I’ve seen pictures of Iditarod dogs wearing booties while on the trail. What is this about? My musher and handler wear big boots out in the dog yard during the winter. Do Iditarod dogs wear booties to keep their feet warm and prevent frostbite like my humans do?I decided to ask Iditarod’s Chief Veterinarian, Stuart Nelson, Jr. and my own veterinarian, Rebecca Lee. Dr. Lee lived in Fairbanks, Alaska and served in the veterinary corps for many sprint races as well as the Yukon Quest. She also cared for the dogs in Susan Butcher’s kennel. Given their collective experience, I figured if ever a vet knew about dogs, booties and frostbite, it would be these two.
Both Dr. Lee and Dr. Nelson said that dog’s feet are not likely to become frostbitten. So to answer the question about booties, there must be another reason for mushers spending all that time and effort to bootie up the team before taking off down the trail. There must be another reason for Iditarod rules requiring that a minimum of 8 booties be in the sled for each dog running. There must be another reason why mushers use a couple thousand booties each year for training and racing.
Indeed there is – cold snow and ice are very abrasive or rough. Booties are used to protect the feet from being scraped up and to keep balls of ice from collecting around the footpad. Think about having a blister or cut on your foot or having a small rock in your shoe – pretty uncomfortable. So it is for the dogs but booties prevent these uncomfortable issues.
If it’s not the booties, then why don’t dogs get frostbite on their feet? Dogs have fur on their feet and around their pads. The bottom of their feet is protected by thick epithelial (leather like) pads. Dogs have a higher body temperature (100-102.5) than humans do and their resting heart rate (100-120) is also higher. Their metabolism is very high and in winter, up to 60% of their calories come from fat.
Dr. Nelson thinks that dogs and other animals may have a different circulatory process than humans. When humans are exposed to extreme cold, blood vessels in the arms and legs contract to restrict blood flow to the limbs. This helps reduce heat loss and maintain core body temperature. When extremities get cold in animals, circulation doesn’t decrease as it does in humans. Maybe animals have more blood vessels in their feet.
Dogs and other animals are also able to curl their paws next to their bodies when they sleep. This is an adaptation to the environment, a survival mechanism to allow their feet to stay warm in even the harshest of winter conditions.
Do dogs wear booties to prevent frostbite? The answer is NO. They wear booties for much the same reason humans wear socks – to prevent abrasions.
Now you know a little about how mushers help the canine athletes like me maintain healthy happy feet. I hope you take good care of your feet and be sure to wear warm boots and socks when you’re outside in cold weather.
Being that I’m still considered to be a youngster, I’ve taken a liking to the youngsters that will be running the Iditarod. Keep an eye on Rohn Buser of Big Lake and Melissa Owen for Nome. They are both Junior Iditarod Champions and are just 18 years old. Go Rohn, Go Melissa!
Stay tuned for more stories about puppies, dogs and Iditarod. The next story I’m working on is about the criteria for being an Alaskan Husky.
Sanka W. Dog