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Of the Yukon Quest, the Iditarod, and Dead Dogs

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered (02/23/07) reminded me that it’s dog racing season. No, not greyhound racing. There’s no season for that; it’s year-round horror. I’m talking about the Iditarod, which is next week, and the Yukon Quest, which began on February 10th and is also a 1,000+ mile "adventure" for teams of dogs who are made to race to the point of exhaustion and even death.

"The Yukon Quest: For Real Mushers Only" initially makes the Yukon Quest sound like a glorious romp in the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness. But then you hear that the goal, for many, "is simply to finish," and that 25% of the competitors dropped out in the first week. Oh, and that the race has few checkpoints and hospitality houses. "Many nights are spent alone in the wild, with racers and dogs fending for themselves." That’s not adventure–that’s irresponsible.

Forcing dogs to run over 1,000 miles is, as you might imagine, dangerous (and sometimes fatal) for them. Some of the consequences, other than death, are: paralysis, penile frostbite, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, broken bones, pneumonia, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, viral diseases, torn footpads, ruptured disks, sprains and lung damage. Remember the vomiting one–that’ll take on even greater importance in a moment.

The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine reported that, of the dogs who finish the Iditarod, 81% have lung damage. The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine reported that 61% of the dogs who finish have ulcers, and 0% had ulcers before the race.

Racing defenders often say "The dogs are doing what they love; they love to run." Yes, they do. But forcing them to run when you want them to run, and allowing them to stop when you decide it’s time, is entirely different from allowing them their own control over their bodies and their schedules. Sometimes my greyhounds simply don’t want to run. And sometimes they could run for 10 minutes, nonstop (a long time for a greyhound). It’s unthinkable to me to make them run on my schedule. That would be cruel. And to make any dog run for over 1,000 miles is pure torture. And if they don’t perform or train well–greyhounds and sled dogs alike–are "culled." Killed.

And then there’s the dying that can occur during the race. Two dogs have already died in this year’s Yukon Quest, one of whom choked on her own vomit. "Its demise was likely a combination of extreme stress and the high speed of the team, impairing her ability to breath or expel the vomit." Two dogs also died in 2002 in the Yukon Quest, one after getting caught in a tangle, and one just dropped dead.

Please go to to learn about the media campaigns designed to paint the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod as fun, safe adventures. The Sled Dog Action Coalition (specifically for the Iditarod) is helpful as well. Racing dogs is about one thing only: attempting to profit from them. Is that what you do to your "best friend?"

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary,
    Hi I have to admit I am a follower of the iditarod and I stumbled across your site while looking for updates to the race. I am also an open minded person so i read what you have to say. I have a couple of questions. 1. Have you ever been to a mushers home in Alaska ? Have you ever spook to a musher ? I have and while I understand some of your points i am not yet convinced by your web page that mushers are cruel people just trying to make money. I can tell you I skijor, and there is a magic about spending the night outside under the stars at -40 with my husky snuggled next to me. I could not imagine another life. And in my sport my husky pushes me to the brink of exhaustion much sooner than i push her. I see you have a PHD and i admire that. I would like to continue this debate with you. I am interested in what your arguments are on why the Quest and the iditarod should not be run. i will send you my arguments on why they should be and the documentation to back them up if you wish to debate with me. again please understand i do not want to degrade or disrespect you in any way. I am a serious when I say I want to hear your side of the debate. Let me kow what you think


    March 11, 2007
  2. John,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. It's refreshing to hear that you are open to debate. I, however, am the wrong person to debate with regarding the cruelty of the Iditarod and the Quest, as I am an abolitionist. This means that I object to the use of animals for human gain, profit, or entertainment on moral grounds. In other words, it is unethical to bring dogs into this world (or collect them from shelters or anywhere else) to train them to ultimately use them for your own gain (and especially for your own fun or entertainment). And to make them do something that is so unnatural is unconscionable to me.

    The Sled Dog Action Coalition ( has all of the facts regarding the cruelty and suffering, and is also very well done and informative.

    I have readers who eat meat and wear leather, and even some who go to zoos. But John, I must say that I know few people who think greyhound racing or sled dog racing are anything but unnecessary, cruel, and inhumane.

    There is also a "culture" and "tradition" component happening here. But culture and tradition are often the words people use when there's no good reason to do something. And particularly if someone's getting hurt or killed in the process.

    Sports should be events where all participants knowingly, willfully decide to be involved, and are aware of all of the risks and possible outcomes. That is not the case with the Iditarod and other dog races. There is simply no compelling reason for the Iditarod to exist.

    And when you factor in the training, the conditions the dogs are kept in, the culling, and the grueling race, there is certainly plenty of compelling evidence to ban it.

    At least in my world.

    Thanks again for reading, and I encourage you to do some research on the sites I listed.


    March 12, 2007
  3. Tami #


    While I do admire your empathy with the greyhounds who are definitely used and abused, then killed early in their lives; I find many of your facts on dogmushing erroneous. I also have an open mind and looked into all aspects of mushing, before I myself became a musher. I've been involved in animal rescue for well over 15 years. In fact, we had a rescued Greyhound, as well as many huskies and a few horses who needed a forever home. You are quoting from the Sled Dog Coalition, which I know for a FACT is filled with erroneous information and photos which have been completely taken out of context. The Coalition only uses little bits and pieces of articles, research and cropped photos to try and make their point of sled dog cruelty. I personally have watched the Yukon Quest (I live not far from the trail itself), as well as watched other forms of animal racing (thoroughbred and greyhound). NO ONE can force a sled dog to run. That is a completely FALSE statement that people try to use over and over again to say that mushing is cruel and inhumane. If dogs are tired or a musher tries to FORCE their dogs to run, the dogs will literally sit down and refuse. No musher can run the Yukon Quest MAKING dogs run, forcing them to work. The dogs are smart, they will NOT do it. Only a musher who cares for their dogs, giving them the utmost care, food, massaging, rest, etc. can even finish this race. Simple. Yes, dogs do sometimes die, but please look at the statistics. More PET dogs die every year from various causes (many are abused) than ALL of the athletic dogs who have met their demise in both the Iditarod AND the Yukon Quest in all the years that they've been run. Especially when you compare the sheer amount of dogs that run in these races each year. And of those dogs who do die on these races, most are from things that no one, including vets would be able to diagnose. I'm not condoning the death of dogs; but, I am trying to get the truth out there so people can draw intelligent, informed conclusions for themselves. We mushers truly police ourselves and will quickly turn in someone who commits animal abuse or cruelty. Additionally, while you are busy quoting research, how about all of the research and gains that are being made each and every year in sled dog health, nutrition and well-being on these races? I don't see those facts in your post. Or the fact that both the Quest and Iditarod require EXTENSIVE bloodwork, health exams and testing before any dog is allowed to run.

    While I admire your effort to help our animal brethren, I truly wish you'd get ALL of the facts, not pick and choose those that "suit" your cause. Visit a kennel, see for yourself. Don't rely on false information from fanatics who only wish to gain from their "cause". Once you've seen the absolute care and attention that these sled dogs get, THEN and ONLY then can you truly make a judgement on what you do NOT know firsthand. My own dogs are my furkids, they eat before me, have the utmost in scientifically proven nutrition, vet care and supplements, come in the house, take over the couch, chair, beds and they get more attention than your average "fido" because I have a truly unique bond with these beautiful, wonderful friends. NEVER would I force them to do something they were not willing and able to do. NEVER.

    Thank you for your time and I at least hope that people will get to the truth before jumping on a bandwagon that is not needed. Please by all means help those animals in cruel and inhumane conditions. Not my beautiful babies…they are truly loved and WELL cared for. Always.

    Tami, a musher in Alaska

    November 12, 2007
  4. Tami,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. The dicey thing about talking about cruelty and suffering is the same in every animal-exploitation industry: one side says it occurs, and the other side says it doesn't, it's not as bad as they say, or the animals enjoy what's happening to them.

    For animal rights activists, however, all use is abuse. Using an animal's body, body parts, bodily secretions, or natural talents or inclinations is, by definition, abuse. Treating another as a commodity is abuse.

    Therefore, we don't really need the he said/she said stories for our discussions. (Although those discussions occur all the time; it's sort of the nature of things with people who want justice for animals.) All we need to know is that the lives of the dogs are not their own, and they work for people.

    November 13, 2007
  5. Tami #


    Thank you for taking the time to post my comments. I didn't say abuse/neglect doesn't happen in sled dog circles, just like any other animal circle…sadly it does. This is why we have "rescue" huskies with us and strong beliefs on sled dog care. In response to the idea that the use of dogs is abuse, Ok. That means that I, by your definition, am being abused…by my dogs. I work and slave for them..I've even bled for them. I spend many hours loving, playing, feeding and caring for them…when we aren't out with sleds. And, it would be cruel of me NOT to take my furkids out for runs with the sled! You can see the joy in their faces, the excitement as they wriggle and jump, wanting to run. My oldsters who aren't capable of going out with the team anymore and are retired, howl forlornly as their buddies go down the trail. Even taking them for their walks down to the pond isn't the same for them. I think we will have to agree to disagree. I do appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge my post. Though you have made up your mind about this topic, at least you are open-minded enough to "hear" the other side.


    December 20, 2007
  6. Meredith #

    The Iditarod is so not cruel as so many people seem to think. I am a musher and I believe that these dogs run this race because they love to run. I have a kennel of 17 sled dogs and two just pets. So I have 19 pets and 17 of them occasionally run dog sled races with me. To quote FORCE the dogs to run over 1000 miles is impossible…you can not push a rope! Nor can you force a dog to do anything it doesn't want to do.

    Junior Iditarod Finisher, Owner of Fun On The Run Kennel, and President of Little Su 4H Club Home of the Alaska 4H Dog Mushing Program

    Meredith Mapes

    April 9, 2008
  7. Meredith,

    Please see my comments above.

    Use of animals for one's own purposes is abuse. And yes, I do believe mushers force their dogs to run. No dog would ever choose to run over 1,000 in such a short time.

    April 9, 2008
  8. Ari #

    For me its not even an issue of the race at all. Its an issue of how the animals are treated before and after the races… in their everyday lives. The majority are chained to "kennels" which are actually boxes that are too small for comfort… they experience no joy at all in their lives so of course they choose to race because its the only joy they must have… even if they run themselves into exhaustion and their bodies fail and their life ends right there and then. Those that keep pets in happy respectful homes where they are part of the family and also happen to race for fun are decent people… but those that house their animals in shocking conditions… depriving them of the simple pleasures of life such as interacting with fellow pack members, playing, bonding, running free, feeling love and comfort. Well those people should be chained up to a small box in the middle of a yard without proper shelter, exercise or freedom. Then they may understand why regardless of how the dogs love the race, we protest.

    long time dog and animal rescue,
    RSPCA qld div tibetan spaniel rescue,
    veterinary nurse,
    former breeder and exhibitor of dogs

    July 14, 2008

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