Canine Foot Care on a 1000-mile Trail

By Melanie Donofro, DVM

Imagine a busy day Christmas shopping from store to store, or attending a favorite sporting event and having to park a long way from the venue.  Once home, the first thing one tends to do is listen to their feet saying, "Take off these shoes!"  Can you imagine what a sled dog's feet must say every time they get to a checkpoint?

Sometimes, if the sled dogs are wearing booties to protect their feet from the ice and snow, one can observe them lying in the straw, nibbling away at the Velcro bindings to remove their booties.  That is why when a dog team arrives at a checkpoint, one of the very first things a musher does is remove his sled dogs' booties. 

Sled dog veterinarians and mushers pay close attention to the dog teams' foot care.  What are they looking for when they inspect each dog's feet for several minutes?  At every mandatory checkpoint, the veterinarians spend considerable time checking each toe and joint for any soreness; toenails for damage that may need to be addressed; pads on the soles of the feet for any blisters; areas where the booties may have rubbed under the dewclaw and caused soreness; and finally, the webbing between the feet for swelling, redness, or cracks that can occur on a wet trail. 

If the musher and veterinarian monitor the team's feet carefully and use preventive procedures, the dogs will finish the race with feet that are in as good or better condition than when they started the race.  Proper foot care can heal a dog's sore feet from one checkpoint to the next.  

Good dog mushers will take the time to massage different ointments into the dogs' feet after every run.  This allows the healing effects of the salves to reverse the problems that occurred while running.  There are various products formulated for different foot conditions.  Some foot ointments keep the foot dry, some have antibiotics to prevent infection, and others contain herbals to decrease swelling.  Mushers also put booties on their dogs' feet when there is cold, sharp snow or wet snow that will pack between the toes.  This prevents "snowballs" from building up and causing a bruise between the dogs' toes.  The booties also protect the pads from wear and tear on icy trails.  

When I began working with sled dogs long ago, I thought they looked very fashionable in their matching harnesses and booties.  It didn't long for me to learn that booties and good foot care play a vital role in keeping a team sound and healthy enough to run a 1000 miles.  "No feet, no dog!"

Dr. Donofro has been a Yukon Quest trail veterinarian five times.  Her experience also includes serving as a trail veterinarian for the Iditarod, Can-Am Crown, and Great Trail Sled Dog Races, and she has worked with racing greyhounds.  She owns a small animal hospital in Florida, where she practices traditional veterinary medicine in conjunction with acupuncture, traditional chinese medicine, physical therapy, and spinal manipulation.  In addition to her practice, she is active with Auburn University and the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine.