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Northern pets get checkup
Dogs in the North smell great, says veterinarian

Stewart Burnett
Northern News Services
Monday, August 10, 2015

Connie Varnhagen has met and treated Nunavummiut pets three years running, and one of her favourite things is how nice the dogs smell.

NNSL photo/graphic

Connie Varnhagen performs a dentistry procedure on a dog. - photo courtesy of Connie Varnhagen

"Everybody in the North is taking very good care of their animals, at least in the communities we've seen," said Varnhagen, a registered veterinary technician with the Alberta Helping Animals Society.

"One of my favourite things is because the animals are eating lots of fish, their coats are amazing and they smell really good."

Varnhagen just returned home from her annual Northern journey with a team of veterinarians and veterinary technologists to Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.

She provides charity animal care services, focusing on spaying, neutering, vaccinations and other operations.

Companies sponsor many of her supplies, while the community pays her team's flights. All vaccinations were donated this year but pet owners also offset the cost of some of the more demanding visits.

"We love going up there," said Varnhagen. "It's really a wonderful experience. The people are wonderful. The animals - well, they don't all like us - but they're wonderful."

During a short window each summer, she sees as many pets as possible. This year, she estimated the team saw 135 dogs and about 25 cats.

Varnhagen puts a special emphasis on spaying and neutering because of overpopulation in the North, she said. Dogs that are not fixed can display aggressive behaviour and have other problems.

Vaccinations are another focus. In years past, Varnhagen has toured cabins around the communities, knocking on doors and asking if she can poke the owner's dogs with a needle, then moving on to the next one.

De-worming efforts have helped reduce the prevalence of the echinococcus internal worm parasite in dogs, which can be very harmful to toddlers. The parasite is found in Arctic char and muskoxen and is a danger if meat is not frozen or dried before consumption.

"The problem with it is it can cause huge amounts of illness to children," said Varnhagen. "We want to make sure the dogs don't transmit this parasite to children.

"A lot of times as you're cleaning the fish, you toss little bits down for the dogs, and particularly the kids pick up the larvae and end up being very sick from it. It can cause tumours and cysts in the livers, but also in the lungs and in the brain."

Her team is small, so Varnhagen relies heavily on the community to help out during her blitz sessions in the North.

"If we're doing 14 to 16 surgeries a day and trying to do 30 or 40 exams a day, we need help with watching animals as they recover, helping prepare animals for surgery," she said. "Many people show up to these clinics not only to get their animal fixed or vaccinated but to help out."

Dentistry was a common job this year, she said. Varnhagen was also glad to see more older dogs and familiar faces.

"Many of the animals, especially the larger dogs, are doing a good job with their teeth by getting bones and hard meat for them to chew," she said. "But some of these smaller animals and some of the cats don't have as good bones in their diet so they need dental work."

One of her highlights this year was entertainment provided by a woman in Kugluktuk who had a huge dog she had taught to do tricks.

She thinks Northerners are doing a good job of raising their pets.

"You can see examples of the human-animal bond between every owner and their dog or cat," said Varnhagen.

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