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Preventing Dog-Walking Related Injuries

dog walking

In Portland Oregon, we love getting outdoors to walk and hike and we love our dogs.  Throughout the year and especially on nice days people are out walking their dogs.  When I drive to and from my office, it’s impossible not to notice people walking dogs of all sizes and types.  Studies consistently show the benefit of walking and have shown that dog owners tend to walk more which results in dog owners having overall better fitness through life than non-dog owners.  Unfortunately, with all good things like walking and having a dog, dog owners are also at a higher risk of dog walking related injuries.  As a sports medicine doctor who treats shoulder injuries, fractures, and other ligament and muscle sprain/strain injuries, I see at least one dog walking injury per month at my sports injury clinic.  A recent study looked at the epidemiology of dog walking injuries among adults who went to emergency departments in the United States.  This study published in the American College of Sports Medicine Journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise in September of 2023 found that

            Dog walking is associated with a considerable and rising injury burden.

The study found that between 2001 and 2020,

  1. The number of yearly emergency room visits for dog walking related increased four-fold.
  2. Women represented the majority (75%) of the injuries.
  3. Adults aged 40—64 years old were most injured.
  4. The upper extremities such as fingers and shoulders were most frequently injured from falling when pulled or tripped by the leash.
  5. The most common injuries are finger injuries, concussions, and shoulder injuries.
  6. Fracture risk (breaking a bone) is more common in women and adults over 65.

Walking is the most common type of physical activity among adults in the United States and given that over 50% of U.S. households own at least one dog, dog walking would be a common source of activity for both owner and pet.  Walking has many benefits for improving fitness, weight loss, and lowering cholesterol.  I regularly advise my sports injured patients and patients trying to lose weight that walking is an excellent form of exercise and should be a daily routine as its benefits are amazing for general health and its relatively easy to initiate. 

In the study, most injuries were associated with falling.  The five most common injuries were

  1. Shoulder strain or sprain
  2. Ankle strain or sprain
  3. Wrist strain or sprain
  4. Finger strain or sprain
  5. Concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI)

As expected, the leash dependent nature of dog walking contributes to the injuries as the leash tethers the dog to the dog walker and the axial traction of the dog pulling on the arm is a common cause of finger and shoulder injuries.  The pulling can also cause a loss of balance resulting in a fall.  This is especially concerning for adults over 65 as the top two dog walking injuries in the study for this age group were TBI and hip fractures from falls.  TBI in older adults has been linked to enduring cognitive and psychosocial impairments.

As the study suggests, women are at greater risks of injury than men as other studies have shown that women are the primary caretakers of dogs in most households, and women are 50% more likely than men to sustain a dog walking associated fracture. 

In order to reduce dog walking injuries, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends.

  1. Dogs undergo obedience training.
  2. Hold the dog leash in the palm of the hand instead of wrapping it around the fingers.
  3. Shorter, nonretractable leashes can lessen the risk of getting tangled or tripped.
  4. Avoid distractions and remain aware of surroundings when walking your dog.

It’s possible that the actual injury rates from dog walking are higher because many dog walking injuries don’t always end up in the ER or seeking medical care.  As the U.S. population continues to age and become more physically active, its important for aging adults to carefully consider taking common sense safety precautions when dog walking including wearing good fitting footwear, avoiding distractions, using a short leash that is carried in the palm and not wrapped around the hand.  Or as jokingly suggested by my wife, an alternative to dog walking could be to own a cat instead.

If you’ve had an injury from dog walking, at Sports Health Northwest, we want to help you recover and get back to walking your dog as soon as possible. 

Dr Westerdahl David Westerdahl MD FAAFP RMSK Sports Medicine Physician and owner Sports Health Northwest, Inc.

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