ANCHORAGE - The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race wrapped up with a surprise - no dog deaths.
The race ended Saturday night when the 55th and final finisher, rookie Celeste Davis, reached Nome.
"To stand there and watch that last team come in, I'll tell you, is the highlight of my veterinarian career," said chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson.
He told the Anchorage Daily News he could not remember a year without dog deaths since he became involved in the race in 1986. At least twice, in 1994 and 1996, there has only been one death, he said.
Race supporters have said that with more than 1,100 dogs starting the race, a dog death during the two-week competition is statistically inevitable.
Six dogs died in 2009 from fluid-filled lungs, hypothermia and, in one case, a rough airplane ride.
Animal rights activists see the grueling 1,100-mile race as fatally demanding on dogs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded an investigation of the deaths last year.
On Saturday, top finishers said relatively good trail conditions, low temperatures and the lack of a major storm helped teams,
"It was a very easy trail to run, although it was a very cold race," said Whitehorse musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who finished seventh.
While some dogs looked thin as they struggled to maintain weight in temperatures of 30 and 40 below, the cold can help in other ways, Nelson said.
"Typically our greatest concern is dogs that might overheat," he said. "So when you have a colder race you can take that factor, typically, out of the equation."
After last year's high death count, the chief veterinarian had appeared "on edge" at a mushers meeting before the race, said Tok musher Hugh Neff, who finished ninth.
"He put out the word to all of us that the dogs were going to be checked more thoroughly and that after what happened last year, we needed to be more vigilant."
The average number of deaths rose from about two a year in the 1990s to roughly three deaths a year as the field of mushers ballooned to 80 or 90 competitors around 2000, Nelson said.
About 40 volunteer veterinarians lined the trail this year checking for heart, feet and weight problems.
Mushers take a 24-hour rest somewhere along the trail. They're required to make an eight-hour stop along the Yukon River and take another eight-hour rest at one of the final checkpoints.
Forcing teams to make additional mandatory stops could lead to more injuries, not less, as teams rushed from checkpoint to checkpoint, Schnuelle said.
"I've always been a person who would rather run slow and steady than fast and rest long. I've always brought big teams to the finish line that way," said Schnuelle, who won the 2009 Yukon Quest and finished each of the past two Iditarods with 13 of his original 16 dogs.
"The slower you go, the less injury prone the travel is," he said.
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