Columns 2016

Alaska rural vet program good for people as well as animals

Anyone who has lived in Bush Alaska knows that life there can be harsh. Everything from advanced health care to Costco is a plane ride away. Under these circumstances, it’s hard enough for people to care for themselves; caring for their pets becomes even more problematic.

We’ve heard the horror stories from Bush villages of dogs chained up for life with no chance to be free or ever know a kind word or touch. But what we don’t often hear about are the people in the Bush who love their pets. They provide affection, care and shelter to these animals in the same way you or your neighbor does. But pet owners in the Bush have one extra worry. If their pet gets sick, there is no vet close by.

The other side of this equation is the loose dog problem that’s still found in our smaller, more remote villages. These dogs are usually remnants of the dog teams that were the skidoos of the past. Once motorized vehicles took over, these dogs lost what had been their main purpose. People didn’t quite know what to do with them. No spay or neuter clinics meant they were able to breed indiscriminately and create the dog packs that can terrorize remote villages.

There is also the ongoing problem of disease transmission. In my twenty-seven years in Barrow, I don’t think I remember a time when the village wasn’t under a rabies quarantine. Rabies is endemic to the fox population of the North Slope. Loose dogs come in contact with these foxes and bring rabies into a village. So caring for the dogs in a village is both a humane gesture to those animals and a wise move to protect human health.

I was lucky I lived in Barrow when I came home one day and found my dog scooting along on her butt with her left hind leg held straight out. Even for my Lovey this was not normal. I was lucky because the North Slope Borough had a Public Health Division led by a vet. He was able to diagnose the broken leg, cast it and show me how to nonchalantly stand in 20 below weather with a towel wrapped around Lovey’s waist to hold her up while she took care of business. Unfortunately, the North Slope only covers part of the Alaskan Bush. The majority of villages still do not have access to this care for their pets.

So how do you handle a problem so remote and, in some ways, so hidden from those of us on the road system? Given that most of these villages could not support a full time vet practice, even if people had the money to pay a vet, what other solution would work? Well, according to the Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach program (ARVO), one way to address the problem is to have vets visit these villages offering immunizations, spayings, neuterings and general health check ups at little to no cost. This effort, in turn, relies on veterinarians willing to offer their time and services free of charge for the welfare of these animals and villages willing to make space and other amenities available to the vets.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows vets that the majority of them tend to be pretty nice people. They have supported this effort almost since its inception. And I honestly would have expected no less from the many vets who have cared for my animals over the years.

With the help of volunteers from all areas of veterinary care, and the support of the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association, ARVO is making a difference in the quality of life for animals in remote Alaskan villages as well as protecting people from health problems that result from un-spayed, un-neutered, unvaccinated animals. This Saturday, ARVO will hold its first ever fundraiser at the Crowne Plaza from 5PM to 9PM with a silent auction, food and speakers. So plan to head over on Saturday, hear some great speakers, bid on some fun auction items, and help make life better for those animals and their people who have no other place to turn. If you want a glimpse at what your support provides, just go to and check out the pictures. Pet owners whose pets are cared for are, apparently, very happy people.