Dogs are awesome. There's so much scientific evidence about the health benefits of having a dog in your life. Dog owners live longer, healthier lives than people who are pet-free. Dogs can help ease stress and loneliness — particularly for seniors. Dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
So many of these health benefits come from the exercise people get when they take their four-legged friends for walks. However, new research finds that injuries linked to dog walking are very common and can lead to serious life-changing issues for older adults.
The research looked at patients 65 and older who made visits to emergency departments in the U.S. from 2004 through 2017. Researchers identified more than 32,000 cases of fall-related fractures linked to leash-walking dogs. In 2004, there were an estimated 1,671 visits, but that number jumped to 4,396 in 2017 — a 163 percent increase. The research was published in the journal JAMA Surgery.
The paper's authors have an idea why the numbers jumped, and it has to do with good intentions.
"People intuitively know many of the benefits of animal companionship," Dr. Jaimo Ahn, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told Time. "Not surprisingly, pet ownership has increased over time, including among the elderly, who are living longer and taking efforts to live healthier — all good things."
Because nearly 79 percent of the fractures in the study occurred in women, the researchers write, "older women considering dog ownership must be made aware of this risk."
The researchers conclude, "For older adults — especially those living alone and with decreased bone mineral density — the risks associated with walking leashed dogs merit consideration. Even one such injury could result in a potentially lethal hip fracture, lifelong complications, or loss of independence."
Dog-walking injuries can happen to anyone, but they are likely more common among older people because of balance issues that can start when people hit their fifties. "Strength, balance, and coordination can deteriorate if they are not being challenged and practiced each day. Loss of these abilities can make it difficult or painful to perform your everyday activities," according to the American Physical Therapy Association.
Strength exercises like yoga and tai chi can help improve balance and prevent falls. The group recommends several specific exercises to help with balance, strength and agility. We've listed two exercises below that can help with balance, and you can find many more on the APTA website.
Sidewalking — This helps you keep your balance while walking by strengthening the hip muscles on the side of the pelvis.
How to do it: Step 10 times to the right, then 10 times to the left. Keep hands on a counter or long table if you need the support. Add an exercise band around your thighs, above the knees to make it more challenging. Do this several times a day.
Balancing — Good balance helps prevent falls.
How to do it: Stand on both feet with your hands on a counter or a sturdy table. Slowly lift one foot, and balance on the other for 10-15 seconds. Repeat on the other foot. Do this five times on each foot. If this is easy for you to do, close your eyes while standing on both feet. If that is also easy, close your eyes while standing on one foot. Have someone nearby to help you avoid falling.
The study's authors mention preventative measures to avoid injuries such as going through obedience training for better behavior on the leash. They also suggest that seniors who have never owned a dog get a smaller breed.
Probably the best thing you can do to help prevent injuries when you walk your dog is to make sure your dog is well-behaved on the leash, says certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga, owner of Atlanta Dog Trainer.
She suggests teaching your dog a very clear "heel" command so he knows to stay on your side with his head even with your thigh. Similarly, to avoid falls at home, teach your dog to "wait" at the top or the bottom of the stairs until you go up or down.
Although equipment isn't a magical fix, Aga says front-clip harnesses typically keep a dog from pulling more than a back-clip harness or just a leash clipped to a collar.
It's also a good idea to let the dog run around the backyard or play catch first before a walk to expend some energy before you head out.
If an older person doesn't own a dog yet, Aga tries to steer them to an older, quieter dog without a ton of energy. She suggests a dog that is at least 4 years old and maybe one that has been in a foster home so you can find out how he walks on a leash and learn his general personality.
"I wouldn't get a high-drive, working herding breed or even a really small dog that would always be getting under their feet," she says. "Some of the greatest ones are rescue greyhounds. They want to run for about five minutes and are couch potatoes the rest of the time."