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Iditarod Deaths Stain Race's Reputation

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By Jennifer O’Connor

Now that the last dog has crossed the finish line, Iditarod organizers are rushing to patch up “The Last Great Race’s” tattered reputation after three dogs died and a veteran musher, Ramy Brooks, was disqualified from this year’s race. Witnesses caught Brooks beating his dogs, one of whom later died. Unfortunately, the Iditarod Trail Committee seems more concerned with putting a positive spin on this year’s abysmal events than with penalizing Brooks, who as of now is still free to compete in future races.

The committee should come to terms with the fact that the race in its current form is inevitably lethal to dogs and should be stopped.

In the Iditarod, dogs race approximately 1,150 miles, roughly the distance from New York City to St. Petersburg, Fla., over a grueling terrain in eight to 16 days. They often run more than 100 miles a day—the equivalent of four marathons back-to-back—with few (and brief) intervals of rest. They are subjected to biting winds, blinding snowstorms, sub-zero temperatures and falls through treacherous ice into frigid water.

Their feet become bruised, bloodied, cut by ice and just plain worn out because of the vast distances they cover. Many dogs pull muscles, tendons and ligaments, rupture discs, incur stress fractures and become sick with bloody diarrhea, dehydration, intestinal viruses or bleeding stomach ulcers. Dogs have been strangled by tow lines, trampled by moose and hit by snowmobiles and sleds. One dog in this year’s race became lost in a snowstorm and was missing for 11 days.

At least 133 dogs have died in the Iditarod since records started being kept—and that doesn’t include dogs who die in training or after the race ends. One dog in this year’s race died of “acute pneumonia” and another from internal bleeding from a ruptured ulcer, two common causes of death for Iditarod dogs. According to the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have developed gastric ulcers. The study’s authors concluded that the ulcers are caused by “sustained strenuous exercise.” Dogs suffering from ulcers may bleed to death or choke to death after regurgitating and then inhaling their own vomit.

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