Yesterday marked the official start of the 2017 Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska. The race was initially due to begin on Saturday but was postponed due to a lack of snow on part of the trail and the unusually high temperatures for this time of year. This annual race has been running since 1973 and the trail spans the entirety of the state of Alaska. A lone musher (person who drives the dogs) and a team of 21 dogs race almost 1000 miles across the Arctic Tundra. The teams aim to complete the trail in 9-14 days. This year’s event sees 71 teams attempting the challenge.
The Iditarod race usually sees temperatures of below 20 degrees (sometimes as low as -45), snow blizzards, extreme wind speeds and white-outs. The remoteness of the trail means that for much of the race, it would not be possible for a musher to get help if the worst were to happen. This makes it one of the most dangerous sled trails in the world for both humans and dogs.
The dogs used in the Iditarod race are generally huskies. Huskies, as we know, are born and bred to run. They love nothing better than to run through the snow with the wind in their ears. From spending time living and working on a husky farm in Finnish Lapland I can absolutely say that this is the truth. In modern times it is very rare that a dog is able to express its natural working instincts. So I believe that it is wonderful when huskies are able to do this. Long distance trails completed at a non-racing pace are wonderful ways for sled dogs to do what they love to do and for mushers to have an amazing experience unlike any other. Sadly, in the case of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, every year mushers are pushing their dogs harder and harder to complete the race in ever quicker times.
Nearly every year at least one dog dies during the Iditarod race. There is no official count of dog deaths over the 44 Iditarod races but there are at least 146 reported deaths since the race began. It is not known how many, if any, dogs die after the race or during training. Causes of death include heart failure, liver failure, strangulation from towlines, pneumonia and catastrophic injuries from the sled and equipment. On top of these deaths the risk, and indeed the incidence, of injuries and illness is extremely high. A study conducted in 2010 found that 81% of dogs that finish the Idatarod race have lung damage. They also develop airway dysfunction that persists even after 4 months of rest. Stomach ulcers are also worryingly common with 61% of dogs developing this potentially deadly condition. It is one thing for a person to choose to risk their life and health but to also make that choice for their dogs is problematic.
In the modern Iditarod race there are veterinarians at the beginning and end of the race as well as at some of the checkpoints. At these places, they are able to assess and treat injured or sick dogs. It is also pleasing to see many of the dogs wearing booties. These help protect their feet from injuries and the extreme cold. However, dogs are still dying every year, only last year 5 dogs died during the race. This is extremely troubling.
Even just one death during a race is one death too many. Supporters of the race suggest that with so many dogs involved, one or two are bound to die over a 2 week period. This may be true in a sample representing a normal population (including young and old dogs). However, dogs involved in the race are surely at the peak of fitness, health and age. As a result, there is no reason why you would expect any to die in that period.
Sled dogs love to run. They live and breath the trail. However, the extreme environment of the Iditarod race and the speed at which the dogs are pushed to finish the race is in many ways unacceptable. The art of mushing is amazing. Mushers and their dogs have a wonderful and unbreakable bond. Sledding with dogs should absolutely be encouraged but only when the welfare of the dogs is paramount.