A dog dies

dog lot nome

The Iditarod race over, sled dogs enjoy some recovery in the Nome dog lot/Wikimedia Commons, James Brooks

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is now saying it is unclear as to whether a dog that died at the end of the 1,000-mile race across Alaska this year fell victim to “aspiration pneumonia.”

After the death was publicly announced, animal rights groups attacked the race for its role in causing the death as “a result of (a dog) inhaling her own vomit.”

The Iditarod has since posted a media statement saying that a gross necropsy of the dog, Oshi, last week ruled “pneumonia as the reason for death. (But) the cause of the pneumonia could not be determined.”

Pneumonia is a dangerous lung inflammation that can be sparked by bacteria, fungus, viruses or aspiration of gastric fluids, regurgitated food or vomit. The new diagnosis could mean that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is wrong in its accusation of death due to vomit.

If the pneumonia of Oshi was infectious or fungal, it is also possible other dogs would be infected. Iditarod is waiting on results from microbiology and virology tests to see if a pathogen can be identified.

A public relations agency working for the race was Tuesday trying to track down race chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson to find out if any of the dogs dropped earlier in the race suffered from pneumonia.

Approximately 725 dogs started the race in Willow this year, and about 175 were dropped at checkpoints along the trail either because they were tired, suffered running injuries, or were coming down with illnesses.

Deadly disease

Aspiration pneumonia has been identified as one of the deadliest problems stalking long-distance sled dog races in the north. In each of the past three years, a dog has been reported dead of aspiration pneumonia in the Iditarod.

A 2008 study of 23 dog deaths from 1994 to 2006 attributed four deaths to aspiration pneumonia, three to gastric ulcerations and two to myopathy, a failure of the heart muscles. The causes of death in the other 14 cases could not be positively determined.

In the wake of the study, veterinarians increased the amount of Vitamin E given to dogs to protect against myopathy and put them on antacids to reduce gastric ulcers. Since then, deaths due to ulcers and myopathy have all but disappeared.

From 2011 through 2014, the Iditarod saw only one dog death, and that was a canine that died in a checkpoint because care was poor. The race thought it had the problem of dogs deaths behind it.

But as the race has sped up, pneumonia believed to be linked to aspiration has come to haunt it.

The problem has not been with dogs in the teams of top competitors but in teams struggling to keep up with the pace set by the leaders in both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. The latter race has also seen suspected aspiration pneumonia deaths in each of the last two years.

A 2017 Finnish study of canine pneumonia concluded that because of “the lack of reliable markers for aspiration, the link between aspiration and development of bacterial pneumonia is seldom verified and the term aspiration pneumonia is commonly used in situations where a patient with risk factors for aspiration presents with bacterial pneumonia.”

Richie Beattie from Two Rivers – Oshi’s owner – was racing for rookie of the year honors when Oshi went down on the stretch run from Safety to Nome. He loaded her in his sled and hauled her to Nome where she was treated by veterinarians before being flown to Anchorage, where she eventually died.

Beattie was disqualified from the Iditarod per a new rule that says any musher who has a dog die is out. The Quest has no such rule but last year took the extraordinary step of expelling veteran musher Hugh Neff after his dog, Boppy, died of aspiration pneumonia.


Quest vets attributed that death to the dog being underweight and suffering from a parasitic infection. Both accusations were challenged by a veterinarian working for Neff, but the Quest was unswayed.

After the another dog died of aspiration pneumonia in the Quest this year, Nina Hansen, the race chief veterinarian, described the illness to the Yukon News as  “one of the more common” causes of sled dog death.

“(Joker) vomited and inhaled it,” she told reporter John Hopkins-Hill. “He got stomach contents in his lungs and that usually doesn’t end well for them.”

All of the deaths have come past halfway in the long-distance races, and there is some thought they might be related to accumulated gastric stress caused by running. This is known to occur in both dogs and people.

Probably the most famous example was provided by marathon runner Bob Kempainen who vomited his way to the U.S. marathon championship in 1996.

Kempainen’s problems began at mile 24 in the 26.2-mile race when he took the lead.

“Then he took ill,” the New York Times reported. “His stomach upset by a sports drink, Kempainen threw up once, then twice. The second time, he slowed and began to wobble. For a moment it appeared that the unthinkable might happen. That two miles from the finish, Kempainen would have to abandon the race and any chance of qualifying for the Summer (Olympic) Games in Atlanta.”

Instead of abandoning, Kempainen actually picked up his pace as the TV cameras rolled and clicked off a 5:06-minute mile and then a 4:59 mile.

Individual susceptibility to gastric distress varies greatly in both canine and human athletes. The late Rocky Reifenstuhl from Fairbanks, a winner of the 350-mile Iditasport bicycle race along the Iditarod Trail and a rather notorious ultra-distance athlete, was a well-known puker.

Fellow competitor Pat Norwil in the late 1990s described Reifenstuhl as the “guy who pukes then lays down to rest only to be woken with uncontrollable shivers.” Reifenstuhl would then get back on his bike and ride 50 miles while others scratched their heads in amazement.

Human athletes can suffer aspiration pneumonia from throwing up like this, but it is rare. It is more common in elderly humans.

How common the problem is in dogs is not clear. The Iditarod has never reported how many dogs come down with pneumonia during the race. Most dogs that catch pneumonia – even aspiration pneumonia – survive.

“The prognosis for dogs treated for aspiration pneumonia at university hospitals is relatively good,” the Finish study said; “77 to 82 percent of dogs are reported to survive to discharge with an average hospitalization of three to five days.”

Studies appear to have been hampered by the general resistance of healthy dogs. The Finns reported pneumonia “difficult to induce experimentally in healthy dogs; the pathogenesis is therefore considered complex, involving several underlying mechanisms.”

Correction: An early version of this story had Nina Hansens last name wrong and appeared online for a few minutes with the wrong musher identified as the owner of the dead dog.










17 replies »

  1. Don”t forget about bleeding ulcers. There are many problems associated with giving dogs Pepcid.

      • Laura, those findings are inconclusive, outdated and not linked to sled dogs in any way that I can tell. Do you have a link to something from a more recent and conclusive veterinary study or journal?

      • Absolutely awesome Laura !! Thank you! I never trusted them an iota ! This should be considered in studies ! 1 out of 200 patients on these drugs develop pneumonia is a really big deal . Why ?? My opinion is ulcers are caused mostly by to much commercial grain based feeds . I say those drugs are unnecessary if a correct possiblely meat based diet is fed . Aprx 95% meat or animal fat type protein / fats . Wolves don’t shop in cereal isle . Meat is a very good acid reflux reducer . Chemically it’s base ? Am I right ? I’m going to forward your link to stu Nelson. He rarely listens but perhaps he will look into it .

      • “Under actual racing conditions, famotidine was not sufficiently effective in preventing severe EIGD [exercise-induced gastric disease]. A further study was then conducted, which compared the efficacy high-dose famotidine (40 mg PO BID/~25 kg dog) with omeprazole (20 mg PO SID/~25 kg dog) in preventing EIGD under racing conditions. This study showed that, with carefully timed administration, near the conclusion of a long exercise bout during which minimal snacking has occurred, omeprazole is more effective in reducing the number and severity of gastric lesions in racing sled dogs than famotidine. If an additional 30 min is allowed to pass prior to feeding the dog, efficacy can approach 100% in preventing clinically significant lesions during even the most strenuous exercise events.”

        – Michael S. Davis and Katherine K. Williamson, “Gastritis and Gastric Ulcers in Working Dogs,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 2016; 3: 30

        [Famotidine is not sufficiently effective in preventing ulcers. For omeprazole to be effective in preventing ulcers, the administration of the drug has to be carefully timed. It can be very difficult for mushers to give these pills orally in extreme conditions while also factoring in how much a particular dog has eaten and when.]

      • R Smith, meats are high in protein which is made of chains of amino acids, some of which are acidic, and some have basic side chains. The acidic ones and basic ones tend to balance each other out, so protein is chemically neutral.
        Wolves eat a lot of meat, but related carnivores like coyote and foxes like fruit. And many berries are acidic.
        Stomachs produce a lot of acid, which chemically breaks down protein. It’s not supposed to be regurgitated of course. It’s supposed to stay in the stomach whose lining exudes protective mucus.
        I don’t understand the physiology of stress ulcers, but apparently it’s a thing.
        I agree with you that a grain based diet is probably bad for dogs.
        A lot of things need to be figured out before it’s really safe to run dogs long distances. As things are now, it’s not good for the dogs, especially if they have to be medicated to go the distance.

      • Actually,Jason, there is a downside to using acid inhibititors. Hydrochloric acid is produced in the stomach lining to break down nutrients such as proteins into amino acids that your body (or a dog’s body) uses to build new proteins that are part of your structure, muscles for example, and immune cells needed to fight off disease. This strong acid also kills bacteria and viruses that can cause pneumonia. So inhibiting stomach acid production can be very dangerous. You just don’t want that acid to get regurgitated. Acid reflux over time can erode the esophagus and lead to esophageal cancer. And if there’s not enough acid in the stomach to digest proteins properly or kill bacteria, and you vomit and aspirate even a small amount, you can get pneumonia.
        Of course it’s useful at times, when you can’t eat much due to nausea, and the acid makes you even more nauseous, and could go to work on your stomach lining, digesting it and causing ulcers. But in young, supposedly healthy dogs, there’s no reason it should be needed.

      • Maxine , thank you for your reply. Just so you know most distance sled dogs have a small percentage wolf . At least in Alaska . Purebred Siberian’s May not . Most performance distance sled dogs have wolf bred in at some point to improve their abilities and resilience to weather and distance. My family has been closely watching sled dog genetics since the 1950s so I’m well versed on what has gone into creating the breeds . Some of the genetics in my personal line go back to Leanard seppalas Siberian’s which at the time we’re a very mixed breed from Siberia . A tough environment that produced very smart dogs . Long story short this breed is more adapted to meat products. With very small amounts of roughage or berries. They are not comparable to foxes or coyotes their pack structure is even different it’s similar to comparing apples to oranges. Yes both are fruits . Most sled dogs do not need medicated with anything even antacids to happily traverse or race 1000 miles across Alaska unless they pick up a bacteria or virus which is easily done at home as on the trail . Birds and other creatures are carriers . So it is a mistaken concept to assume sled dogs need medication of any form to travel long distances. It’s very possible medication upsets the balance of the system and animals/ sled dogs are better off without except in emergency. Many sled dogs have gone to nome without medication especially pre 2000 . So you mentioned a false assumption. Iditarod dogs require medication to complete an Iditarod is false . Swenson had many happy finishing Iditarod dogs who never touched an antacid. As have many mushers teams . I’m not diminishing the concerns of ulcers which are very important. I’m saying more studies need done before the final chapter is written.

    • Mike,
      I believe no matter what drug they (the mushers) choose to treat the symptoms, they are NOT treating the cause of the condition.
      The stress and lack of rest in the racing schedule leads to a build up of Lactic Acid and eventually ulcers…without major changes to the race, no drug will help.
      Another factor is these dogs have been streesed for months in training and building up acid as well, so for many dogs already “nursing” an ulcer…the race puts them over the edge and aspiration is a major concern.

      • Mike do you have any viable experience on subject or is that just an opinion? Many Iditarod dogs have never been given Pepcid or any antacid . As far as anyone knows dogs in those teams never had an ulcer . Swenson was pre antacid and never had a dog die from ulcers or pneumonia. Lactic acid does not build up over a period of months. That is a made up pretend concept . Fake concepts and opinions without experience to back it just confuse the subject.

      • Here is a quote as to how many dogs have ulcers that finish the Irod race…
        “On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.”
        61% of dogs finishing the race having ulcers is alarming….especially since most of these dogs are under 5 years of age.
        How else would 61% of young and healthy dogs get ulcers??
        It also states that 0 dogs had ulcers “pre race”??

        The research on Lactic Acid is also well documented and proven that grueling sporting events (like running 100 miles a day with little rest in between) would place the body in an “acidotic state” since the kidneys and lymph system cannot remove the acid as fast as it builds up in muscles…giving an animal like this Pepcid only masks the effects.
        “As you continue in your training or competition, your muscles burn more energy and produce lactic acid. Very quickly, this breaks down into lactate, which then leads to the release of hydrogen ions. When your body can’t process the lactate quickly enough to turn it into energy for your muscles, the hydrogen ions begin to build up and increases the levels of acidity within your muscles and tissues. Just as you think you’re starting to get ahead, you may be defeated by a sudden bout of nausea, extreme muscle cramps, a burning sensation in your muscles, or terrible stomach pain. That’s when you’ll need to stop, or bow out.”

      • So it appears people who completely don’t understand lactic acid are trying to operate as experts . Look up how long lactic acid takes to clear body or muscles under wiki how it’s a brief update . Explains lactic acid turns out to be needed and is short term energy source. Generally clears muscles an hour after exercise. Light excise speeds removal . There is no evidence dogs are in a state of acidosis during Iditarod which is from other factors than just exercise. Trying to draw a link to the two in Iditarod dogs is creating falsehoods. As to ulcer study there are obviously concerns. Though that study mentioned is beyond flawed as it used a very small number of kennels to study. Most mushers did not want dogs put under anesthesia and scoped – a very risky process that causes fatalities. So probably more than aprx 99.9 % of sled dogs have not been checked . When you take a small sample from a small number of kennels and don’t control for variables then extrapolate it to all sled dogs you create nonsense flawed information. All it really shows is larger studies are needed and there are valid concerns that may need addressing and additional research. Extrapolating beyond that is bogus. Teams each prepare and race so different you can’t say each one is in same situation. People who latch onto flawed studies and consider it gospel are not looking at full picture. Now don’t get me wrong I consider ulcers a 100% concern and am watching for signs every moment I’m around a dog . The thought of ulcers are scary and I watch like hawk for sighns . I say diet may be a large factor as well as other issues . As to lactic acid it’s something I’ve been studying and working with in one form or another for 4o years . I am well versed in lactic acid in athletic animals . My dad studied well and made me be certain to stop and rest the dogs aprx 20-45 sec per mile in training. Lactic acid is mostly eliminated by this process of rest . Gradually the dogs don’t need it as their body exercises in an arobic state when miles get long and dogs reduce effort . So less stops are required. Before making assumptions on lactic acid being a major problem it’s best to study carefully for yourself. Knowing just a little and then presumeing expert status is dangerous in the search for facts . I’ve been working at it for 40 years and know just enough to realize I have a lot to learn.

      • “Symptoms of lactic acid buildup in the bloodstream, known as lactic acidosis, include a sensation of burning in the muscles, weakness, cramps and nausea, reports WebMD.”
        “Extreme lactic acidosis may also cause vomiting and coma, warns”

  2. “But as the races has sped up, pneumonia believed to be linked to aspiration has come to haunt it.”
    This is the same reason Misha’s dog died in the Quest this year and the same reason for Kathrin’s dog death last year in Irod race…
    Increase in stress and lactic acid leads to ulcers and aspiration Pneumonia…this was proven years ago by Dr. Davis, hence the drugs like pepcid used to block stomach acid.
    The ITC will deny everything from abuse to culpability on the trail.
    Deny what handlers come forward saying, Deny what fellow mushers like Zoya say about culling and abuse and deny any Alaskans are against this race.
    “De Nenyal” seems to be a river than runs deep in AK!

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