First run in 1973, the Iditarod is a grueling 1,049-mile dog sled race through the frozen Alaskan terrain. With blizzard conditions, treacherous landscapes and temperatures that reach -100 degrees Fahrenheit, only highly trained, well-conditioned dogs will pass the required physical examination and earn one of the 16 spots on an Iditarod team.
According to the Official Iditarod Rules, only dogs suitable for arctic travel are permitted to race. After a sled pulled by standard poodles successfully finished the race in 1990, veterinarians voiced concerns over the effect of the harsh conditions on the poodles health. Subsequently, in 1991 Iditarod officials ruled that all dogs participating must be classified as “northern breeds.” Northern breeds are from native arctic regions, naturally possess a thick fur coat that protects them from the arctic cold and have paws suitable for travel over snow and ice. Dogs considered northern breeds include huskies, malumutes and Akitas.
In addition to being a northern breed, all dogs racing the Iditarod must meet the requirements of a “sled dog” as established by the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association. These requirements include a willingness to be harnessed, adequate training and conditioning and, most importantly, the ability to withstand environmental extremes. Certified sled dogs also must meet certain physical health parameters such as heart rate, respiratory capacity and body temperature. All dogs must pass a physical examination performed by a veterinarian knowledgeable on sled dog guidelines before being cleared to race.
Generally speaking, huskies are the most common dogs seen racing the Iditarod. While some of these dogs are actual purebred Siberian huskies, most of the dogs racing are considered Alaskan huskies. Alaskan huskies are not an American Kennel Club recognized breed, and can be a combination of several breeds including Siberian huskies, greyhounds, Alaskan malamutes and German shorthaired pointers. Known for their strength and athleticism, Alaskan huskies can withstand extreme cold temperatures and frozen conditions, making them excellent Iditarod competitors.
A distant cousin to the Siberian husky, Alaskan malamutes are another popular Iditarod sled dog. The name Malamute originates from the Alaskan mahlemut tribe, an Inupiat settled in northwest Alaska. According to the Alaskan Malamute Club of America, these native Alaskan dogs were utilized heavily as sled dogs during Alaska’s early freighting industry and gold rush. Malamutes are a popular sight on the Iditarod teams, both as purebreds and as mixed breeds.
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