An 8-year-old dog in the team of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Rick Larson died on Friday, bringing to five the number of dogs dead so far in this year's race.
Not since 1997 has the Iditarod witnessed so many deaths. All along the trail, veterinarians who worked checkpoints and examined the dogs on a regular basis are scratching their heads trying to figure out what they might have done to prevent it.
A possible explanation is available for the death of only two of the dogs. Rookie Lou Packer, a physician from Wasilla, believes his dogs died of hypothermia after his team was trapped out in 45-below temperatures and howling wind in the Innoko River country. Conditions were so extreme, Packer worried for his own life as he huddled with the rest of the dogs awaiting help to break open a trail buried deep in drifted snow.
He could feel ice begin to form under the skin of one of the dogs before its death, he said, but there was nothing he could do to help the animal.
Stuart Nelson Jr., the Iditarod chief veterinarian, said he suspects Packer is right about those dogs dying from hypothermia.
"It's highly likely,'' Nelson said, "but hard to prove until we get more information.''
A gross necropsy -- the canine version of an autopsy -- found no obvious and immediate cause of death for Packer's dogs. Necropsies have yet to be completed on Larson's dog and another that died late Thursday near Nome, while a necropsy and other tests performed on a dog that died on the second day of the race have still not found a cause of death.
"I don't know what to think,'' Nelson said. "I don't have all the answers this year.''
Last year, three dogs died. That is near the average for the Iditarod, and the causes of two of the 2008 deaths were quickly obvious. One dog was struck and killed by a snowmachine. The other had at some point during the race spit up intestinal fluids and then inhaled them. It was dropped at a checkpoint along the trail and flown back to Anchorage only to die here of what is called "aspiration induced pneumonia."
Race veterinarians say those are the sorts of deaths that happen to dogs almost anywhere on a daily basis, although the motor vehicle most likely to hit and kill dogs elsewhere is a car or truck, not a snowmobile. Illnesses, however, kill dogs the same way they do people, only more often given the relatively short life spans of canines.
What's really troubling, Nelson said, is when a dog dies and no one can figure out why.
"They say no death should be in vain,'' he said Friday. "I've dedicated many years to finding answers and solutions. (And) right now, I'm a little stumped.''
The first dog to die this year was 6-year-old Victor in the team of North Pole musher Jeff Holt. A former teacher, the 48-year-old Holt was not pushing his team but was approaching the outing more like taking a team of family pets on a 1,000-mile camping trip to Nome. The dogs were fresh and well rested when he left the Rainy Pass checkpoint in the Alaska Range. A veterinarian there had just looked the team over and said they looked great. A few miles on down the trail, Victor fell over and died.
Nelson said the death is baffling. The timing of the latest two deaths at least seems to make more sense.
On Thursday, 5-year-old Maynard died about an hour out of Nome. A dog in the team of veteran musher Warren Palfrey from Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, Maynard had been on the trail working hard for about 11 days. The stress of that has been known to cause some dogs to develop deadly stomach ulcers. It is not known if Palfrey's dog had such problems, but it is one of the things for which a veterinary pathologist will look.
Maynard and his teammates took a race dictated eight-hour mandatory rest in White Mountain and were examined by a veterinarian who cleared them to proceed. They went on up the trail and through the Safety checkpoint about 20 miles from Nome. Maynard reportedly looked fine there. Ten miles farther on, with the finish nearly in sight, he died.
"It's hard,'' Nelson said. "It hurts everybody.''
The veterinarian was once hopeful an Iditarod could be staged without a single dog death, although most vets have always been skeptical of that happening. They contend that if they rounded up any 800 dogs and watched them for two weeks, several would be sure to die.
The Iditarod did, however, make it through the 1994 and 1996 races with only one death in each. The latter would have been death-free, except for an unfortunate tangle of a team in overflow water on the Yentna River ice on the first night of competition. A dog in the team of five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers died in that accident. It was the only dog Swenson has lost in more than 30 trips up the Iditarod Trail behind a dog team.
Veterinarians have for years looked for patterns in Iditarod deaths, but found none. Dogs die in back-of-the-pack Iditarod teams staging a long, camping trip to Nome about as often as dogs die in hard-charging, race teams at the front. Some dogs die early in the race, some in the middle and some near the end.
This year, one died in the first third; two died in the middle third; and so far two have died in the final third.
Palfrey was on his way to a 19th-place finish when Maynard died Friday. Larson, from Sand Coulee, Mont., lost 8-year-old Omen on Friday between Elim and White Mountain. Larson now appears headed toward a finish near 40th. Both Packer and Holt were running near the very end of the Iditarod when their dogs died; both men eventually abandoned the race.
"It's been a very, very tough year with severe wind and cold,'' Nelson said, but aside from the death of Packer's two dogs, veterinarians are not sure what influence the weather really had on the dogs. Many mushers observed that soft snow and slow trail actually made travel easier for their animals.
Race winner Lance Mackey arrived in Nome on Wednesday with 15 dogs still pulling strong in harness. He had to drop only one that got tired over the entire course of the race. Palfrey was on the way to finishing with 14 of his 16 starters when Maynard died.
Animal rights groups say the distance the dogs run and the weather in which the race takes place make the Iditarod inherently inhumane. A blogger for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claimed Holt's dog had "been run to death in this year's edition of the cruel and pointless Iditarod dogsled race.
"Can we finally put to rest the myth that dogsled racing is OK because the 'dogs love to run'? Dogs don't love to run until they collapse. ...''
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.