Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Dear Beast Mode,
Do dogs really need those doggy booties? Does the salt really harm their feet, as doggy bootie manufacturers claim? I have been wondering this for literally years.
—Dog Bootie Skeptic
Dear Dog Bootie Skeptic,
It’s admirable that, in these fraught times of political unrest, you have concerned yourself with this particular conspiracy theory. I’d call it quaint, but then again, I’m not the one going after Big Dog Bootie here. Should they send their goons, I promise to keep your anonymity safe.
I can see why you would question the purpose of canine booties, though. If anything were to exist solely for humans’ own enjoyment, it would be miniature shoes for dogs. Seeing self-conscious pups clomp around in teensy galoshes is the only good part about slushy late-winter days. It’s a delightful tableau that seems to sprout from fashion rather than function, but I’d hate to imagine that it’s all based upon a lie.
To make sure the shoes serve a legitimate purpose and are not merely subterfuge invented by a cadre of insidious dog bootie manufacturers, I emailed Ilan Frank, a third-year resident at the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation service at Colorado State University’s veterinary teaching hospital. “Ice-melting salts, which usually contain chloride, can create acid that can harm the foot-pads,” he tells me. It’s not a conspiracy, after all.
While you’ll most often see the booties being worn in winter, more things than salt can hurt a dog’s paws. Hot asphalt can be particularly bad, Frank says, as can rough terrain or areas with broken glass, nails, or other debris. Even without the salt, icy and cold surfaces are really harsh on foot pads. This is why the official rulebook for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race states that mushers must carry “eight booties for each dog in the sled.”
Taking your pup for a jaunt to her favorite pooping bush isn’t exactly the Iditarod, so you probably don’t have to worry about booties if you’re just going on short walks. If you are still concerned about sidewalk salt, Frank says “you can simply wipe/wash your dog’s feet [afterwards].” Though, if your dog looks to be in any discomfort, ask your vet for advice.
While booties can solve some doggy podiatry problems, there are a few things you should be aware of before lacing up. “[Dogs’] only sweat glands are located in their foot pads,” Frank says, “so keep that in mind and take the booties off for air-breaks every 1–2 hours during long hikes.” He also warns that “small stones can find their way into the booties and create an abrasion or sore,” which is the kind of thing the booties were meant to help prevent in the first place. If your dog starts to limp or walk gingerly, remove the booties and make sure nothing crept inside.
If your esteemed four-legged colleague qualifies for dog booties, it might take them a bit to get used to this confusing sartorial development. Frank suggests putting the boots on for five minutes a day, combining them with playtime, and then gradually working your way up to longer walks.
I tried this with my own dog, Ruby. Ruby is lucky to live in Northern California where there are no icy sidewalks, but I was born and raised in Chicago and want to instill in her a sense of our family’s heritage. My goal is to introduce her to snow this winter with a trip to the mountains. In preparation for any long, chilly hikes, I bought her a set of purple booties. They are the cheap rubber kind, which aren’t great for long outdoor adventures, but I want to get her used to the sensation of wearing them in case we find she needs paw protection on the trails.
Her response to the booties prompted me to ask Frank if dogs are capable of feeling embarrassment. “I don’t think so,” he tells me, “but we as dog owners might be? Dogs sense our behavior/body language. If you’re not comfortable … the dog will sense it.”
And to think, reader, that you had figured there was some sort of grand charade to get dogs to wear the booties. If anything, the opposite is true. After all, Ruby is responding to my own subconscious aversion to her footwear, which makes me a kind of dog bootie Manchurian Candidate.
Things tend to make a lot more sense once you accept the fact that not everything is a conspiracy.