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Sled Dog Lives, and Deaths, Raise Questions

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Al Grillo/Associated Press

Photo: Al Grillo/Associated Press

By recent mortality standards, the 36th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was not a banner year.

Three dogs died in Alaska during the taxing 1,100-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome that was won by Lance Mackey on March 12. One was a 3-year-old female named Lorne, who was struck by a snowmobile on the trail. Another probably died of aspiration pneumonia, race officials said; the cause of the third death could not be determined in a preliminary study.

By comparison, the Iditarod average was 1.77 deaths from 1994 to 2006, when veterinarians associated with the race began keeping meticulous records. 

For that and other reasons, animal-rights groups continue to voice concerns about the appropriateness of the race. But unlike in the early days of the Iditarod, when few records were kept and dogs died more often, researchers are bringing a new level of transparency and scrutiny to the way the 40- to 45-pound huskies function — and sometimes fail.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Dr. Randall J. Basaraba, the lead author of a study published last month in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It provides the first detailed analysis of the 23 dogs that died during the Iditarod from 1994 to 2006.

Basaraba, an associate professor of pathology at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, has made it a particular crusade to understand and root out avoidable Iditarod fatalities.

“Despite all our attempts, there are unexpected deaths,” said Basaraba, who has been studying dogs on the Iditarod since 1995. “The goal is to try to avoid that. We don’t know if that’s realistic or not, but this gives us the best chance.”

At least one dog has died every year since the first Iditarod, in 1973. Animal-rights groups denounce the race, which requires dogs to pull sleds weighing 250 pounds or more across mountain passes, frozen lakes and tundra in biting winds and temperatures that can dip below minus 50, a journey that can take 9 to 18 days.

“The death toll continues to mount,” Lisa Wathne, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a telephone interview. “This is a grueling event that is cruel and inappropriate to the dogs, who obviously don’t have a choice in the matter.”

Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said his organization used to send people to monitor the race but had not focused on it as much in recent years. Although he shares concerns about the strenuous nature of the Iditarod, he said by phone that “there is also the issue of culling and overbreeding.”

“The number of animals dying in the race is dwarfed, I’m sure, by the number of animals that may be shunted aside in one way or another,” Pacelle said, referring to practices that include selling them or disposing of them. 

Basaraba and others counter that their research has improved mortality rates, especially considering the increasing number of entrants. This year, a record 96 teams of 16 dogs started the race. 

“I’m very confident in the system that has been put in to place to assure the animals get the best care that is possible,” Basaraba said in a recent phone interview from his home in Fort Collins, Colo. “I have no reservations about the integrity of the race.”

Many mushers, past and present, agree. They say the fatality rate associated with the Iditarod is probably lower than for a similar group of 1,500 dogs in the general population anywhere in the world.

“You can be totally assured that the dogs are being better taken care of than anyone’s pets, even pampered ones,” said Bud Smyth, who competed in the first Iditarod and served as a race marshal in 1978. “They didn’t even know how many dogs died in the old days. It was a mess.”

“The truth is, the race has some intrinsic dangers that could cause the demise of dogs, like any sporting event,” he added recently by phone. “But there are things we haven’t solved about dogs working under this much stress.”

Basaraba and the team of veterinary pathologists have identified warning signs for common killers like myopathy, or muscle degeneration, and gastric ulceration, which can cause a dog to vomit and predispose it to pneumonia, a common killer.

Trail vets now encourage mushers with dogs showing signs of myopathy in the early part of the Iditarod to leave them behind. In the latter stages, when exercise becomes more prolonged, vets will pull a dog out of the race if it has symptoms of gastric ulceration.

This research has helped identify remedies. Mushers now often administer common over-the-counter ulcer medications to their teams (in weight-appropriate doses) as preventative measures.

“The whole point is to try to identify these conditions early and give treatment,” said Basaraba, adding that researchers could not identify the cause for 30 percent of the deaths in the study.

“We don’t completely understand how all of them occur,” he said. “That’s why we’re focusing on them.”