Slow down! Broken bones on the rise among older dog walkers

Living longer is one of the health benefits of having a dog. Broken bones shouldn’t be a tradeoff. But that’s a risk American seniors increasingly face according to a new study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Cases of broken bones in seniors associated with walking a dog on a leash are on the rise—in part, ironically, because more seniors are walking dogs in pursuit of those documented health benefits.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that the number of patients 65 years or older who showed up at US emergency rooms each year with bone fractures associated with walking dogs on a leash more than doubled between 2004 and 2017. Almost 80% of the patients were women, whose bones in general are less dense than men’s. Almost one in five patients sustained hip fractures, although roughly half of the injuries involved the upper extremities: fractures of the wrist, upper arm, finger, and shoulder were the most common in that category.

Of those patients who visited an emergency room, 29% required hospital admission.

The study covered more than 10 years of federal injury data reported by 100 US hospital emergency rooms nationwide. In 2004, those emergency rooms reported more than 1,600 cases of broken bones linked to walking a dog on a leash. In 2017, that number jumped to more than 4,300—an increase of 163%.

The researchers write that, “Even one such injury could result in a potentially lethal hip fracture, lifelong complications, or loss of independence.”

The mortality rate following a hip fracture for patients over 65 is a little over 20%.

Lead author Kevin Pirruccio, a second-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told NEWStat that the study wasn’t meant to warn seniors off walking their dog. Quite the opposite: “There are myriad physical and mental health benefits associated with dog walking for seniors, and the healing power of a canine companion is wholly appreciated.”

Rather, Pirruccio said, “We hope that our results help make dog walking safer for seniors by raising awareness about which situations may put patients at risk for these injuries.”

“That said, direct interventions can certainly play a role in making dog walking safer,” Pirruccio added. Veterinarians can help by reminding senior clients to avoid walking their dogs during inclement weather such as snow or sleet.

“Owners can also consider using dog walking services to assist with this responsibility of pet ownership,” Pirruccio said. “For seniors who are still considering the addition of a new canine companion to their home, they may also opt for smaller and/or more easily trainable dog breeds less likely to pull hard on leashes and cause imbalance.”

“Lastly, [senior dog owners] may find that balance exercises and resistance training programs can help make them more resistant to fall-related injuries overall.”

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