Dog-Walking Injuries May Be More Common Than You Think

Fractured fingers, shoulder sprains and head injuries are common reasons people visit the emergency room. Now new research has identified a potential culprit — the family dog.

Johns Hopkins University researchers found that over a period of nearly two decades, more than 422,000 U.S. adults were treated in ERs for injuries suffered while walking leashed dogs. Women and people ages 40 to 64 made up most of the patients.

“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.

The number of injuries increased from 2001 to 2020, according to data analyzed by the researchers.

The idea for the study came from experiences in lead author Edward McFarland’s clinic, Maxson said. McFarland, a professor of shoulder and elbow surgery and orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, treated many patients with shoulder injuries resulting from dog walking and wanted to see available data on it.

Finger fractures, traumatic brain injuries, and shoulder sprains and strains were the three most-diagnosed injuries in ERs caused by walking dogs with leashes from 2001 to 2020, the study showed. The study cited the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System database from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Michael Levine, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UCLA, said the recent findings are consistent with what he sees in the ER.

Such injuries occur when dog walkers have the leash wrapped around their fingers or wrist and the dog lunges, said Levine, who was not involved in the study. It can result in tendon injuries, bone fractures — in fingers, arms or hips — and head injuries, he said.

“It happens daily or every other day that we’ll see someone in the emergency department who got hurt walking their dog,” he said. “But it’s by no means the vast majority of patients we’re seeing.”

More than 24 million unintentional injuries were seen in emergency departments in the United States in 2020 — the most recent year for which numbers were available — according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The traumatic brain injuries identified in the study ranged from concussions to non-concussive internal head injuries such as brain contusions and brain bleeds.

Women and older adults were at an increased risk for more serious injuries, with those older than 65 being about 60 percent more likely to have a brain injury, Maxson said.

More dog-walking injuries seen in ERs

The number of injuries caused by dog walking more than quadrupled during the study period, with about 7,200 in 2001 and about 32,000 in 2020, according to the study.

Levine said he does not know why the data showed that these injuries are occurring more frequently; he has not seen that in his ER. But there are some theories.

Pet ownership has been increasing in recent years, data shows, and bone fractures among older adults have been on the rise from dog walking as older adults have tried to stay active, previous research has shown.

At the same time, Levine said, hospitals have started being more specific with diagnostic coding.

“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, he said.

Karen B. London, a professional dog trainer and applied animal behaviorist, said she has clients who have been pulled over by their dogs and suffered injuries such as broken fingers and dislocated shoulders.

How to make leashed dog walking safer

People, particularly older adults, should take precautions when walking their dogs, especially large dogs, said London, an adjunct professor in biological sciences at Northern Arizona University. She suggests:

  • Using front-attaching harnesses to help keep the dog from pulling.
  • Choosing shorter leashes — 6 to 8 feet long — to avoid tripping on them.
  • Steering clear of retractable leashes, which can injure both dogs and their owners.
  • Avoiding places where a dog is known to be distracted, such as a schoolyard.
  • Carrying a squeaky toy or treats to help the dog regain focus when distractions occur.

“But I really think the biggest thing you can do is training,” she said. “Teaching a dog to walk nicely on a leash is really helpful.”

The findings should not cause older adults to shy away from dog ownership, London said.

She recommends that people balance the costs and benefits of dog ownership and find ways to mitigate risks. For instance, older people can have another person accompany them on dog walks, or choose a smaller dog, so “there’s not a mismatch in strength,” she said.

“I hope in my golden years, someone doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if a dog is good for you,’” London said. “In fact, that might be the best thing for me.”


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