Over the past 20 years, more than 422,000 adult Americans were admitted to the ER for injuries related to walking their dog, according to new research from John Hopkins University. Walking a dog on a leash can lead to fractured fingers, shoulder sprains, and severe head injuries. This usually happens when the dog suddenly pulls on the leash while it is wrapped around the person’s finger or wrist. These injuries tend to be more common among older individuals, especially women ages 40 to 64.
“Dog walking is associated with a considerable and rising injury burden, and dog owners should be informed of this injury potential and advised on risk-reduction strategies,” said Ridge Maxson, first author of the study and a medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Keeping your dog on a leash is a must in most areas, but the leash can make the dog more aggressive in some situations. A sudden pull or yank can lead to serious injury.
“Although the leash serves as a vital link between the dog and the dog walker, it can put tension on the fingers and shoulder when a dog pulls ahead or quickly changes direction,” Maxson added. “The leash can also cause dog walkers to fall to the ground by getting pulled, tripped, or tangled in the leash.”
The number of injuries from dog walking has skyrocketed over the last twenty years, more than quadrupling from 2001 to 2020.
It’s not clear why the number of injuries has increased so rapidly over such a short period of time, but there are plenty of theories. Dog and pet ownership has been rising in the U.S. and many older Americans walk their dogs to stay active.
“Dog ownership [has] increased significantly in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maxson said in the study news release. “Although dog walking is a common daily activity for many adults, few studies have characterized its injury burden. We saw a need for more comprehensive information about these kinds of incidents.”
Michael Levine, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UCLA, said the numbers match up with what he’s seen in the ER.
“It happens daily or every other day that we’ll see someone in the emergency department who got hurt walking their dog,” he told the Washington Post. “But it’s by no means the vast majority of patients we’re seeing.”
The increase may also have to do with the way hospitals code these injuries. Providers can now enter more information about the cause of a sprain or fracture when treating patients.
“So, it’s not that there’s necessarily a true increase in the frequency of, say, a wrist fracture,” but the diagnoses are simply more precise, such as a wrist fracture because of contact with a dog, which makes the cases easier to identify, Levine explained.
Experts say the best way to prevent these injuries is to train your dog not to pull or yank on the leash when it sees another person or animal.
They also suggest using a short six-foot leash with a fixed length instead of a retractable leash. “Not only can retractable leashes contribute to injuries, they can make training your dog more difficult too,” says Kate Anderson, assistant clinical professor at the Cornell University Duffield Institute for Animal Behavior.
Putting the dog in a harness will also put less pressure on the animal’s throat. Avoid taking your dog to areas with known aggressors, such as a busy park or a yard with a dog in it. You can also try carrying a treat or dog toy around when you walk your dog in case you need to distract them.
Try talking to an animal behaviorist, trainer, or your local veterinarian for more tips. “Discuss the behavior with your family veterinarian,” Anderson added. “They can help determine the possible causes, rate the severity, and rule out any potential medical causes. If appropriate, they can then refer you to a qualified trainer or a veterinary behaviorist if needed.”
Dogs can do wonders for your physical and mental health, just make sure you aren’t taking any unnecessary risks when you hit the sidewalk.