FAIRBANKS - A 5-year-old male dog on the Yukon Quest team of Misha Wiljes died late Monday night approximately 3 miles outside of Central, a checkpoint located on the Steese Highway about 135 miles line from the finish line in Fairbanks, according to a Tuesday morning announcement from the race.
Wiljes, a Quest veteran from Willow, carried the dog, Joker, to Central in her sled.
The Quest issued a second news release Tuesday afternoon that stated the preliminary results of the necropsy, performed by Dr. Greta Krafsur, showed the cause of death was aspiration. The release said the body of the dog, named Joker, was in good condition and there were no signs of neglect or abuse.
On Tuesday night, Dr. Nina Hansen, the race’s head veterinarian, said it’s always sad to see a dog die on the trail.
“It’s really sad when it happens,” Hansen said. “In my 10 years with the Quest, there have been eight dog deaths — four in my five years as head vet, and four more in the five years before I became head vet.”
Aspiration, which Hansen said is inhaling stomach contents, can happen in different circumstances. She did say it’s much more common when dogs are moving, as was the case with Wiljes’ team. She also noted that in her 10 years with the Quest, three dogs have died of aspiration and two of them were running at the time.
During last year’s race, Boppy, a male dog on two-timer former champion Hugh Neff’s team, died of aspiration while eating food that was buried in straw.
Hansen said neither she nor her vet team nor Wiljes would have seen signs for Joker’s aspiration before it happened.
“It’s random,” she said. “We can’t predict a dog is going to vomit. If they’re sick, that’s why we don’t want them to run. Joker passed his pre-race vet check and was healthy at all the checkpoints. It was bad luck. He, for whatever reason, vomited while he was running. We can’t unfortunately predict that.”
Krafsur’s preliminary necropsy report took place at Central, which Hansen said was important to complete as soon as possible.
A final diagnosis and a final report, Hansen said, can be expected in about a month.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American animal rights organization often known by the acronym PETA, sent the News-Miner an email shortly after the news of Joker’s death broke.
“Dogs will continue to die as long as they’re forced to race through the ice and snow at grueling speeds along the 1,000-mile Iditarod and Yukon Quest trails, and PETA is calling for an end to these long-distance death traps before they claim any more victims,” PETA Vice President Colleen O’Brien stated in the email.
PETA has routinely had a presence at Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Races in recent years, though they haven’t been as visible at recent Quests.
Follow News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal on Twitter: @FDNMQuest for updates about the Yukon Quest.