Many dog teams are affected and a week before the race there was uncertainty whether the annual highlight of the dog community in Svalbard would be canceled. After consultation with the Norwegian Food Safety Authority and Svalbard Vet, race organizers decided on Wednesday to proceed with the event.
"We will be in Svalbard and following the race, and assessing the dogs before we release them off," said Harald Os, an inspector for the Norwegian Food Safety Authority in Tromsø.
He has been responsible for Svalbard since 2003 and said this is the first time he is aware of an outbreak of kennel cough in the archipelago.
Does it come as a surprise to him?
"When you hear that it is at Finnmarksløpet and in the dogsledding environment on the mainland it is difficult to prevent it from happening in Svalbard as well," Os said.
"If you have not had it before, it is also very easy for that transmission to occur."
Kennel cough is a respiratory infection that exhibits flu-like symptoms in dogs. The disease is caused by a virus and occurs through contact between dogs as well as indirect contact between dogs through people, toys, equipment and food. Since the illness has not been common in Svalbard, there has not been a commonly-provided vaccine as with dogsledding communities on the mainland. Immunity against infection is therefore worse among dogs in Svalbard.
Os did not speculate whether kennel cough may become a common occurrence in Svalbard but, along with Astrid Vikaune at Svalbard Vet, knows traffic involving dogs and people is increasing. When Vikaune came to Svalbard nearly two years ago, dogs were only vaccinated against rabies.
"We are becoming more and more a part of the world and this is a sign of it," she said. Like Os, Vikaune said she is not aware of a registered incident of kennel cough in Svalbard previously.
"Although there are restrictions on entry and exit, one must take preventive animal health work seriously," she said. "It is important that people follow up on the provisions concerning what should in order regarding vaccinations. The consequences quickly become very large in the big kennels at once an infection arises. The FSA has made specific demands on what it takes to operate the race properly and we will fix it so that the requirements are met."
The decision to proceed with the Trappers Trail 2015 is being well received in dog community, especially among those who have traveled far to participate. The team guided by Sava Vit and Sébastien Barrault is among those who have driven dogsleds for ten days from Ny-Ålesund to Longyearbyen to participate in the race. To be on the safe side, the three teams from Ny-Ålesund settled in a camp a good distance away from the kennels.
There were 15 teams registered as of Wednesday, while three are uncertain, according to Elise Strømseng, head of the Longyearbyen Hundeklubb, which organizes the race. Others who initially signed up have indicated they will not participate because of kennel cough infections. Overall, there are 22 participants in the various classes.
"There still needs to be added to the race a veterinarian service in the same way as the dog races on the mainland to ensure that dogs are with are healthy," she said. "There has not been any veterinary services at race here before because no one has seen the need."
There will now be mandatory veterinary checks at the start and at the finish. In addition, there will be a check at the Bikkjebu checkpoint at Kapp Laila, where the teams will overnight before the return. During the start the dogs will also be lined up at a greater distance than usual to reduce the risk of infection and race organizers are encouraging participants to keep a close eye on their own dogs.
"All participants have been notified that they can switch their dog class until the start," Strømseng said.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini