From Kyle Hopkins in Nikolai --
A perennial threat to win the Iditarod says half his team is suffering “kennel cough” and eating poorly.
In 2010, Whitehorse musher Hans Gatt won the Yukon Quest and finished second in the Iditarod. But this year he’s struggling, he said, and not because he suffered second-degree frostbite during the Quest.
He’s dropped two dogs, including one of his main leaders, and believes the dogs are suffering from the contagious upper respiratory infection. The bug can hurt a dog’s appetite, which is vital in a 1,000-mile race.
Before the Iditarod, Gatt said he was racing to win. Now his goal is just to make the top ten, he said as he stirred a bowl of moose soup in the Nikolai school gymnasium.
Except for an instance where a musher brought kennel cough to his attention in Rohn, Iditarod veterinarian Harvey Goho said he hasn’t seen evidence of the virus among teams.
Several mushers, however, suspect the bug is on the trail.
“A lot of the Quest teams have it, so unfortunately that’s passing it around to everybody else,” said Fairbanks musher Jessie Royer.
Kennel cough hasn’t affected her team, she said. “But I’m a little suspicious of a few dogs. They’re coughing a little bit.”
The verdict is inconclusive for defending champion Lance Mackey too. He’s now dropped four dogs, including three who weren’t pulling or eating well that he carried for 50 miles into Nikolai in his sled.
“I could have crawled faster on my hands and knees,” he said. Two more dogs are marginal, including a black wheel dog named Pat who hasn’t been eating well and hasn’t been pulling for 100 miles, he said.
“A world class dog team falling apart before my very eyes,” Mackey said.
As he packed his sled to leave the village this afternoon, the four-time champion said kennel cough may a factor, noting the dogs may could caught something during the week they spent in Anchorage before the race.
“I think it’s in the early stages if it is (kennel cough.) I don’t know … I really don’t know what’s going on. It’s discouraging,” he said.
Gatt suspects his dogs caught a bug when some of them ran with his wife in the Yukon Quest 300.
For other teams, the hard, fast trail may is taking it’s toll on dogs muscles and joints. If you don’t keep the speed down, the animals can suffer sore joints and shoulders, Royer said. “I’ve had to drop three dogs because of it.”