How many sled dogs die? Here’s What to Expect

Help End the Iditarod by Asking Companies to Pull Their Sponsorships

Up to half of the dogs who start the race don’t finish because they’re too ill, injured, or exhausted to go on—and more than 150 dogs have died as a result of the race, not including countless others who were killed simply because they weren’t fast enough or who died while chained up during the off-season.

It’s no wonder major companies like Coca-Cola, Costco, Jack Daniel’s, State Farm, and Wells Fargo dropped their sponsorships: No one wants dog blood on their hands.

Mushers killed and ate dogs

“To the musher, a sled dog is a workmate and sometimes a meal. Snowmobiles may be faster, even more reliable – but when you’re trapped in a blizzard or lost on the taiga, try eating a fan belt. More than one stranded Alaskan has survived such an ordeal by converting loyal Sashka into stringy stew.”

– Colin Nickerson, Boston Globe, February 5, 1984

What are the physical exertions on dogs in the Iditarod?

The primary physical exertion on dogs during the Iditarod is, naturally, pulling and running. A dog sled weighs approximately 100 pounds and depending on the amount of dog food on the sled and the weight of the musher, the total weight can be up to 500 pounds. With 16 dogs, that’s over 30 pounds of pulling during the race. Considering the weight of the dogs participating in the race is generally between 40 and 60 pounds, and the race goes on for days, it is physically demanding for the dogs.

How many sled dogs die?

In the 2020 Iditarod, there were no reported dog deaths during the race. When a dog cannot continue pulling due to mild ailments, loss of appetite, physical exhaustion, or any other reason, they stop. Because there are no substitutes, more weight is pulled by the remaining dogs in each team as dogs are eliminated from the race. For a musher to complete the race, there have to be at least five dogs pulling the harness at the finishing line.

Note that the dogs that participate in the Iditarod are not regular sled dogs – and definitely not the kind of dog you would see in your local park. They are comparable to our elite human athletes and go through lots of preparation and physical training to compete in the race. It might be hard for your next-door Siberian Husky to pull for hours at a time; it’s no problem for the dogs we see in the Iditarod.

Why Don’t Sled Dogs Ever Get Tired?

The following contains excerpts taken from the above titled article which was published in the proceedings of the third annual International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association meeting (Edmonton, Alberta, 1996).

The occurrence of sudden death in sled dogs during racing, while rare, has considerable impact on public perceptions of the sport. It is important to relate this occurrence to that of human athletes performing similar exercise activities.

During cross country skiing, the sudden death rate for human athletes is 1/13,000 man hours. Let’s relate this to an Iditarod type race. Assuming an average team of 11 dogs for the duration of the race, a race completion time of 11 days and an average run time of 10 hours a day (all of these figures are ball park estimates), each team in the Iditarod has 1,210 dog hours of exercise activity. Assuming 60 teams are running in the race, this means that we have approximately 72,000 dog hours of exercise activity per race. Using the sudden death rate estimate from humans during cross country skiing, an estimate of 5.6 deaths per race is obtained.

During jogging, a much less strenuous and sustained activity for human athletes than is cross country skiing, the sudden death rate is 1/396,000 activity hours. This would translate to 0.2 deaths per Iditarod race.

The fact that the actual number of sudden and unexpected deaths in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is much closer to 0.2 than 5.6 indicates that these sled dogs are much better conditioned for endurance exercise than humans are for cross country skiing. Next Race