This year's Iditarod doesn't start until tomorrow, and one dog has already died. The death occurred during the Junior Iditarod, a 150-mile race that's open to teens aged 14–17. A necropsy found that the dog, a 5-year-old male named Lava, died of gastric ulcers, an all-too-common cause of death for dogs in the Iditarod.
According to a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, more than half the dogs who finish the Iditarod have gastric ulcers, which the study's authors believe are caused by "sustained strenuous exercise." Dogs suffering from ulcers may bleed or choke to death after regurgitating and then inhaling their own vomit. Poor Lava didn't deserve that—no dog does.
Bear in mind that the Junior Iditarod is only about one-eighth the distance of the daddy Iditarod, which is a grueling 1,150 miles. That's roughly the same as the distance between New York City and St. Petersburg, Florida—and the fastest teams are forced to cover all that ground in less than two weeks. Dogs often run more than 100 miles a day—the equivalent of four marathons back to back—with little rest. (The official race rules require that dogs only be given a total of 40 hours' rest during the entire race, which can add up to less than 3 or 4 hours a day.)
We're not talking about a jog through Central Park, here. Dogs in the Iditarod have to battle blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and falls through treacherous ice into frigid water. Their feet become bruised, bloodied, cut by ice and rocks, 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 the aforementioned bleeding stomach ulcers. Dogs have been strangled by tow lines, trampled by moose, and hit by snowmobiles and sleds. Two of the six dogs who died in last year's race are believed to have frozen to death.
Nearly 150 dogs have died in the Iditarod since records started being kept (a tally that doesn't include dogs who die in training or after the race ends). On average, more than half the dogs who start the race don't make it across the finish line, and 81 percent of those who do finish have lung damage, according to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Is there a small light at the end of this dark Alaskan tunnel? To paraphrase Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla—home of the Iditarod's headquarters—you betcha. The purse for the winners of this year's race is down roughly $52,000 from last year because several former sponsors, such as Chevron and Cabela's, have dropped their support. You can help by writing to ExxonMobil and the Iditarod's other remaining sponsors and asking them to stop paying mushers to run dogs to death.