The Dog-Related Injury

 
 

Pinta the Rottweiler and I were on our evening walk when she stopped suddenly, stiffening at the sight of another dog ahead on the sidewalk. I had time for two thoughts —Look out! and Nah, it’ll be okay— before 70 pounds of lunging muscle jerked the leash from 0 to 60, yanking my ring finger sideways. Oh damn, I thought when I caught my breath and looked down at its weird new angle. This is not good.

That turned out to be an understatement. Who knew that a joint could splinter? Two years, one complex surgical procedure, two casts and many months of physical therapy later, the finger (on my dominant hand, naturally) flexes just enough that I can type; I will never make a fist again. I would feel even stupider—I’ve owned big, strong dogs for 17 years, and knew better than to wrap the leash around my fingers as I did—if stories of others felled by their dogs hadn’t started coming my way. There was the emailed photo of a friend’s bloody face after her huge Akita mix tangled her in the leash and she went down. Another showed me a finger even more crooked than my own. I read about the French pro soccer player who missed a big game because he’d twisted his ankle while walking his dog, and the South African cricket goalie sidelined with a wrenched knee after an altercation featuring two Jack Russells.

What I’ve dubbed the “DRI,” or Dog-Related Injury, seems to be everywhere. We who love our dogs like to brag about how they keep us social, active and fit. What we don’t like to admit is that while those dogs (usually) don’t bite the hands that feed them, they have been known to break them.

How often do our sweet co-pilots trip us, knock us over, dislocate our shoulders and break our wrists, slam us in the knees, and head-butt us? Interestingly, no public agency seems to think it’s worth tracking the prevalence of DRIs, but orthopedists, ER docs, researchers and even professional dog trainers know the answer: a lot. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control released an analysis of five years of emergency room injury data. In their report, some 86,000 fall injuries were associated with pets, mostly dogs, annually. (The injuries affected all age groups, but older patients were more likely to break a bone.)

Another study, done in 2010 in England, looked at traumaand fracture-clinic patients in a rural general hospital and found that a significant percentage of the injuries had involved the patients’ dogs. A majority had fallen, but two caught their fingers in their dog’s collar, one fell into a hole the dog had dug in the garden, and one had been pushing her reluctant dog out of the house into the rain when the dog suddenly moved and she tumbled down the front steps.

In 2005, in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, a Philadelphia physician with persistent elbow pain reported “discovering” a new condition, “Hogan’s elbow.” He traced his problem to walking Hogan, his unruly black Lab. Mark S. Cohen, MD, a hand and elbow surgeon at Rush University Medical Center and Midwest Orthopedics at Rush in Chicago, notes that he and his colleagues see DRIs that include severe finger and wrist fractures, dislocations, and ruptured tendons “all the time.”

DRIs can also be caused by less predictable events. In 2011, tabloids reported that Martha Stewart needed nine stitches to repair her upper lip after she leaned down to whisper goodbye to her sleeping French Bulldog, who bolted awake and knocked her in the face. Betty Pinkartz Donnelson was done in by a 12-pound Terrier, who came flying across the room when he spotted her on the couch putting on her shoes and thought that meant a walk was in the offing. “His head hit the base of my little finger at just the right angle, and I heard this loud pop,” she says. “I ran some errands and it kept swelling and hurting more. I had a spiral fracture and ended up with a metal plate, six screws and months of physical therapy. Two years later, I still can’t carry a suitcase in that hand.”

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

Most of the time, though, a DRI is evidence of human error. “People get hurt walking a dog who’s never been trained, and whom they’re not capable of handling,” says Michael Chill of Los Angeles–based Animal Services Dog Training and Behavior. “They come to me after they develop carpal tunnel syndrome from yanking too hard on the leash for years.”

We also get hurt because we get lazy, careless, fail (like me) to pay attention to our dog’s signals or are so obsessed with our phones that we text even when that means holding onto 50 pounds of raw energy with one hand. We ignore advice about the dangers of retractable leashes, when a casual Google search reveals pictures of nightmarish leash burns and even tales of amputation. (One woman whose leash cord got pulled tight when her large Lab bolted was horrified to spot part of a human finger lying nearby, and even more horrified when she realized it was her own.)

In the mindlessness of the moment, we forget basic rules like never intrude on squabbling dogs. Dan Mayfield says his two Salukis “love to box, standing up on their rear legs, snarling and pushing each other around with their front paws. So one day they’re doing this, and I think it’s getting to be too much for the 10-year-old and stick my hand in to stop them, and the three-year-old bites me, hard, right through the web of my thumb.”

And sometimes, because we get lulled by the dull, sweet zen of daily walks on the same streets at the same time, we mistake an animal who craves predictability for one who is always predictable.

“One of my clients was walking her two dogs when both suddenly lunged after a squirrel that had come down from a tree,” says trainer Michael Chill. “Each dog ran to a different side and my client, caught in the middle, hit the tree and broke her nose.”

Sharon Jensen, who ran regularly with her Golden Retriever, Clancy—“always on a leash and always on my left, because I’m a good pet owner”—did fine until the day the two were sprinting and Clancy abruptly decided to swerve right. “He cut in front of me and I went head over heels over him,” recalls Jensen. “I got tangled in the leash, fell on my right side, badly sprained my ankle, scraped my knees, wrecked my wrist. This was in the days before iPhones, so I limped all the way home.”

Michelle Bekey’s beloved Great Dane mix, Ava, was 80 pounds and nine months old when, she says, “with no warning, he decided to dive at something behind me and yanked my arm and shoulder backwards. It felt like someone had put a cattle prod at the base of my neck. I found out later I’d torn two disks.”

Carole Pearson runs the rescue Dawg Squad and is no fool about big dogs, many of whom she’s owned and fostered over the years, but even she was a victim of her expectations. “When I had Jack, my original Rottie, who weighed 130 pounds, and Gus, an 80-pound Chow, I took them over to my mother’s house every day when I went to work, and fell into a routine of opening the car door and getting their leashes while they were getting out,” she says. “It was fine. Until one morning, they saw a cat. My mom lived at the top of a hill and they went downhill after it. I was wearing a long black dress, black boots and nylons, and when I took off after them, my mom said I looked like the flying nun. Half a block away, I fell, wrecked my clothes, gashed my knees and an elbow, and bruised a rib. There was a school across the street and some teachers ran out to help me—at which point, Jack, who thought they were hurting me, came back and stood over me, growling. I was screaming ‘Everybody get away if you don’t want to get bit!’ My mother laughed about it the rest of her life.”

Another common human mistake: forgetting that a new animal will probably act differently than a familiar one. Cathy Scott had trained her two dogs to sit and wait at the front door when it was time to go out. No one passed that message to June, a Lab/Pit mix someone dumped in Scott’s yard, and whom she’d agreed to foster. “I was getting ready to take all three dogs to the park, and had June’s leash wrapped in my fingers because I wasn’t expecting movement,” she recalls. “My dogs stayed still when the door opened, but June leaped, and I could hear my forefinger snap.” She adds, “I was going to the park to meet friends who wanted to network June, so we still went. When we got home, I iced my broken finger and finally went to the doctor.”

Another woman, too embarrassed to be identified, recalls taking a new, young Chow/Golden mix rescue for a walk at 10 at night. “Not the smartest thing I ever did. He saw something and went after it, and I went flying, dislocated my thumb and fell on my face so hard I lost a front tooth and broke my jaw. I was bleeding and my husband insisted we go to the ER, where they questioned the two of us separately about what had happened. I realized they thought my husband had hit me. After 20 minutes, they finally accepted that it had been the dog.”

The sad irony of a DRI is that the damage often outlasts the beloved animal who caused it. Clancy, the Golden who sent Sharon Jensen sprawling, passed away years ago, but that fall was the beginning of a long orthopedic journey, she says. “I would’ve had problems with my hips eventually, but the accident messed them up earlier. It really had lifetime consequences. Clancy will have my heart forever—and his behavior has my bones.”

 

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?

 

 

I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.

 
 

I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.

 
 

We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times

 

The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.