Time to Stop Competitive Sled-dog Races?


By Dr. Michael W. Fox

Living in Minnesota where we usually have plenty of snow, but certainly not this climate-changed winter, a popular outdoor recreational activity is to have a sled pulled by a team of happy and healthy dogs. If have seen their joy. But these two news items confirm what I have long advocated to see come to an end: Competitive Sled Dog Racing.

Health conditions noted in veterinary reports for half of Yukon Quest race dogs: A study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that 51.3% of dogs competing in the Yukon Quest dogsled race from 2018 to 2020 had at least one health abnormality in their veterinary reports, and nearly one-third were dropped from the race due to injuries or other health problems. One-third of the dogs sustained orthopedic injuries, and some had signs of gastrointestinal or cardiorespiratory illness. ( See Hattendorf JC, Davis MS and Hansen CM (2024) Evaluating injuries and illnesses that occurred during the Yukon Quest International sled dog race, 2018–2020. Front. Vet. Sci. 11:1356061. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2024.1356061).

8 dogs die before, during Iditarod.

Five dogs died while training for this year’s Iditarod, and three others died during the race, raising concerns about animal welfare in a sport that traces its roots to early Alaska Natives. Necropsies are underway on the dogs that died during the race, two of which were on teams led by rookie mushers and one of which was on a team led by a musher in his second Iditarod. Full Story: “Dog deaths revive calls for end to Iditarod, the endurance race with deep roots in Alaska Tradition” by Mark Thiessen. The Associated Press (3/14/24)

Running and racing dogs, like most human runners, experience an endorphin and cannabinoid high with the physical exertion. This can push them to death when they have some cardiac or metabolic issue, or cripple them. Cripples who are generally killed when they sustain a serious joint or limb injury, no doubt in many instances, had some prior injury or malformation from poor nutrition, breeding and care.

The outdoor-tethered and shelter- provided sled dogs of Arctic Eskimos whom I met in Alaska were robust and very territorial, growling and threatening me when I came close. Recreational sled dogs I met in Connecticut were overjoyed, leaping and yapping, when the sled was pulled out and their harnesses shaken. The lead dog came up to the kennel fence, and peed on my boots!

We owe these dogs, many famed in rescue missions, a reprieve and stop the competitive (and lucrative) competitive sled-dog racing racket forever.