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Iditarod puts dogs' health above race

Recently the Deseret News published a letter from Robert E. Blizard of the Humane Society of the United States regarding the "suffering" of the dogs participating in the Iditarod Sled Dog race. Unfortunately, most of Blizard's comments are nothing more than a snow job.

The Humane Society of the United States bases its views on some very misleading statements. These are either a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts or result from an overabundance of ignorance. Which is scarier, I do not know.Blizard is correct in his statement that about 29 dogs have died over the past 10 years while running the Iditarod. (Dr. Staurt Nelson, chief veterinarian for the Iditarod, places the number at 32.) However, from there things get really off base. Blizard then states this equals "29 deaths per 1,000 participants." Not even close to the truth. Dr. Nelson estimates that 9,500 dogs have run the race over the past decade. This places the fatality rate (using Dr. Nelson's higher numbers) at 3.2 per 1,000 participants. Simple math proves that Blizard's "facts" are overstated by almost 900 percent. Oops.

It is also important to look at these numbers in context. The Iditarod is a race of about 1,100 miles (equivalent to more then 40 marathons), run in under a two-week period. The best way to consider numbers of "sudden death" in any sport is by the hours of participation. Dr. Peter Constable (diplomat, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, and assistant professor at the University of Illinois) estimated that there are about 72,000 "dog hours of exercise" run in each Iditarod. This works out over the past decade to an average of one death per 22,000 hours ran. As a comparison, the rate of "sudden death" from human cross country skiers is about one death per 13,000 hours (based on statistics from Dr. Constable.) Thus we see that it is safer to be a dog running the Iditarod than to go out cross-country skiing.

More important, however, than a study of numbers is the general care the dogs in the Iditarod and other major sled dog races receive. The charges by the Humane Society that "dog deaths and injuries are a standard feature, yet competition and entertainment are heavily emphasized" are completely false. The rules that govern the races and care of the dogs are very strict and favor the dog over the musher.

The following conditions require that a dog be removed from the race. Significant weight loss or dehydration, irregular heart rate, fever (body temperature over 103) , hypothermia (temperature less then 99), abnormal lung sounds, discoloration of urine, ongoing diarrhea, significant frostbite, lameness or any other medical treatment requiring ongoing medical treatment. It should also be noted that systemic steroids and many other medications cannot be given if a dog is to remain in the race. If these treatments are required, the dog is removed from the race and treated. The musher cannot prevent a dog from being removed for treatment.

The Iditarod is staffed by a team of approximately 35 veterinarians, all of which must meet strict criteria. Criteria include a minimum of five years clinical experience and training by the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA), among others. About 20 checkpoints are established along the trail, and each dog is given a full exam at each checkpoint. Each veterinarian has the authority to remove a dog from a race at any of these points. A log book on each dog must be kept so a dog's health can be tracked throughout the race.

Prior to the race, each dog is positively identified by the placement of a microchip, must show proof of vaccinations, is de-wormed, given a complete physical, with EKG and complete blood cell count and chemistry panel. Any detected abnormalities can disqualify a dog from the race.

The International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association also has ongoing research into ways to provide better care for the dogs and to reduce the number of deaths.

For the Humane Society or anyone else to claim that the health and well being of the dogs that run the Iditarod and other races is "sacrificed" in any way is absurd. As can be seen, great effort is taken before and during the race to care for the canine athletes. And the results are a relatively few deaths, even when compared to human sports and activities.

Drew L. Allen, Salt Lake City, is a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association