Leg Protection for Sled Dogs

Spectators new to marathon sled dog racing may wonder at the brightly-colored "splints" surrounding the lower legs of the dogs as they rest at the checkpoints. 

These devices are not splints at all, but soft and flexible wrist protectors, which the mushers use to compress the lower legs to prevent swelling. While these wrist wraps, also known as carpal wraps or "sweats," are used occasionally to treat a swollen and painful carpus, they are just as often applied prophylactically to healthy animals to prevent the development of problems farther down the trail. They serve the same function for racing sled dogs as support hose do for the elderly, leggings for ballet dancers, or leg wraps for athletic horses.

The first wrist wraps used by mushers were made of an Ace bandage-like material, such as Vetrap, which was wound around the lower leg and secured with tape. This type of bandaging is still used, but reserved for injuries. Later styles of carpal wraps, used for the prevention of minor swelling, were made from polar fleece, and, while they were soft and warm, they did not apply enough pressure to keep the lower limbs from swelling. These products, in turn, were replaced with a soft neoprene wrap which was secured with tape or opposing strips of Velcro. The newest wrist wrap styles use neoprene with an outer material which adheres to the Velcro throughout its surface, allowing the musher to tailor the fit of the wrap to the dog, regardless of the size of the leg.

Many mushers will carry a pair of wrist wraps on the sled for every dog in the team. Each time they reach a checkpoint where they are planning to stay for a few hours’ rest, every dog will be bedded down in the straw with their lower legs wrapped. Often, a musher will wrap the wrists as soon as the booties are removed. Conversely, the musher will remove the wrist wraps as he applies fresh booties just prior to leaving the checkpoint.

Mushers often will massage an anti-inflammatory ointment into the skin of the lower leg before applying the wrist wraps for additional preventive therapy.

Many years ago, sled dogs often developed sore and swollen wrists which were severe enough to keep them from competing. Today, with modern materials and rehabilitation techniques, mushers are pro actively protecting their dogs’ wrists from future injury and insuring that the dogs’ racing experiences on the trail are productive and enjoyable for the animal. The addition of wrist wraps and liniments to the musher’s list of necessary equipment is one more example of the evolution of modern mushing with the dog’s welfare in mind.

Dr. Jerry Vanek has been a musher or sled dog race veterinarian for the past 30 years, including five Yukon Quests.  He is a former officer of the ISDVMA and he continues to write and speak widely on the subject of sled dog medicine.

By Jerry Vanek, DVM