Current Issues in Sled Dog Sports​
Exclusion from Animal Welfare Laws

One of the largest issues facing sled dog sports today is that loopholes exist in current federal, state, and municipal regulations which exclude sled dogs from coverage under animal welfare laws. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alaska, where sled dogs are factory farmed for competition and touring, and endure mass chain warehousing and seasonal culling in the name of competitiveness. 

The 30th Alaska State Legislature (2017-2018) states that: “pet” means a vertebrate living creature maintained for companionship or pleasure, but does not include dogs primarily owned for participation in a generally accepted mushing or pulling contest or practice or animals primarily owned for participation in rodeos or stock contests. (

In fact, per Sec. 11.61.140 Cruelty to Animals, Subsection (e) states: “This section does not apply to generally accepted dog mushing or pulling contests or practices or rodeos or stock contests.” (

In the Mat-Su Borough, they go one step further to degrade sled dog welfare by classifying the dogs as livestock: “Livestock” includes, but is not limited to, domestic animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, and other animals normally considered farm animals, whether kept for profit or not, as well as sled dogs housed at a licensed mushing facility, or sled dogs owned by the owner or licensee of a licensed mushing facility, whether kept for profit or not.”  (

The Borough also exempts sled dogs from nuisance animal noise ordinances: “A) It is unlawful for any animal owner to allow an animal to annoy any person. Violation of this provision is an infraction. (B) A person who holds a current mushing facility license as per MSB 24.07, as well as persons who are handlers for, employees of, or agents of a specific licensed mushing facility, are exempt from subsection (A) of this section in regard to sled dogs housed at or originating from that mushing facility.“ (
Noise ordinances are put in place not only to keep peace with the neighbors, but because a chronically loud animal is usually an animal in distress, and this law gives Peace Officers, Animal Control Officers, and Police the right to investigate when they can hear the problem, but the animal is hidden from view.

In Maine, ME. REV. STAT. ANN. tit. 7, § 4015 (2017) [Proper shelter and protection from the weather], states that:
For dogs other than dogs kept as sled dogs or dogs used in competition, the chain or tether must be at least 5 times the length of the dog measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail. For dogs kept as sled dogs or dogs used in competition, the chain or tether must be:

  • (1) At least 2.5 times the length of the dog measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail if the anchor is stationary; or
  • (2) At least 1.5 times the length of the dog measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail if the anchor is a pivot point allowing a 360° area of movement.

Sled dogs are provided with less than half the length of chain of any other dog. Though no dog should be chained, this is particularly disturbing that sled dogs are restricted so severely.

In the New Jersey state animal cruelty laws, N.J. STAT. ANN. § 4:22-16 (2017). [Construction of article], states that: 
Nothing contained in this article shall be construed to prohibit or interfere with:

  • d. The training or engaging of a dog to accomplish a task or participate in an activity or exhibition designed to develop the physical or mental characteristics of that dog. These activities shall be carried out in accordance with the practices, guidelines or rules established by an organization founded for the purpose of promoting and enhancing working dog activities or exhibitions; in a manner which does not adversely affect the health or safety of the dog; and may include avalanche warning, guide work, obedience work, carting, dispatching, freight racing, packing, sled dog racing, sledding, tracking, and weight pull demonstrations.

In Vermont, VT. STAT. ANN. tit. 13, § 365 (2017) [Shelter of animals], states:

  • (1) Except as provided under subdivision (2) of this subsection, a dog predominantly maintained outdoors on a tether shall be on a tether that allows the dog to walk a distance in any one direction that is at least four times the length of the dog as measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail, and shall allow the dog access to the shelter.

  • (2) (A) A dog regularly used in training or participation in competitive or recreational sled dog activities and housed outdoors in close proximity with other dogs may be maintained on a tether that allows the dog to walk a distance in any one direction that is at least two times the length of the dog, as measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail. The tether shall be attached to the anchor at a central point, allowing the dog access to a 360 degree area.

Again, sled dogs are provided with half the length of chain as any other dog.

Luckily for sled dogs - and all dogs in the United States - In Defense of Animals (IDA) is working on a federal anti-tether bill. This bill will be a landmark law in that it will be one of the first that specifically includes working dogs, instead of excluding them. IDA has also launched a new reporting form that they intend to utilize to lead the way toward a unifying federal bill to be passed and then enforced across the country.
Federal Break The Chains Campaign Survey

Canadian Sled Dog Regulations

Doping & Performance-Enhancing Drugs

In October 2017, officials for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race confirmed that, during the 2017 race, several dogs tested positive for a “prohibited substance,” presumably used to enhance their performance.  News outlets later reported that the team of dogs tested positive - specifically - for tramadol: a Class IV opioid used to manage severe pain. Dogs in the Iditarod are forced to pull sleds nearly 1,000 miles through the frozen Alaskan wilderness, and often sustain paw injuries, strained muscles, stress fractures, stomach ulcers, damaged lungs, and other injuries - and some die. It’s no surprise that someone used the prohibited drug to mask their pain and force them to keep running.

Iditarod officials later revealed that the musher whose dogs tested positive for opioids was four-time champion, Dallas Seavey. Dallas has won a total of $455,852.88 while running the Iditarod.

In response to the revelations of drugging, the Iditarod Trail Committee’s Board of Directors revised its regulations to stipulate that mushers will be “strictly liable” for positive drug tests. However, the regulations apply only from the point of the pre-race veterinary exam until six hours after the dogs cross the finish line. Mushers can still use topical corticosteroid creams throughout the race on dogs’ paws.

According to Craig Medred News (

  • Five reliable sources with connections to either the community of Iditarod veterinarians or the Iditarod board of directors have told that his dogs were not the first Iditarod dogs to be found with prohibited drugs in their urine.

  • Two of those sources said past incidents were handled quietly, behind closed doors by the Iditarod’s executive committee, and that in a couple of cases mushers were told to take some time off from The Last Great Race. The Iditarod has officially refused to comment on past doping incidents or actions that might have been taken related to doping.

  • The latest case remained secret for months after Dallas’s dogs tested positive in March 2017. It only came to light in October when the Iditarod announced it was adding a “strict liability standard” to its doping rule as the norm in other sports. 

The International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) made the following statement (

  • The International Federation of Sleddog Sports, the official international organization for sleddog sport; member of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), hereby states that Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) is not affiliated with IFSS.

  • IFSS works close with the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC), and any IFSS accredited race has to follow the international rules concerning doping, including the publication of any positive testing results as it is the case for all other sports in the world.

  • It is unfortunate for the world of mushing that the ITC chose to follow an anti-doping protocol that it cannot enforce.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has contacted the Iditarod Trail Committee and urged it to strip all mushers found to have drugged dogs of their titles and awards. (

In 2015, sled dog sports were found to be the 7th most prevelant sport for positive doping results.

Risk of negative effects on the welfare of dogs associated with being housed outdoors or used for sled dog racing.

Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare of the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety

1.2.1 Welfare challenges related to outdoor housing of dogs

  • Dogs are social animals and easily become attached to people. If dogs are kept outdoors, they may experience less contact with humans than dogs living inside human homes. Although a couple of minutes of daily contact with humans are enough to build attachment in dogs, sufficient social stimulation is crucial to prevent negative welfare consequences due to social isolation. Positive interactions (e.g., play, more gazing at humans) were found to lead to increases in the hormones β-endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin and the neurotransmitter dopamine in both humans and dogs, and even cortisol levels were decreased in humans after playing with their dogs (Nagasawa et al., 2009; Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003). Oxytocin plays a major role in developing and maintaining strong social bonds in mammals. The positive social interactions between humans and their dogs can lead to closer attachment between dogs and owners (a process in which this hormone can act as the main driver of positive feedback). Thus, these positive social interactions not only have short-term positive effects on welfare, but also improve the relationship between dog and owner in the long-term.
  • Dogs kept outdoors can be stimulated more by natural olfactory, visual, and auditory stimuli. However, since exploration is restricted most of the time, under-stimulation may occur, which, in turn, can lead to boredom, passive behaviour, and consequently lower welfare. 

1.3.1 Physical activity in sled dogs throughout the year

  • Sled dogs that are subject to extreme activities during competition, as well as during the training season, may experience diminished animal welfare. Lack of exercise outside the training season could also present welfare problems among these dogs. In a study conducted on Alaskan huskies during summer, Delude found that the dogs (n = 11-15) spent more than 80% of time in recumbent posture, mostly with their eyes closed (Delude, 1986). This can be a sign of boredom and result from lack of stimulation. These dogs were tethered individually and had access to their own dog house, but had limited physical contact with other dogs.

  • An adult dog normally sleeps 10 hours or more a day (Ettinger and Feldman, 2010). During long-distance races the dogs may become sleep-suppressed, as do the mushers. Resting of dogs includes several cycles of sleeping with frequent shifts between different awake phases (Kis et al., 2014). On average, about 23 sleep-wake episodes can be observed in an 8-hours night-time resting, with 21 minutes cycles containing 16 minutes sleep and 5
    minutes awake (Adams and Johnson, 1993). The sleeping cycles of dogs include a significant amount of drowsing, in contrast with humans, and daytime naps are essential parts of resting in dogs. The sleep of dogs contains also slow wave sleep (SWS)- and rapid eye movement (REM) phases, which are comparable in structure to those of humans (Kis et al., 2014). Both the amount of sleep and the ratio of the different phases during sleep show high
    individual variability in dogs (Adams and Johnson, 1993; Kis et al., 2014; Tobler and Sigg, 986), similar to that seen with humans (Banks and Dinges, 2007). There are multiple hypotheses about the role of sleep in animals, like the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis (Tononi and Cirelli, 2006) or the information processing hypothesis (Dickelmann and Born, 2010; Horne and Minard, 1985). Sleep suppression (reduced amount of sleep) or sleep deprivation (loss of sleep) can lead to an increase in time spent sleeping in the recovery phase, when given the opportunity. However, more characteristic is the change in the architecture of sleep, for instance prolonged SWS-phase can be observed after sleep deprivation, both in humans and dogs (Borbély, 1982)) (Takahashi et al., 1981). Sleep deprivation was found to lead to reduced motor activity in the recovery period in dogs (Tobler and Sigg, 1986). Total deprivation of sleep in the long term may lead to death.

1.3.2 Animal health challenges in sled dog racing

  • In addition to physiological stress, sled dogs are likely exposed to psychogenic stress in the form of exposure to unfamiliar environments, interactions with unfamiliar conspecifics, and the race itself (Hekman et al., 2014). A stressful environment and an anxious personality are associated with large bowel disease in dogs (Leib, 2000). Dogs undergoing significant physiological stress in the form of exposure to physical exertion of a sled race are at increased risk of developing gastric lesions (Davis et al., 2003).

  • In published studies, based mainly on the long-distance sled dog races Iditarod and Yukon Quest, the main reasons of retiring dogs from races are listed as lameness, excessive fatigue, diarrhoea, and sore feet. The exact prevalence of the different reasons for removing sled dogs from long-distance races are not normally specified or published, and the data presented below are based on 8 and 32 dogs (Burr et al., 1997 and Hinchcliff, 1996,
    respectively). Therefore, conclusions cannot be reached based on these limited data, but should be considered as describing possible trends. Where the prevalence of these problems are specified, excessive fatigue was recorded in 47% (Hinchcliff, 1996) and 63% (Burr et al,. 1997), lameness or pad injuries in 41% (Hinchcliff, 1996) and 25% (Burr et al., 1997), diarrhoea in 6% (Hinchcliff, 1996) and 13% (Burr et al., 1997), dehydration in 3% (Hinchcliff, 1996) and fever in 3% (Hinchcliff, 1996) of cases.

  • In 23 dogs that died during the Iditarod Trail sled dog races between 1994 and 2006, recognized causes of death included aspiration of gastric contents (n=4), aspiration pneumonia (n=4), acute blood loss secondary to gastric ulceration (n=3), and sled dog myopathy (n=2) (Dennis et al., 2008). Pulmonary oedema, brain oedema, and possible drowning, were the presumptive causes of death identified in three more dogs. The cause of
    death was not established for the remaining seven dogs. The study population represented 0.15 % of approximately 15 600 competing dogs. Lesions commonly observed in the dogs with race-related deaths included rhabdomyolysis (n=15), enteritis (n=10), gastritis (n=10), gastric ulceration (n=10), aspiration pneumonia (n=8), centrolobular hepatocellular necrosis (n=6) or centrolobular hepatic fibrosis (n=3), gastric dilatation (n=3), and cardiac myodegeneration and necrosis (n=3) (Dennis et al., 2008).

  • According to information from the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, ten sled dogs were autopsied during 2005-2016. Information regarding time of death (e.g., during or shortly after a race) was not available. Main lesions observed in these dogs were cardiac insufficiency (n=6), pneumonia (n=1), and dehydration/chronic nephritis (n=1). In two dogs there was no diagnosis due to autolysis.

  • A substantial proportion of well-trained sled dogs that die during competition lack lesions to account for death. However, in contrast with equine and human athletes, unexpected death of endurance-racing dogs may result from aspiration pneumonia, gastric mucosa lesions, and sled dog myopathy (Dennis et al., 2008).

  • Stiffness and lameness are common among dogs participating in long-distance races. Stiffness often becomes evident after rest, but usually disappears when the dog starts moving and warms up. The observation time must be sufficient for deciding whether or not the condition is transient. Lameness is a common cause of dogs being excluded from a race (Burr et al., 1997; Hinchcliff, 1998).

  • Sled dog myopathy may present as mild and of little clinical significance, and is likely to be associated with muscle fatigue and transient pain and stiffness. Myopathy may also be extensive, involving large areas of muscle. It is then considered as a life-threatening condition (Dennis et al., 2008). The cause of sled dog myopathies is still unknown, but the pathogenesis may involve oxidative stress, electrolyte imbalance, lipid disorders, mitochondrial injury, or metabolic alterations. Deficiencies in nutritional components, such as vitamin E, have been suggested as possible predisposing factors. However, there is no documented association between prerace plasma vitamin E concentration and the risk for development of exertion-associated rhabdomyolysis. Administration of an antioxidant supplement failed to attenuate exerciseinduced increases in plasma creatine kinase (CK) activity in sled dogs (Piercy et al., 2000; 2001)

  • The prevalence of gastrointestinal inflammation in conditioned sled dogs is unknown, but histologically verified gastritis and enteritis were common among 23 dogs with race-related deaths (Davis at al., 2008). The histological changes were nonspecific and usually mild, and in no instance was a primary aetiological agent identified. It is therefore unclear whether these lesions are exercise related or more strongly influenced by the unique husbandry of sled dogs. Inflammation of the gastrointestinal mucosa does not seem to be prevalent among humans or equine athletes (Davis et al., 2008).

Prevalence of Diarrhea and Enteropathogens in Racing Sled Dogs

E. McKenzie, J. Riehl, H. Banse, P.H. Kass, S. Nelson, Jr, and S.L. Marks

This study critically assesses both the prevalence of diarrhea and the association between diarrhea and multiple enteropathogenic bacteria and parasites in a relatively large cohort of racing sled dogs before and during a long distance race. The prevalence of diarrhea during racing was 36%, with nearly 9% of dogs having liquid diarrhea. This is considerably higher than previously reported, but is compatible with reliable anecdotal accounts (S. Nelson, Jr, Iditarod Trail Committee, personal communication). The significance of the problem is further underscored by the fact that the majority of mushers reported using one or more treatments for the prevention or control of diarrhea in their team during racing.​

In the current study, a strong association was observed between racing and the presence of blood, mucus, or both in the feces, with 46.5% of dogs studied during racing displaying gross evidence of gastrointestinal bleeding (hematochezia or melena). However, it is possible that the prevalence of gastrointestinal bleeding was even higher because the raw meat contained in the diet the dogs consumed precluded the use of more sensitive methods of testing for occult fecal blood. Gastrointestinal bleeding has been suspected to occur frequently in racing sled dogs, based on documented declines in hematocrit and serum albumin and increases in serum urea nitrogen during  racing. Additionally  racing  sled  dogs have a prevalence of up to 61% of potentially hemorrhagic gastric lesions, including gastritis and gastric ulcerations. However, the high prevalence of hematochezia, in addition to diarrhea, indicates that colonic dysfunction is also an important phenomenon in sled dogs during racing.

Fresh blood on a sled dog trail leading up to Little Willow Creek in Willow, Alaska, just weeks before the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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