Jennifer Hennessey Braves Iditarod Winter Race as Volunteer Animal Doctor

In the first few days of the iconic Iditarod dog sled race this March, Cypress veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Hennessey found herself wrangling loose race dogs atop a frozen lake deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Dr. Hennessey was part of a team of specially trained volunteer veterinarians charged with medically evaluating all race dogs who passed their checkpoint. But the dogs—wildly energetic Alaskan huskies bred for their extreme racing endurance—simply couldn’t stop themselves even after their musher dismounted the sled. It took five volunteers, including Dr. Hennessey, to finally halt and reunite the dogs with their musher. For the dogs, it was all in good fun.

“It’s like playtime constantly,” says Dr. Hennessey, owner and chief veterinarian at Animal ER of Northwest Houston.  

Dr. Hennessey was part of a roughly 40-person volunteer veterinarian team who cared for the sled dogs along the grueling 1,000-mile Iditarod trail race. The annual race runs from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, and took place in early March.

This year was Dr. Hennessey’s first time as an Iditarod vet. Before the race, she cleared dogs for racing by doing heart and orthopedic exams. During the race, she traveled from checkpoint to checkpoint to reach racers. She examined their legs, paws and pads. She listened to their heartbeat and checked for frostbite.  

“It’s all about ensuring that they’re healthy,” she says. “Nobody wants to see them get hurt. Not the mushers. Not us.”

Iditarod sled dogs are about equivalent to the Olympic athletes of the dog world. They consume more than 10,000 calories a day, run at an average of 14 miles per hour and are known for their “colorful personality,” Dr. Hennessey says.

While her main focus was dog care, Dr. Hennessey also enjoyed the spectacular beauty of uninhabited Alaska. She traveled to checkpoints mostly by helicopter or airplane, conquering her longtime fear of flying. She saw wild moose and glimpses of the Northern Lights. She even used the snow as a freezer for meals she brought with her from Texas. 

“There’s just so much to take in,” Dr. Hennessey says. “It was a unique and special way to appreciate the state and its beauty.”