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Would ECGs that spot problems among Iditarod dogs help human athletes?

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

News from a Dublin, Ireland, conference on the health of athletes could be making the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race look a lot better.

The quintessentially Alaskan race has long been under attack from animal-rights activists who contend it is cruel because dogs sometimes die on the 1,000-mile trail from Willow to Nome. However, no dogs have died in the last three Iditarods -- a first-of-its-kind streak in race history. Veterinarians say that is because emergency treatment is better, and because they've gotten lucky.

"We have no control over life and death. But we can do everything we can to prevent a condition from progressing from something minor to something more serious," Iditarod chief veterinarian Stu Nelson told Alaska Dispatch after the race.

The greatest advancement in recent years in maintaining the health of the Iditarod's elite runners has been the addition of a small pill to the dogs' daily diets, Nelson said. Research has shown a high number of the dogs are susceptible to gastric ulcers. Further research showed medicine like Prilosec is an effective way to thwart the condition, which can cause a dog to become very ill.

Nelson credits getting a handle on the gastric ulcers with saving lives. "I think that was the biggest challenge we had, and now that that seems to be sufficient, the probability of having zero dog deaths is much greater now," he said.

However, deaths happen in endurance sports for dogs, horses and, yes, people. The Ireland conference, hosted by the European Society of Cardiology, underlined just how dangerous competitive sports are for humans. A recent study published in a journal of the American Heart Association found that 1 in 44,000 NCAA athletes is a victim of sudden cardiac death each year. However, a Swedish researcher found that Division I athletes face a cardiac death risk of about 1 in 3,000.

Given that dogs have a lifespan about a sixth as long as humans and that more than 1,000 of them start the Iditarod every year, there would be a couple dead dogs every year if they faced a comparable mortality rate. Iditarod vets have tried to avoid that by requiring pre-race electrocardiograms (ECGs) to look for any possible heart problems. Dogs that appear to have weak hearts have been ruled out of competition.

Might the same test be a good idea for humans? Some sports doctors are suggesting as much, though in the U.S. there has been resistance to "pre-participation" ECGs due to cost and other factors:

Current recommendations call for clinical examination and ECG only if the exam is inconclusive or if an ECG is needed to confirm a diagnosis … Using ECG would identify more athletes at risk and would likely result in more treatment, thus more cost, but "if you are going fishing, you buy the boat, hire the fisherman and the equipment so that you catch more fish. With the ECG we can catch more fish."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com