Odd dog death


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Iditarod volunteers handling dropped dogs/James Brooks, Wikimedia Commons

Update:  This story was updated with new informtion from Iditarod on March 14, 2017. The organization now says three dogs, including the dead one, suffered heatstroke on a direct flight from Galena to Anchorage.

A one-time, back-of-the pack musher who had a notable run in with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is questioning a report the hot cargo-hold of an Alaska airplane killed a young, fit, canine athlete being flown on a flight from Galena to Anchorage on Friday.


Musher Robert Loveman from Seeley Lake, Mont. says the story is simply hard to believe as told.

“A healthy, hydrated dog who can pant shouldn’t die from hyperthermia on a flight from Galena to Anchorage,” he said. “And if was too warm, why was it only one dog? It doesn’t make sense.”

Loveman doesn’t doubt hyperthermia caused the animals death, but questions the events surrounding a demise most commonly associated with dogs left locked in cars on hot summer days.

The temperature inside the cargo hold of the airplane flying 75 dropped dogs 330 miles to Anchorage has not been reported. Nor is it known how long the dogs were in the plane, how they might have been arranged in the plane, and what care they got before, during and after the flight.

Seventy-four of the dogs survived. The Iditarod has since revealed that along with one dog dying of heatstroke, two dogs with  “apparent signs of hyperthermia” were taken to an Anchorage pet emergency center.

The opposite of hypothermia

Hyperthermia is the opposite of hypothermia, the lowering of body temperature.

Dogs are generally considered to be hyperthermic when their body temperature reaches 103 degrees. At temperatures above 106 degrees, there is the danger of organ failure and death. 

Death by hyperthermia is easily determined in a necropsy (the animal form of an autopsy) by the damage to multiple organs. But determining exactly what caused it can be difficult.

Initial reports from the Iditarod Trail Committee said only that a two-year-old dog named Smoke died of hyperthermia, or what most laymen would call heatstroke or heat exhaustion, because of an over-heated airplane.

“If the dogs were really badly crammed together that could also interfere with panting (and lead to overheating),” Loveman said. How the dogs were arranged on the plane is not know. 

Since the original report of a hyperthermia death, the Iditarod has  released a second press release saying it is taking steps to “mitigate hyperthermic conditions when Iditarod sled dogs are being transported in aircraft.”

“…To minimize the possibility of similar incidents in the future,” the press release said, Iditarod will “no longer (be) transporting dropped dogs in dog coats, and; (it will be) ensuring that flight configurations we use for the remainder of the race provide for cool cabin temperatures and increased ventilation.”

Some say the reference to “flight configurtions” could relate to the stack of dog boxes or how many dogs are put in dog boxes.

The press release did not define  “cool cabin temperatures” Nor did it add any information as to how hot it was on the plane originally or how long the dogs were inside the aircraft.

The Iditarod has not always been fully forthcoming about dog deaths. After a dog became buried in a snow drift and asphyxiated outside the Unalakleet dog drop in 2013, the race reported an  “otherwise healthy dog” had died in “an incident caused by high winds and drifting snow.”

“Asked for clarification,” Alaska Dispatch News reporter Jill Burke wrote at the time, “Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon offered few details other than that personnel monitoring the dropped dog lot in Unalakleet noticed a drift of snow, a missing dog, and then started ‘digging furiously.'”

Only later did the full story emerge. The dog lot in Unalakleet was subsequently moved to prevent blowing snow from drifting over dogs.

The Iditarod every year handles hundreds of tired and injured dogs dropped at checkpoints along the trail every year. Most of the care is provided by race volunteers. Rarely does a dog die.

Hyperthermia used to be a serious race problem, but that was when the race officially started in Anchorage and raced full bore to the suburb of Eagle River. In warm years, some dogs – usually those acclimated to the colder parts of Alaska – overheated due to both the pace and excitement of the first day.

Veterinarians kept ice-water bathes ready for cooling hyperthermic dogs. The over-heating problem was one of the reasons the Anchorage start was eventually turned into a purely ceremonial event. There have been few reports of hyerpthermia since.


The Iditarod was caught covering up dog deaths in the 1990s, and the fall out was bad. Afterward, the race made it a policy to publicly report all fatalities as soon as possible, but the reports have sometimes provided little information.

A Sunday press release on the results of on a necropsy performed on the first dog to die in this year’s race, a two-year-old male named Deacon, said “abnormalities were present, but the underlying cause of death was not determined.”

No details were provided.

“Abnormalities were present” could mean anything. A broken rib would be abnormal.  Liver lesions would be abnormal. An intestinal tumor would be abnormal. One can make a list of abnormal possibilities as long as a dog’s tail.

The Iditarod’s lack of transparency raises questions about the second death, though it is certainly possible an overheated aircraft could contribute to the death of a dog.

In the first 10 months of 2015, Newsday reported that 29 of approximately 2 million pets transported on commercial airlines in the U.S. died in flight. Over heating was among the causes. Airlines are so aware of the problem they impose “heat embargoes” on pets in hot weather. notes the “Summer Heat Embargo” and says this:

“Pets will not be accepted by most airlines when the current or forecasted temperature at the arrival, layover or departure airport is above 84°F (29°C) at any location on the itinerary….During the months of May through September, your airline may not allow you to transport your pet in the cargo department. The reason for this restriction is that the heat on the tarmac can heat up the cargo hold quickly.”

Airplane cargo holds can be as deadly as parked cars for the dogs inside.

“Every year, hundreds of pets die from heat exhaustion because they are left in parked vehicles,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. “‘We’ve heard the excuses: ‘Oh, it will just be a few minutes while I go into the store,’ or ‘But I cracked the windows…’ These excuses don’t amount to much if your pet becomes seriously ill or dies from being left in a vehicle.”

A study conducted in Louisiana “found that the temperatures in a dark sedan as well as a light gray minivan parked on a hot, but partly cloudy day, exceeded 125 degrees F within 20 minutes,” the AVMA said.

Loveman noted such temperatures were unlikely aboard a cargo aircraft in Galena where the mean temperature on Friday was 16 degrees.  But he said if the dog was ill or injured, both of which would compromise it physically, or had for some reason been muzzled, much lower temperatures could become a problem.

Muzzling is an issue because dogs don’t sweat through the skin like people. They sweat through their feet and especially their mouths, which is why they need to pant heavily in the heat. It is an effort to cool down.

A plane hot enough to kill one dog would likely leave others panting, drooling, wobbling or worse. All of the aforementioned are signs of the onset of heatstroke. But heatstroke is not always related to environmental conditions.

There are two types of hyperthermia. The first is non-fever hyperthermia, which is what happens to the dog in the car. The second is fever hyperthermia.

The Iditarod has had experience with fever hyperthermia, although the one case that was publicly reported involved a musher not a dog. Michael Madden had to be airlifted off the trail in 1989 in what was at the time described as a case of “life or death.”

“The stricken musher was between two uninhabited ghost town checkpoints, Ophir and Iditarod, when he could not go on and his condition began deteriorating. He was 100 miles from the nearest town in any direction,” the UPI reported. 

“Air Force Master Sgt. Steven Wilhelmi said from Elmendorf (now Joint Base Elmendorf Richardon) that Madden was suffering from hyperthermia and appeared to have gone into shock.”

The late Jerry Austin, a well-known musher from St. Michael and a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame, recognized the danger Madden was in and organized the rescue. Then race manager Jack “Niggemyer said Madden was ‘lucky to have someone as intelligent and quick-thinking as Jerry Austin out there,'” UPI reported.

Madden was later discovered to be suffering from salmonella poisoning. Dogs are also subject to salmonella poisoning.

In dogs, according to, “symptoms of salmonella food poisoning typically appear 6 to 72 hours after infection. The first symptom of salmonella poisoning in dogs is a high fever, usually accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. Dogs with salmonella poisoning may lose their appetites and may appear lethargic and depressed.”

It would be easy for an Iditarod checker to miss something like this in a dropped dog if it was not vomiting. Diarrhea is common among Iditarod dogs; it’s an intestinal response to the stress of long-distance running. People are known to experience it, too. German Uta Pippig once famously won the Boston Marathon while suffering from diarrhea.

And many dropped dogs in the Iditarod appear lethargic and depressed, sometimes from being tired, sometimes apparently from feeling left behind.

But salmonella is just one of many illnesses that could make a dog more susceptible to heatstroke. Heart, nervous system or blood vessel diseases can make dogs more vulnerable, according to So, too, elevated thyroid hormones; damage to the hypothalamus, the temperature-regulating area of a dog’s brain; or a reaction to drugs, including caffeine.

Loveman said he just can’t help feeling suspicious about the hot-airplane story, but he and the Iditarod have issues. A trained physicist, Loveman has more than once questioned the behavior of the Iditarod since being forced out of his rookie race in 2009 because his team wasn’t going fast enough.

He was at Ophir, just before the race’s halfway point at Iditarod, when he was told he couldn’t go on.  At the time, he was the last musher in the race and was told he was too far behind the second-to-last musher. He protested, but got nowhere.

He later sued the Iditarod arguing the race had tossed him out in violation of its own rules. He lost the case when an Alaska judge decided Iditarod was not bound to follow its own rules.










15 replies »

  1. The Iditarod is covering up a lot…that is their specialty. Smoke was almost certainly ill before he boarded the plane, he was probably severely dehydrated and should have been on an IV. When dealing with 75 dogs in crates, many of which are ill, injured and/or exhausted, his condition could have easily been overlooked by race veterinarians and volunteers.

    The Iditarod is also misreporting Smoke’s age. According to a post on Scott Smith’s Facebook, Smoke was only a YEARLING. Shortly after news of his death was released, the post was amended to describe Smoke only as the youngest dog on the team. Because Smoke was so young, he could have been masking a lot of his symptoms before he suddenly deteriorated mid-flight.

    Even if all the dog deaths during the race are being reported, the Iditarod has never been forthcoming in releasing necropsy results. What sort of abnormalities cannot be disclosed? How about those that might indicate evidence of dog doping? No one wants to hear the dogs are given performance enhancers — imagine what the “animal rights” groups would say — but only a fool would believe that none of these dogs are on drugs.

    The Iditarod’s anti-doping policy is a complete joke…no year round testing, no random testing, no procedures for reporting test results, and no specified consequences for positive results. The ITC has never caught a cheater. Whether the progam is a fake or a fraud, it is insufficient to detect and discourage abuse. All the ITC is doing is casting more suspicion on themselves by failing to disclose the full necropsy results, or worse yet, lying about the circumstances that caused the dog’s death. Gag orders all around…hear no, speak no, see no evil…then lie when the silence is worse.

  2. I don’t know what killed this dog. But I do know that quick transitions from extreme cold to high temperatures affects humans differently. Once during an Iditaski in the 80’s I walked into Joe Delia’s 90 degree cabin in Skwentna after being out in sub-zero temps skiing all night. I quickly got nauseous and dizzy and thought I was dying. Literally crawled out of the cabin and curled up on the snow. When my body temperature dropped a bit I felt fine. This didn’t happen to other competitors. Joe called it temperature shock. So maybe it’s the same with dogs. Some can handle extreme and quick changes in temperatures, some can’t.

    • it is individual specific. i’ve seen that. but where would a dog be exposed to high temps? it was load in a DC6 in Galena. the cargo hold is not heated. it didn’t fly through any hot air on the way to Fairbanks. i guess the question becomes what happened there and after. there seem to be plenty of questions.

      • I can believe the cargo hold of the plane got warm for the dogs. I live in Fairbanks and the afternoon sun has been quite hot this week. Without ventilation, the cab of my truck is uncomfortably warm for me when the sun is beating down, let alone a sled dog. Ambient temperatures may be in the single digits, but the sun puts out a lot of heat this time of year, especially if the angle is right.I don’t think the Iditarod is hiding anything, just trying to find out what happened before putting out bad information. Same thing with Deacon, the Iditarod did acknowledge the results of the necropsy were not conclusive as you reported above. However, you failed to mention further tests are being conducted and those findings will be released when available. Not everything is a cover up or a conspiracy. Give the Iditarod time and I feel confident we will all get the answers we need and the Iditarod can use that information to ensure the safety of the dogs in the future.

      • then explain the focus on the dog coat, John? it’s basically meaningless in this situation. it’s designed to block wind which can pull heat out of anything, but it doesn’t do much of anything on a quiescent dog in a windless environment. the insulating value is minor. i’d probably classify that under “bad information.” is the iditarod hiding anything? i don’t know. but as a reporter for a long time, i admit i do get suspicious when people only provide tidbits of information. there was a necropsy done. surely there was a necropsy report written. release the report and be done with it.

      • I would disagree that the dog coat is meaningless. While the coats are constructed of a windproof shell, most have fleece or wool insulation. Depending on the brand, some can be quite substantial. Very similar to the lightweight coats we all wear today that we typically use on a cool to cold day or as a layer under our big parkas. They definitely provide heat retention as well as protection from the wind, and in my opinion should not be used in transportation unless it is severely cold. Scott dropped that dog in Manley in the early days of the race when night time temps were dipping down in the 40 to 50 below range. He absolutely made the right call to leave the coat on the dog at that time. I believe the volunteers in this case that loaded the dogs did not recognize the potential for the cargo hold to heat up with the combination of strong day time sun and the cumulative effect of roughly 75 dogs body heat contributing to hot, humid conditions that would make it difficult for a dog to regulate its core temperature. Put a dog coat on top of all that and you have a recipe for disaster. The Iditarod needs to educate volunteers to make decisions based on the conditions at that time. I would venture to guess the coat got left on that dog because the musher had dropped the dog with a coat on it. No one thought to question if the coat should stay on the dog for the rest of his trip home. As with almost everything in life, situational awareness can make or break you.

  3. Some dogs are panic-stricken by airplane travel. A panic attack would elevate an individuals temperature more than others in the same environmental conditions, but may well have gone unseen.
    It would also be very helpful to hear from the musher why he dropped the dog from his team, and maybe time of day. A dog who is not eating or not drinking well is usually dropped. They will require more attention than amusher in a race can afford to give, will tire more rapidly, and slow the entire team. If the musher dropped the dog after a long run on the river,where there is no shade, in the ‘heat of the day’, the animal may have already been heat stressed before loading on the plane.
    We also do not see here if the dog had any time at the checkpoint in which to rehydrate or cool down or calm itself after being left by the team.

    • thanks, Dave. fully agree. but if more than one dog was affected, as some are now reporting, that would seem to indicate a bunch of dogs were exposed to a warm environment somewhere. question is where? they were loaded in a the cargo hold of an old DC6 in Galena and flown to Fairbanks.

    • According to the press release Smoke was dropped in Manley on the 7th. So how long was he on the plane?

    • The ITC report indicates that Smoke was dropped with a “wrist injury” in Manley Hot Springs on Tuesday, 3/7/17, and died in transit late Friday, 3/10/17. He was in Manley Hot Springs for 3 days? The second report only indicated that “the findings were consistent with hyperthermia,” which, so far, was never a conclusion.

      Two-year-old Deacon collapsed. Whatever the conclusion on Smoke, these deaths are morally wrong. This race averages about 3 dog deaths per race (149 since 1973), and since it is logical to assume this trend will continue, one can only conclude that the organizers, mushers, and spectators care more about the entertainment, and are willing to look the other way when dogs are likely to die in every race – or they would stop doing it.

    • I’ve ridden in the back of a DC-6 (filled with fish totes). Not that big of a space. And 75 dogs in there – lots of body heat. ADN quoted vet as saying another dog (Stout) had a temp of 109 when he got off the plane. Body heat from 75 dogs plus no ventilation plus stress plus dehydration before the ride … that’s my guess based on what I’ve read.

      • 109 is serious. i’ve ridden in the back of a DC6 and almost froze to death. i also talked to a former Everetts load master today he couldn’t remember one of those cargo holds being anything but freezing in winter, it would be nice to know what the temp was in there. i’d also like to know where the flight went. there seem to be two versions on that. Galena to Fairbanks and then to Anchorage, or Galena to Anchorage. i asked the Iditarod for a timeline today and got nothing. i also think you might have something with stress and dehydration, which would be way more of a heat problem than a dog coat. you also left out some information with your post: “that’s my guess based on what I’ve read and some years running sled dogs.”

  4. Why would that plane have stopped in Fairbanks? The dogs were in the airplane hold flying high in the winter-time. No way did Smoke have heatstroke. Could be veterinarians never examined him or gave an inferior check-up. The Iditarod lies all the time about tons of stuff.

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