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PAWS / Breaking the Silence
Sled Dogs


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Sled Dogs
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"Veterinarians contend it is normal to expect some deaths among hundred of dogs in an event as long as the Iditarod."

- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 1997

How many dogs have died in the Iditarod?

In almost all of the 29 Iditarod races, at least one dog death has occurred. The first race is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 15 to 19 dogs. In 1997, the Anchorage Daily News reported that "at least 107 (dogs) have died." In the three years since that report, ten more dogs have died in the Iditarod, bringing the grand total of dogs who have died in the Iditarod to at least 117. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race's early years and this count relies only on a reported number of deaths.

Causes of death during the last ten years have included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. "Sudden death" and "external myopathy," a condition in which a dog's muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also been blamed. In 1985 a musher kicked his dog to death. The 1975 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was banned for life in 1990 after being accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996 Rick Swenson's dog died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice.

How many dogs die after the race?

The Iditarod Trail Committee does not release information about dogs who die after the race.

A dog chained to his exercise wheel may have trouble getting into his shelter.
[click for a larger image]

How many dogs have died or have been injured while training for the Iditarod?

We simply do not know how many dogs die or are injured during their intensive and grueling training for the race. Most mushers train their dogs in the remote areas of rural Alaska; consequently, their activities cannot be monitored. As part of their training, many mushers force their dogs to pull very heavy loads, which can cause hip and spine injuries.

Are dogs injured during the race?

Some injuries and disorders that occur during the race include spinal injuries, bone fractures, sore and cut paws, ruptured tendon sheaths, torn muscles, sore joints, dehydration, stress and diarrhea. Intestinal infections occur when mushers feed their dogs food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. When temperatures rise, dog food dropped off and left outside during the race often spoils.

Does the Iditarod violate accepted standards regarding animal cruelty?

The Iditarod violates accepted standards regarding animal cruelty as is shown by the laws of 38 states and the District of Columbia. These 38 states and the District of Columbia have animal anti-cruelty laws that say "overdriving" and "overworking" an animal is animal cruelty. The California law is typical:

"597. Cruelty to animals. (B) Every person who overdrives, overloads, drives when overloaded, overworks... any animal... is, for every such offense, guilty of a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or as a felony or alternatively punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony and by a fine of not more than twenty thousand dollars ($20,000)."

--Animal Welfare Institute, Animals and Their Legal Rights

The dog deaths and injuries in the Iditarod show that these dogs are "overworked" and "overdriven." If the Iditarod occurred in any of these 38 states or the District of Columbia, it would be illegal under the animal cruelty laws. Unfortunately, the State of Alaska's animal anti-cruelty law does not say that "overdriving" and "overworking" an animal is animal cruelty.

How do the Iditarod dogs live when they are not racing?

The Iditarod Dog Sled Race has led to an increase in the number of husky dog kennels in Alaska. In these kennels, many dogs are treated cruelly. Many kennels have more than 100 dogs. Some have as many as 200 dogs. None of the kennels is inspected or supervised by the State of Alaska. Mushers raise many dogs hoping that a few will be strong enough to run in the race.

Do these mushers cull or kill unwanted dogs?
Culling is a common practice among mushers. The Iditarod mushers breed many dogs, hoping to get a few who will be fast enough to race. According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News, "Killing unwanted sled-dog puppies is part of doing business" (October 6, 1991), most of the mushers cull by shooting their dogs in the head. An animal who is not properly restrained when the musher shoots may suffer an agonizing death. Mushers also cull dogs who are injured in the Iditarod, old but otherwise healthy dogs, or any dog who is not wanted for any reason. Musher Lorraine Temple said, "They (the big racing outfits) can't keep a dog who's a mile an hour too slow" (Currents, Fall, 1999).

Are Iditarod dogs kept permanently tethered on short chains?
In many kennels, dogs spend their entire lives outside chained up to their dog house. In these musher's kennels, a dog can have a chain as short as four feet long. In 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) determined that the permanent tethering of dogs, as the primary means of enclosure, was inhumane and not in the animals' best interests. The permanent chaining of dogs is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies.

Some reasons why permanent tethering is cruel are as follows:
1) A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

2) Because the chained dog is always close to his own fecal material, he can easily catch deadly parasitical diseases by stepping in or sniffing his own waste. The ground within the dog's chained area may have a high concentration of parasite larvae.

3) Even if the fecal matter is picked up, the area where the dog can move about becomes hard-packed dirt that carries the stench of animal waste. The odor and the waste attract flies which bite the dog's ears, often causing serious bloody wounds and permanent tissue damage.

4) Continuous chaining psychologically damages dogs and makes many of them aggressive animals.

Dogs are tethered to exercise wheels. Is this practice safe for the dogs?
Some dogs are tethered to exercise wheels as part of their pre-race training. There is a picture of one of these wheels on this page. Because the dogs run at varying speeds, the slower runners are pulled along by the neck, which causes injuries. Dogs who are tired or ill are forced to run. The number of injuries from the exercise wheel goes unreported.

Dogs love to run but not run to their death:

"Rodman died during the 1999 race from complications associate with acute pneumonia. Rodman's death was tragic but not unusual. In fact, 114 dogs, including Rodman have died during the Iditarod since the race started 26 years ago. Sure, dogs love to run but not to run to their death."

-United Animal Nations, Spring, 1999