Dogs love to run and play in the snow, but they don’t like being subjected to the kind of brutal abuse that sled dogs are forced to go through during dog races. This is why many animal rights organizations are concerned about the Iditarod and other dog-sled races.
Iditarod mushers must take their dogs on a 1,000-mile race across Alaska each March, putting them through intense physical and mental strain. They’re pulled by sleds weighing up to 500 pounds, and they travel at speeds that can reach up to 100 miles per hour.
They’re also exposed to sleet and snow that can cause serious injuries. There are checkpoints along the way to rest the dogs and resupply them with food, water and veterinary care.
Despite these precautions, a handful of dogs have died in the race. But the number is small compared with the number of dogs that are allowed to compete in the race.
The most common reason that sled dogs die during a race is overexertion, according to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Ethics. Sled dogs are subjected to extreme physical and mental stress, running at high speeds for days on end in freezing weather.
Other reasons that sled dogs die in races include heart problems, spinal injury, and forms of pneumonia such as aspiration pneumonia. These can occur when an exhausted dog gags and inadvertently inhales vomit.
Aspiration pneumonia can be caused by dehydration, exhaustion or other illnesses that affect the lungs. It can also result from a dog’s inability to breathe due to hypothermia or an airway obstruction.
It is impossible to predict how a sled dog will react in a given situation, but most mushers are trained to identify signs of illness or injury in their dogs. They do everything they can to make sure that their dogs don’t suffer.
Aside from ensuring that their dogs are healthy, the mushers also take great pains to avoid running into trouble while they’re out on the trail. For example, if they notice that a dog is having difficulty breathing, they’ll stop the sled to get it checked out by a veterinarian.
In other cases, a musher will decide to pull his dog out of the race when he notices that he’s suffering from severe fatigue or an injury. He doesn’t want one of his team members to suffer – after all, they are his teammates and he trained them for the race.
But the most traumatic experience for a musher can be when their dog dies while they’re racing, especially when that death is unexpected and the animal has no warning. That’s what happened in 2009, when six sled dogs died while the Iditarod was in full swing.
The deaths of these dogs cast a pall over the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and prompted many mushers to cancel their teams, a trend that has continued. In 2010, eight dogs died during the race.