Dogs are hauling sleds behind them in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as I type. Pictures abound of the dogs appearing to be joyously running free (well, in chains and harnesses, actually). The truth about their lives is rather different.
Race conditions are extreme, as the Iditarod’s official website acknowledges: “jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast…temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills.”
The dogs run over 100 miles a day in the 1,150 mile race. Iditarod dogs burn about 5,000 calories a day — 350 percent more than cyclists in the Tour de France.
Veterinarians stationed at checkpoints check the dogs’ health, but the results are never made public. Some mushers run right through the checkpoint, skipping the vet exam.
Deaths are the norm, and not just in the Iditarod. In just one week this year, four dogs died in three races, the Anchorage Daily news reported. Two of them died of pulmonary edema. Running a marathon can cause the same condition in people, suggesting that it may well have been the race that killed the dogs.
Animal advocates argue that the Iditarod can injure dogs in many other ways, according to Discovery Network: “hypothermia, pneumonia, lung damage, exhaustion, dehydration, diarrhea, stomach ulcers, and stress.”
Life at home is no better for these dogs. They often don’t get the veterinary care they need because it is too expensive. Ashley Keith, a former musher-turned-rescuer, says that “it is cheaper to just let the dog die.” More valuable dogs are more likely to get treatment.
Dogs are chained up and neglected for months off-season. They are “often tethered to short chains to plastic doghouses or ramshackle sheds, living on small patches of dirt amid their own urine and feces,” PETA has found.
Most of them don’t even have names, much less emotional bonds with or attention from any people.
Mushers in-breed dogs to try to produce the best runners, according to musher Rick Swenson. Veterinarians like Dr. Jon Rappaport say that inbred animals have more health problems and infant mortality, grow more slowly, and are smaller than other dogs. They are more susceptible to problems with their immune systems and physical defects. Vet Info notes that inbred dogs are also more likely to have behavioral problems, perhaps related to their generally lower intelligence.
But none of that poses much of a problem for mushers, because they just “cull” dogs who don’t make the cut, according to Swenson. Yes, that means kill. Mushers kill thousands of dogs. “There is no sense wasting good dog food and your time on a dog that isn’t fast enough to keep up,” he writes. Dog handler Mike Cranford wrote that dead dogs are sometimes skinned for their fur and sometimes fed to other dogs. They are sometimes found frozen to the ground where they are chained.
Both during and outside of the race, drastically low temperatures take a toll on the dogs. Frostbite is common on their ears, tails, penises, scrotums, nipples and vulvas.
Some mushers devocalize their dogs, a cruel procedure that causes dogs lasting suffering. Some cut the animals’ canine teeth, a painful mutilation that is performed without any anesthetic. The remains of the teeth are susceptible to infection and can cause lasting pain.
Pictures of mushers hugging their dogs are nice P.R. for the race, but they are not representative of these dogs’ lives.