Injuries, behavioral problems linked to retractable leashes

Manufacturers warn consumers

Published: March 27, 2014
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Dr. Garret Pachtinger
Critical care specialist Dr. Garret Pachtinger treated a dog in respiratory distress after its trachea was torn by the abrupt jerk of a retractable leash. He posted this image on Facebook with a cautionary statement: "If your dog is one that has a tendency to take off running after another animal, choose a different leash!"

A dog on a retractable leash bolted into traffic and was hit by a motorcycle before the owner could retract the cord. It was in severe respiratory distress upon arriving at the Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Levittown, Pa. While there were no external wounds, a tear in the dog’s trachea was found and repaired.

Dr. Garret Pachtinger, a critical care specialist, was part of a team of emergency personnel who treated the dog. He suspects the dog was hurt more by the yanked leash than the motorcycle collision.

"We believe the tracheal tear was not from a direct impact from the motorcycle — i.e. blunt trauma — rather likely a pulling injury of the collar/leash on the cervical neck/trachea," Pachtinger said by email.

Experts say such injuries are hardly a fluke, and complaints about retractable leashes causing injury aren't new. Retractable leashes consist of a long cord or webbing-type leash that retracts into a heavy plastic handle, allowing dogs to wander up to 26 feet while the leash remains taut. A brake button on the handle stops the length of cord from increasing. Another press of the button releases the cord.

Sold in nearly every pet supply store, proponents of retractable leashes say they provide dogs with exercise because they're allowed the freedom to roam. Last year, the American Pet Products Association named a retractable leash apparatus one of "the hottest pet products of the summer."

But for every proponent of retractable leashes, there seems to be a detractor. For years, the leashes have drawn criticisms on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. Communities have considered trying to ban the devices, and some pet-friendly businesses and dog-related events discourage owners from using them. 

Pachtinger’s Philadelphia-area emergency hospital has seen many retractable-related cases of trauma. He points out that the extension of a retractable leash goes beyond the reach of owners and allows dogs to fight with other animals.

Pachtinger has seen cases where the cords wrap around a dog's leg, often causing harm, and notes that two types of injury are most common. The first is muscular, such as a neck strain or sprain; the other is a cervical intervertebral disc herniation, which can be more severe.

People aren't immune to injury, either. Manufacturers warn that if used improperly, a suddenly yanked retractable leash can cause people to fall or sustain friction burns. An owner might even lose a finger if it's caught in the loop of a cord that's jerked abruptly.

Veterinarians at Rice Village Animal Hospital in Houston authored an article for their website about why they do not recommend retractables. Retractable leashes, they say, teach the dog to pull and do not give owners enough control, among other potential problems.

Anecdotes from VIN message board discussions indicate that retractable leash troubles often stem from operator error. Some veterinarians believe that if used properly, a retractable leash can work well.

"I love mine. But then again, my dog (a miniature poodle) is well trained," wrote Dr. Sarah Fischer of Mansfield Center, Conn.

Thoughts on retractables

Retractables are designed to give dogs freedom to roam, which can cause problems in enclosed spaces. Dr. Paul Potenza of New Canaan, Conn., tried to lessen animal interactions in his practice's lobby by building a half wall to create two waiting areas. A client came in with a golden retriever on a retractable, and while the client stood at the reception desk, the dog bounced into the side where a client sat in a chair with his pit bull held safely between his legs. The golden made a beeline to the pit bull, who promptly bit the golden on the forehead.

"Of course (the) pit won't let go, and (the) golden retriever is screaming like a banshee," Potenza recalled in a VIN discussion. "Truly one of my favorite memories — not."

Potenza said the golden retriever's owner initially blamed the pit bull's owner. Then she blamed the clinic for not having their waiting area under control and threatened to sue if the puncture wounds and bites weren't treated for free. 

When asked why he doesn't ban retractable leashes in his practice, Potenza called the incident "a fluke."

"... I thought we'd never run into it again, and we haven't," he said. "There's so much to do when a client comes in. Out of the hundred things you have to do for an appointment, looking at the leash the owner is using is not up there."

Injuries can happen anywhere, it seems.

Dr. Meghan Ellis of Sanford, N.C., has treated all kinds of leash-related injuries. She once witnessed a dog on a retractable leash walking near the side of the road. A car made a tight turn, and hit the dog on the head. The dog showed signs of neurologic damage for about a week but survived without permanent neurological deficits.
She recalled a dog that had rope burns on his tongue and mouth after playing with a retractable leash. Another patient, a shaggy border collie mix, panicked when its foot got caught in the cord.

"The owner tried to remove it, but the handle kept making a noise when the dog moved, which freaked the dog out," Ellis said. "Hence, there was heavy sedation involved along with the pain management to get the leash off. The foot eventually healed."

Getting caught in the retractable’s cord or webbing also can cause serious human injuries, according to a 2009 article by Consumer Reports.

The story analyzed Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics showing that in 2007, 16,564 hospital-treated injuries were associated with leashes, not necessarily retractables. A quarter of the injuries were to fingers. The Consumer Reports article featured a woman whose finger was amputated when her large dog dragged her across a beach.

Ellis said her mother, husband and dog sitter have been injured while using retractable leashes. Though the circumstances in each instance were different, they all were knocked off balance while walking a dog.

The German company Flexi, which describes itself as the inventor of the retractable leash, discusses safety precautions on its website, stating that failure to follow the precautions can result in serious injuries including finger amputations and fractures, cuts and burns, eye and face injuries, falls and injuries to bystanders.

"This leash should only be used by responsible people who have read and can follow all of these precautions," the websites warns. "Anyone who uses this leash must be able to control the dog, and watch the dog closely at all times to keep it from running off or wrapping anyone in the cord/tape/belt."

Such warnings haven't pushed retractable leash makers out of business. The company's leashes are distributed throughout the United States via offices in Cincinnati. According to the Flexi website, "They're a "must-have item for pet owners around the world."

An Internet search shows several other retractable leash brands, including Avant Garde, HappyDogz and Illinois Industrial Tool, Inc. "This is really great," wrote a dog owner who reviewed a retractable leash on "It lets my puppy romp far around but also with the push of a button keeps her under control. She loves it, and I love it."

Management in some pet stores do not feel the same.

Photo courtesy of Heather Sullivan
Mounds Pet Food Warehouse does not allow retractable leashes in any of its five Wisconsin stores. Customers with retractable leashes are asked to borrow one of the store's standard leashes while shopping.
Mounds Pet Food Warehouse banned retractable leashes from its five Wisconsin stores following a series of incidents caused by dogs accompanying their owners on the leashes.

The company identified long leashes in general, and retractable leashes in particular, as a safety hazard. Customers with long or retractable leashes are asked to borrow a standard 6-foot or shorter leash to use while in the store.

Mounds Marketing Manager Heather Sullivan said that when customers using long leashes didn’t pay attention, their dogs would become entangled with other dogs or shoppers. Sometimes fights broke out among dogs that had wandered off. A dog rounding a corner could take out an entire bottom shelf of product, she said, and when those shelves held bottles of liquid, the mess created yet another safety risk that needed to be cleaned.

Behaviorist Dr. Laurie Bergman of Villanova, Pa., has had a few patients who ran when the heavy handle was dropped and they were "chased" by it. One incident that stands out involves a dog whose retractable was dropped in an apartment building stairway. The dog bolted up the stairs to the open roof and fell off, plummeting to his death.

"Even if (the dog doesn't) see it, it's just going clunk clunk behind you," Bergman said. "It's (like) the set up in each and every horror movie."

Dogs on retractable leashes also learn to pull, Bergman said. If a behavior such as pulling on a leash is rewarded by allowing the dog more freedom, then the behavior will occur more often. Furthermore, she said the strongest way to reinforce a behavior is through random rewards, which happens when owners sometimes allow dogs to forge ahead and sometimes lock the leash.

"The retractable makes life a little bit more difficult,” Bergman said. “The owners think they are being nice by giving the dog more freedom, but you can't have it both ways unless you are willing to do a lot of training, and most people aren't willing to do that much work. The people I know who would put that time into training wouldn't use one. Most people who use it don't want to do the training."

According to Bergman, walks should be about more than just getting the dog out for some exercise. They should be an opportunity for dog and person to bond and work as a team. That means that the dog should be prepared to listen to the owner’s instructions, including walking on a loose leash and being attentive of the owner. This doesn’t mean that the dog should be a robot, walking in lockstep with the owner, just that there are times to walk at the owner’s side and times to walk ahead and sniff and explore the world, she explained.

Bergman jokes that if retractables came with a recall button and a strong spring that sent the dog flying back to the owner at the push of the button, they would be great. She wishes the default setting would be locked at 4 to 6 feet and the user would need to hold down a button to unlock — the opposite of retractable leashes work.

"People think they’re a no-brainer, but it's not. It takes practice and experience and reading all the directions, and it takes choosing the dog correctly," Bergman said. "Most of the time when I see them it's not the correct tool for that animal."

Bergman considers retractable leashes to be inappropriate for walking on city streets. Dr. Corinne Majeska of Philadelphia agrees so strongly she is trying to do something to eliminate their use and to decrease the number of traumatic incidents she sees.

Majeska is a member of Philadelphia's Animal Advisory Committee, which weighs in on animal matters brought to the city council and mayor. She hopes to push legislation prohibiting the sale of retractable leashes within city limits.

"You would think that (Philadelphia’s) 6-foot leash law would be enough reasoning, since no retractable leashes are made for only 6 feet. But I've been told that I need to be able to justify my recommendation to council," Majeska said. "We've discussed whether an education campaign would be easier, but education campaigns cost a lot of money. Banning the sale of leashes requires regulation only at the level of the store owners, which is a significantly smaller number than all of the consumers out there."

It's unclear how such a ban might be enforced.

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