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.
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.
PetTravel.com 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 VetInfo.com, “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 Vetary.com. 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.