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Dog walking’s downside: bone fractures among older adults

The study’s authors strongly recommend that dog owners get obedience training for their pets so that the animals don’t suddenly lunge while on a leash.

naughty corgi
According to the study, the number of people aged 65 and older showing up in hospital emergency departments after fracturing a bone while walking their dogs has more than doubled over the past decade or so.
Photo by Xiang Gao on Unsplash

Walking a dog can be great exercise — a major reason dog ownership has been linked to better health, including a lower risk of heart disease.

But, as a study published Wednesday in JAMA Surgery underscores, dog walking also comes with a health risk: bone fractures. And older adults may be particularly vulnerable.

According to the study, the number of people aged 65 and older showing up in hospital emergency departments after fracturing a bone while walking their dogs has more than doubled over the past decade or so.

In a quarter of those cases, the fracture was serious enough for the person to be hospitalized.

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“Dog walking, which has repeatedly demonstrated social, emotional and physical health benefits, is a popular and frequently recommended activity for many older Americans seeking new ways to stay active,” said Kevin Pirruccio, the study’s lead author and a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, in a released statement.

“This study highlights that while there are undoubtedly pros to dog walking, patients’ risk for falls must be factored into lifestyle recommendations in an effort to minimize such injuries,” he added.

More than a decade of data

For the study, Pirruccio and his colleagues analyzed emergency-department data from 100 representative hospitals that participate in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. They found that from 2004 through 2017, the hospitals had reported 697 dog-walking-related fractures in people aged 65 and older.

That number represents, say the researchers, a national total of 32,624 cases of dog-walking-related fractures experienced by older Americans during that period.

When the estimated cases were looked at by year, the researchers found that the number of older adults who suffered fractures while walking their dogs rose from 1,671 in the year 2004 to 4,396 in 2017 — an increase of more than 150 percent.

The cases did not increase in number every single year, but the trend was definitely upward over the 13 years of the study.

More than three-quarters of the fractures (78.6 percent) occurred in women. The hip was the most commonly fractured part of the body (17.3 percent), followed by the wrist (13.7 percent) and the upper arm (11.1 percent). Over a quarter (28.7 percent) of the injuries were severe enough to require hospitalization.

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The hip fractures are particularly troubling because such injuries in older people often lead to long-term disability and early death.

Recommended: obedience training

The study comes with caveats, of course. To begin with, it most likely underestimates dog-walking-related injuries among older adults, for it didn’t include dog owners who had their fractures tended to in non-hospital settings.

The study also excluded injuries that didn’t involve fractures.

Another factor complicating the findings is that the cases reported by the hospitals are ones that the patients said occurred while they were walking their dogs. But the hospital records don’t say anything about whether the dog actually played a part in the fall. The patient may have fallen for a reason that had nothing to do with the pet.

It’s also important to keep the study’s findings in perspective. The 32,000-plus fractures identified in this study represent only about 1 percent of the 3 million older adults who are treated for fall injuries in the U.S. each year.

Still, older dog owners shouldn’t ignore the message behind this study’s findings: You need to be careful when walking your dog.

Pirruccio and his colleagues strongly recommend that dog owners get obedience training for their pets so that the animals don’t suddenly lunge while on a leash. They also suggest that smaller dog breeds, which are easier to physically control, might be better choices for older adults.

“The risks associated with walking leashed dogs merit consideration,” Pirruccio and his colleagues write. “Even one such injury could result in a potentially lethal hip fracture, life-long complications, or loss of independence.”

FMI: You’ll find the study on the JAMA Surgery website.