Vaccination, warnings ahead of Iditarod

Parvovirus found in Alaskan kennels, but dogs in race and rural villages unaffected
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A parvovirus outbreak in private sled dog kennels prompted warnings to mushers and vaccination efforts in rural villages before the Iditarod race in March.

Dr. Robert Gerlach, Alaska’s state veterinarian, said he has received no reports of parvovirus-related illnesses connected with the race, although one team dropped out prior to the race because of parvovirus infections. Dr. Stuart L. Nelson, chief veterinarian for the Iditarod Trail Committee, said that team had a devastating outbreak that killed puppies and adult dogs alike, whereas a few other sled teams participating in the race had smaller numbers of infected dogs.

Veterinarians examine members of a 2016 Iditarod team at a checkpoint in McGrath, Alaska. (Photos courtesy of Mike Kenney/Iditarod Trail Committee)

The parvovirus outbreak occurred in two pockets: one in the Fairbanks area, which had the first report of an infected dog, and the other around Cantwell, which borders Denali National Park and Preserve between Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Dr. Molly Murphy, an associate professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the outbreak involved about 20 dogs with confirmed infections in three kennels—as well as anecdotal reports about other infected dogs—from early through late February. The first mushers in the 2016 Iditarod started their almost 1,000-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome March 5.

Each sled dog kennel typically houses only animals from one owner, and each owner can keep upward of 80 dogs, Dr. Murphy said.

Dr. Gerlach said February’s parvovirus infections raised concerns not only for dogs in the Iditarod but also those in villages along the race route, where access to veterinary care is limited. He and Dr. Nelson worked with two nonprofit organizations to expand vaccination in those communities ahead of the sled dogs’ arrival.

“They did a fantastic job of trying to get out in front of the race as soon as possible, right before the race started, to go out and offer vaccine clinics throughout a lot of these communities where the Iditarod was going through,” Dr. Gerlach said.

Those organizations, Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach and Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, worked to distribute vaccines to communities in the Yukon River and coastal regions, Dr. Nelson said. Sarah T. Clampitt, president of Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach, said her organization distributed 200 to 250 doses of parvovirus vaccines to four of the villages targeted for vaccination efforts.

She and Angie Fitch, executive director of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, said their organizations hired planes to ship vaccines to the villages, where volunteers had pledged to administer them.

“Everyone was able to work together and get the vaccine out,” Fitch said. “And we haven’t heard of any problems with the teams moving through.”

The Iditarod Trail Committee also provided vaccination clinics in two villages, Nikolai and Koyuk, as part of an outreach program that has provided similar services in past years. And Dr. Nelson sent Iditarod staff to race checkpoints with directions to test for parvovirus among dogs with relevant clinical signs. Tests on about 10 dogs, most of which had diarrhea, were negative for parvovirus.

A veterinarian examines a dog at the McGrath checkpoint.

Dr. Nelson also noted that, before the race, the Iditarod organization tested 80 dogs from five teams located near the outbreak area to ensure none of those dogs would be shedding parvovirus.

The original source of the outbreak is unknown, but lack of vaccination or vaccine mismanagement in sled team kennels appears to have left dogs vulnerable, Dr. Murphy said.

“The vaccination practices are not ideal,” she said. “Some of the kennels involved could not really confirm vaccination dates or may have been using products that had been expired.”

Dr. Gerlach noted that vaccination requires the right vaccine—handled, stored, and administered properly.

“If any of those areas break down, then you can end up having slips in the biosecurity program,” he said.

Dog teams also shared mushing trails, “providing a pretty easy mode for disease spread,” Dr. Murphy said. This year’s mild winter may have contributed to the virus spread, since less-frequent snowfall could have left dog feces uncovered for longer-than-usual periods, she said.

After 30 years working with the Iditarod, Dr. Nelson said he has not heard of any parvovirus outbreaks connected with the race.

The Iditarod organization requires vaccination against parvovirus, among other disease agents, and Dr. Nelson sent additional notice before this year’s race that mushers needed to obey vaccination rules and administer boosters when in doubt about vaccine quality. He said such life-threatening diseases require adherence to protocols.

Dr. Murphy said she and others at the university were planning educational seminars and outreach to prevent future outbreaks, possibly including vaccination clinics.