As good pet owners we want to give our dogs the best life possible, and play for most dogs is a HUGE part of that.

Winter is fading, the sun is shining, and the park is looking more inviting than ever. What’s more, your pup has been longingly staring out the window and gently pawing at the door while giving you the guilt eyes, going on weeks now, possibly even months. But don’t go running out the door just yet! Though dog play injuries can occur at any time of the year, the start of spring, in particular, is prone to accidents.

Dog play injuries are more common than most people are aware of and they can vary from relatively minor, like a small paw cut that heals in days, to very serious, like torn ligaments and hip injuries that can result in surgery and life-long disabilities. The average cost of injuries resulting in a vet visit will run into the several hundred dollar range. Ouch! That’s two wounds, one to the dog, and another to your pocket.

A lot of factors contribute to dog injuries during play. To name a few:

  • Dog awareness
  • Conditioning
  • Coordination
  • Your dog’s; health, age, breed, predispositions
  • The weather
  • The environment they play
  • Owner knowledge and awareness

Injuries that happen while playing with your pup are actually highly avoidable, the key is simply understanding who is prone to them, what injuries can occur and how. So you know what to look out for and keep an eye on.

Who is most prone?

Though all dogs are likely to have at least a few small injuries while playing in their lives, we are not suggesting you wrap them in a blanket and never let them outside. A healthy dog will recover from small injuries quickly, whereas others may not and are at higher risk of injury. Special care and attention should be given with dogs that fall into these categories. These include:

  • Young dogs with growing joints and bones (under 12 months of age)
  • An older dog with brittle joints and bones (usually over several years of age)
  • Dogs predisposed to hip dysplasia (genetic predisposition)
    • Dogs most prone but not limited too:
      • Most very large breeds (Great Danes, Newfoundlands)
      • German Shepherds
      • Retrievers (Labrador/Golden)
      • Pugs
      • Bulldogs (French/English)
  • Dogs who are overweight

The Play Environment: The most common cause of injury

Some play accidents are user error, predisposition or just plain bad luck, but by far the most significant factor at fault to dog injuries is the areas in which they play. Though we understand it’s not feasible for most to avoid these environments completely, it is best to keep them to a minimum and when you must play in them, keep an extra keen eye on your pup and don’t overdo things.

  • Extreme Hot/Cold Surfaces: Ice, snow and hot pavement
  • Sharp surfaces and debris
  • Uneven, unpredictable terrain
  • Sharp obtruding objects: Wire fencing and tree/shrub branches are the biggest culprits.
  • Poor visibility terrain: Like snow or thick heavy foliage. These cover up potential sudden holes, debris, and sharp surfaces.
  • Deepwater

What play injuries are most common?

Cuts and scratches to the face: nose, mouth, and eyes: Large sticks as a fetch toy are a big culprit here, but by far the most common cause is tree and shrub branches. Dogs will often run into small yet sharp branches in a chaotic search for a ball. The eyes are a particularly vulnerable body part, even a tiny scratch to the eye can be irritating, and major punctures can leave a dog blind in one eye.

  • Nose Frostbite: The tip of a dog's snout is very sensitive, and dogs playing in snow will always forage with their noses. Snow build up here, and it is difficult for them to reach this area with their paws to remove excess ice build up.

Limbs; Leg, Paw and Nail Injuries:

  • Muscle sprains and Strains
  • Dislocated and broken bones
  • Ligament injuries: Crucial ligament in particular
  • Cut or over worn paw pads
  • Split/broken nails
  • Paw burn, on hot ground

Hip injuries: Over-exercising, especially in young pups and acrobatic jumping are the likely cause of hip injuries.

Neck Sudden jerking/Strangulation: Due to a dog’s curious tendency to go exploring, many people will use a leash or rope to restrain them, even in open areas. This is NEVER a good idea if you intend to engage in any type of activity.

Heat stroke: Dogs are pretty good at regulating their body temperature, but what they are not good at is knowing when they are dehydrated, and their temperature is too high. It is up to the owners to be aware of this and keep an eye out for excessive breathing in high temperatures.

Solutions: Dog Safety Basics

The most significant reduction in play incidents will come from being aware of how frequently injuries occur during play, which dogs are most affected and the areas, weather and other things that can cause harm, however, we do have a few pieces of advice, tricks and products that can help even further.

Warming up and cooling down: This is not a practice reserved only for human owners, gradually increasing and decreasing the pace of play, especially in younger and older dogs will help a lot in reducing the risk of muscle, joint and bone injuries.

Over-exercise; Knowing how much is enough: Though exercise is crucial for your dog’s health, there is such thing as too much, especially with puppies. So how much activity is the right amount? 5 minutes a day, up to twice a day for each month of your dog’s age is a good rule of thumb to follow.

Paw protection; boots and waxes: Booties may be annoying to put on and sometimes keep on, however, they are the number one tool for reducing foot injuries. Especially for extreme hot/cold surfaces and sharp/uneven terrain like hiking trails. Waxes are also a good option for assisting with and treating over worn paw pads.

Appropriate toys: Only use common pet-safe toys

  • Frisbee instead of a ball: It does not bounce so it tends to be shorter distance and though for some, myself included, a frisbee does not always fly straight, because of its lack of bounce and shorter throwing distance, it tends to stay more on the path and out of danger zones. Regular toy store frisbees are not pet-safe as they break into sharp pieces, a dog specific frisbee should be used.
  • Avoid using random sticks and debris that are just lying around.

Always use a life jacket: Even in shallow waters, dogs lack the self-control to stop when they are too exhausted to be able to swim any more.

Never play active games when a dog is restrained: I know we mentioned this already, but we felt it necessary to say again, the injuries sustained from play accidents with a restrained dog are almost always serious. If you absolutely must restrain your dog, it should only be done from a back clip harness point, and the activity level should be kept as low as possible.

Conditioning: Though competing athlete dogs go through rigorous routine conditioning, this is outside the scope for most dog owners. However, by progressing slowly into any activity with your dog, you are essentially conditioning your dog for the activity. Frisbee throwing as an example would ultimately start with short throws, as little as a few feet and gradually progress to long-distance launches and high flying acrobatic catches over a number of weeks or even months.

Final thoughts

Now that you are aware of the common causes of injuries it is simply a matter of keeping an eye on your dog and resisting the temptation to play in areas and with a toy that may not be conducive to your dog’s health. Maintaining regular vet checkups is recommended and discussing with them any types of intense play you do regularly is helpful. If your dog ever shows signs of injury during play, even subtle limping or unusual behavior like scratching their face a lot, stop immediately, if the issue does not subside within 10-15 minutes, a call to the vet may be necessary.