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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.