Sled Dog Welfare - “It is all about the dogs, until it’s not.” – Dr. Nicole Reynolds, DVM, MPH
It should be no surprise to anyone to learn that society’s relationships with animals is changing. In 2011, the American Veterinary Medical Associations’ (AVMA) professional oath was altered to include animal welfare. In 2007 the AVMA started the process to recognized Animal Welfare as a new board specialty organization. The American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW) website says it best:
“Ensuring good animal welfare has been intuitively recognized as a critical goal of veterinary medical practice since its inception. However, during the past twenty years, animal welfare has expanded exponentially as a distinct discipline of veterinary medicine. In recognition of this expansion of knowledge, ACAW believes it is time to offer advanced animal welfare training, education, and board certification to ensure the veterinary profession continues to lead in advancing animal welfare knowledge for the benefit of the public and the profession.”
What does this mean for dog powered sports, and specifically the sled dog racing community? I believe it means that now is the time to re-evaluate, update, and document how we as sled dog veterinarians advocate for the health and welfare of canine athletes in the sled dog community and specifically in races, and mean it. As an international organization, we have a unique opportunity to engage veterinary professionals from a variety of sled dog backgrounds. As experienced sled dog veterinarians, it is important that we use empirical evidence and the normative values of the sled dog community to identify what good welfare means for sled dogs. Specifically, how this collective information translates into race guidelines and rules, including how the race is run (e.g. number of mandatory vet checks, how much rest is required). Pushing the physical and emotional limits of animal athletes may be part of the strategy for winning a race, but not at the expense of their individual welfare and the damage it does to the mushing community when poor decisions are made.
The good thing about animal welfare is that it is being talked about in an organized way, with empirical evidence to support findings. The difficult aspect of animal welfare is that the definition is vague, by design. There needs to be clear and agreed upon guidelines when a veterinarian determines the welfare of a sled dog is no longer appropriate to continue a race. What might be even more important is how to ensure the races are organized in such a way that they bring out the best in the canine athletes and minimizes the negative health and welfare parameters of the canine participants.
There are many questions to be considered. How do we move these recommendations forward to benefit the canine athletes? Perhaps even more important for the dogs, how are these guidelines enforced and what happens if there is ongoing physical evidence to indicate declining physical and emotional health. If this decline is only temporary due to race conditions, does that exempt the veterinary profession from its responsibility to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
I have heard from more than one veterinarians that we are not law enforcement. We are professionals trained in the veterinary medical sciences. That said, depending on the state, there are mandatory reporting requirements as part of our veterinary responsibility. Even in a race situation, the race marshal may or may not have the legal authority to decide what is considered unacceptable welfare. Society puts their trust in our profession to advocate for what is morally and ethically “right” when it comes to the welfare of animals. If this trust is lost, it will be much more difficult to regain in the future. The traditional animal husbandry mantra is “we take care of the animals and the animals take care of us.” As philosopher Bernie Rollin has said, the day the nomenclature changed from animal husbandry to animal science was not a good day for animals. It removed the human animal relationship that can be argued is the reason people have and enjoy working with animals and made it more about numbers. I know many mushers express love for their dogs. When sleep deprivation kicks in and/or their competitive nature distracts them from the evidence that their dogs are no longer physically or emotionally fit to continue a race, or the races begins to change parameters such a rest times, it is no longer about the dogs.
Assuming the race officials are concerned about the negative perception of the sport, one of the most pragmatic ways to make a positive impact for the dogs is to include experienced sled dog veterinarians on the rules committee, complete with voting rights. Creating race rules, based on empirical evidence that takes animal welfare into consideration, which is what ISDVMA does, and ensuring these “vet approved” rules are enforced by the race officials is one way to indicate to society that the dogs are treated humanely within the context of the race environment. There are no guarantees that including veterinarians as voting member on race committees will prevent an outside agency such as the USDA to begin to regulate the sport, if that is what society has decided. However, veterinary input into how the race is run, and not just caring for the dogs when it is run, will provide further evidence that the sport cares about the welfare of its canine athletes. Our participation will demonstrate that the sport understands the value of including veterinarians in all aspects of the race because we are the profession that society trusts and turns to the when they want to know the dogs are in good hands.