Iditarod Questions & Answers

 Dogs on short tethers before the race starts

Dogs on short tethers before the race starts.

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How many dogs have died in the Iditarod?

In almost all of the 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 years since that report, 36 more dogs have died in the Iditarod, bringing the grand total of dogs who have died in the Iditarod to at least 143. 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.

For more information, read Dog Deaths.

How many dogs die after the race?

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

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 sick and 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. On average, 50% of the dogs who start the race cannot make it across the finish line.

Please read Dog Injuries and Sickness for more information.

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.

Is the Iditarod a commemoration?

The Iditarod Trail Committee promotes the Iditarod as a commemoration of the 1925 Anchorage to Nome diphtheria serum delivery. However, the race actually celebrates the memory of musher Leonhard Seppala. The Iditarod was patterned after the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes which were races held in the early 1900s. The Iditarod was not patterned after the serum delivery.

The idea for the Iditarod started with Dorothy Page.

“(In 1967) run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.” “Over the years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s origins have been closely linked with the ‘great mercy race’ to Nome. Most people believe the Iditarod was established to honor drivers and dogs who carried the diphtheria serum, a notion the media have perpetuated. In reality, ‘Seppala was picked to represent all the mushers,’ Page stressed. ‘He died in 1967 and we thought it was appropriate to name the race in his honor. But it could just as easily have been named after Scotty Allan. The race was patterned after the Sweepstakes races, not the serum run.’”
- Dorothy Page, co-founder of the Iditarod, discussing the origins of the race
- Sherwonit, Bill. Iditarod, Seattle:Alaska Northwest Books, 1991

(Bill Sherwonit reported on sled dog racing for over ten years for the Anchorage Times. He wrote articles for numerous publications including National Wildlife magazine and the Anchorage Daily News.)

Joe Redington, Sr. later expanded the original 1967 event making it longer and more lucrative. There are few similarities between the route of the serum delivery and the present-day Iditarod dog sled race routes. In the serum delivery, a train carried the medication from Anchorage to Nenana. From there the dogs ran the remaining 674 miles in relays to Norton Sound and up the Bering Sea Coast to Nome. There were 20 serum mushers with dog teams and no dog ran over 92 miles.

The Iditarod race follows a northern route in even-numbered years and a southern route in odd numbered years. The northern route goes from Anchorage to Ophir and then north to Ruby. The southern route goes from Anchorage to McGrath and then on to Unalakleet. Only the trails from Ruby to Nome and Unalakleet to Nome have similarities to the serum delivery route.

Iditarod mushers allowed to use GPS position indicators:

“Largely unnoticed, the Iditarod Trail Committee has slipped what could be a significant game-changer into the rules for the running of The Last Great Race.

Mushers headed from Willow to Nome will, for the first time, this year be allowed to use GPS position indicators to keep track of where they are along the 900-mile trail, race spokesman Chas St. George said Thursday. While the Iditarod uses GPS to track teams along the trail, the use of GPS by competitors themselves has been hotly debated for years.

Some have argued that using modern technology to find the way north in a race that celebrates the old Alaska is sort of cheating.”

- Craig Medred, Alaska Dispatch, February 17, 2011

Rule 34 – Electronic Devices: “Use of GPS is permitted.”

- Iditarod 2011 rules, Iditarod website, 2011

Mushers equipped with the most high-tech outdoors equipment:

“Mushers are equipped with the most high-tech outdoors equipment available, including custom-made sleds with adjustable runners for varying snow conditions and, starting this year, global-positioning-satellite devices to check on their progress.”

- Yereth Rosen, Reuters, March 4, 2011

Iditarod does not honor history:

Anchorage Daily News – Letters to the editor, May 22, 2005:

“Serum run of 1925 was a relay”

With reference to Thomas Thuneman’s letter, it needs to be said that the Iditarod Race does not honor history (“Iditarod dogs love running, and race reminds us of history,” May 14). The serum run was done in relays and not a grueling, money-oriented 1,100-mile race. Change the direction of the Iditarod race to honor “true history” and there will be more support and far less criticism.

—- Ethel D. Christensen, Anchorage

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is director of a local animal welfare organization.”

(Sled Dog Action Coalition Note: Mrs. Christensen is the executive director of the Alaska SPCA.)

How do mushers benefit from running their dogs in the Iditarod?

Many thousands of dollars in prizes are awarded to the winning mushers. The largest prize is given to the musher whose team crosses the finish line first. However, prize money is also given to teams who first reach certain points along the trail. Mushers who are hired to be in corporate advertisements receive substantial financial benefits, as do mushers who reap royalties from the sales of books they write or the speeches they give. These corporations turn their face away from the cruelties the dogs are forced to endure.

More mushers will receive prize money than ever before:

‘This year (2000), the Iditarod Trail Committee plans to hand out a record purse of more than $525,000 divided among the top 30 finishers – not just the top 20, as in years past.”

- Staff and wire reports, Anchorage Daily News, March 13, 2000

Swingley, the 2000 race winner, hopes to profit from breeding his lead dog:

“Swingley also noted that if the teams behind him are interested in help, Pepy the lead dog is available for breeding at $500 a turn.”

- Craig Medred, Anchorage Daily News, March 14, 2000

Please read Greed Fuels the Iditarod for for more information.

Dogs drink water containing flakes of rust.

Dogs in kennels drink water containing flakes of rust.

What kind of veterinary care do the dogs receive before and during the race?

How does the current speed record compare to the speed record in the first Iditarod?

According to the Iditarod website, the current speed record for the race was set by Martin Buser in 2002 at 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes. In the first Iditarod in 1973, the speed record was set by Dick Wilmarth at 20 days and 49 minutes.

What is the cost of running in the race?

The Iditarod Trail Committee website said the average kennel budget is approximately $50, 000 a year and the cost of running the Iditarod is $10,000, including entry fee, dog food for the race, dog supplies, musher supplies and freight.

Does the Iditarod make a profit?

Yes. According to AP Sports Friday (May 28, 1999), “The race is turning a profit and the purse this year (1999) was more than $500,000 – the biggest ever.”

Please read Greed Fuels the Iditarod for more information.

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).

Please read Abuse in Kennels for more information.

Alaska has many mosquitoes and this photo shows a small number of them. Mosquitoes attack dogs who are chained outside. Photo attributed to mecocrus on flickr, taken July 8, 2008

Alaska has many mosquitoes and this photo shows a small number of them. Mosquitoes attack dogs who are chained outside. Photo attributed to mecocrus on flickr, taken July 8, 2008

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.
  5. Dogs who forced to live on a chain are easy targets for stinging bites from insects and attacks by other other animals.
  6. The tethers can become entangled with other objects, which can choke or strangle a dog to death.
  7. The neck of a chained dog often becomes raw and covered with sores in part due to the dog’s constant yanking and straining to escape confinement.

Please read Tethering Facts for more information.

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.

What kind of veterinary care do the dogs receive in their kennels?

Some mushers live in towns that have no veterinarians, so that their dogs must be transported great distances to receive veterinary care. Mushers who live in small towns where there are no roads and no veterinarians have to fly their dogs in small airplanes hundreds of miles to obtain treatment. Do you think the many dogs who live in kennels far from veterinarians and animal hospitals receive adequate veterinary care, or any care at all?

Mushers smoke salmon for the dogs to eat. But smoking the salmon does not prevent dogs from getting salmon poisoning disease. Photo attributed to chiavatti on flickr

Mushers smoke salmon for the dogs to eat. But smoking the salmon does not prevent dogs from getting salmon poisoning disease. Photo attributed to chiavatti on flickr

What other kennel conditions do the dogs endure?

These dogs are never given the opportunity to run free even in a fenced in area. Many of them drink water from hard-to reach rusty cans that are bolted to their doghouses and are rarely cleaned or disinfected.

All of the dogs, even those who are injured, old or arthritic are kept outside in the winter when the average daily minimum temperatures range from -24 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It is painful for these dogs to be in such intense cold. Some dogs are never bathed, and nothing is done to help them cool off no matter how hot it gets. In the summer, the only shade they get is inside their dirty doghouse, or under their doghouse if they are lucky enough to have one that is raised off the ground.

Some kennels have few employees, so that each dog gets little attention. These dogs are unhappy prisoners with no chance of parole.