awaiting the K300 race in Bethel gets a check-up. The vets come from all over.

Jeff King watches as vets check his dogs before he takes off for the Kuskokwim 300. (Zachariah Hughes/KYUK)

Ahead of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Bethel this weekend is a bit of house-keeping. Or rather, dog-keeping. Each competing canine needs to be checked out by veterinarians to make sure that there are no health issues that could cause problems.

A dozen sled dogs are hooked to a fence as veterinarian Laurie Maythaler-Mullins runs her hands over these canine athletes: their backs, legs, paws, flanks, and bellies.

“Just getting a good feel of their abdomen, their organs. Does anything feel enlarged? Everything feels pretty normal,” Maythaler-Mullins said.

Maythaler-Mullins is looking for minor injuries or irregularities that could cause problems as the dogs run 300 miles in cold temperatures during their upcoming race. This dog’s joints are fine, it doesn’t have any broken nails, and the paw pads aren’t cracked, so Maythaler-Mullins rounds out the quick exam with her stethoscope.

“And then, the fun part, this is my favorite part: listening to heart and lungs. These guys just have these incredible, strong heartbeats,” Maythaler-Mullins said.

Vet checks are part of the pre-race routine. Maythaler-Mullins is part of a team of five volunteers who visit all the teams running the K300 in order to verify that they’re setting out with healthy dogs. With 21 mushers competing in this year’s race, it means that their small crew is assessing 252 canines.

This particular team belongs to Jeff King, who’s won the K300 on nine different occasions.

“My first Kusko was ’88,” King said.

King says that over those three-plus-decades, the race’s dog-care regime has changed very little.

“It’s been very consistent that the vets come out to the host families, and visit the dogs, and give ‘em a good looking over,” King said.

Some of the veterinarians go back a ways with the race, too. One from Ohio has been coming out to Bethel for 16 years. Another made the trip all the way from Ireland. For Maythaler-Mullins, though, who moved to Bethel from Iowa almost a year ago, this is her first K300.

“It’s pretty darn cool. It’s an opportunity most veterinarians don’t get to have,” Maythaler-Mullins said.

Sled dogs, Maythaler-Mullins says, are super-athletes. And she makes it sound like getting to examine them is like a carpenter working with the very highest quality of wood.

“They have these low resting heart rates and these incredible lungs, and you know, running your hand over their muscles and down their legs, and you know, feeling their joints, there definitely is an aesthetic beauty in getting an appreciation for how they’re built and how solid they are,” Maythaler-Mullins said.

But Maythaler-Mullins’s interest in veterinary care goes beyond just dogs. Her day job is built around public health and outreach to the dozens of communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“If I can improve dog population health in the villages, we are directly impacting human health,” Maythaler-Mullins said. 

What she means is that for communities living so closely alongside large numbers of canines, the dogs’ well-being translates to residents’ well-being. The region has a reported rate of dog bites that is six to seven times higher than the national average. So when Maythaler-Mullins leaves her home in Bethel to run mobile vet clinics in villages, one of the things she’s doing is administering rabies vaccines because that cuts down on the likelihood that a dog bite will cause someone to have to travel to Bethel for expensive, painful medical treatments.

“So the cost of having this program in place, as a public health veterinarian, far outweighs the cost of not having it.”

Maythaler-Mullins’s work is grant funded through a collaboration between Colorado State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The clinics also provide spay-neuter services and de-worming.