Two people walk a dog outside. Many leaves and tree brances are on the ground.
Researchers have found that injuries sustained while dog walking—fractures, specifically—have jumped 163 percent in the 65 and older group over the past 15 years. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Walking the dog can be great exercise for seniors, but there could be one downside: fractures.

Fractures suffered by elderly Americans while walking their dogs have more than doubled in recent years, new research shows.

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Our Take

Todd Conlan, MD

Todd Conlan, MD, frequently sees such injuries as an orthopedic trauma surgeon with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“Tripping over small dogs can be a major hazard,” he said.

He suggests keeping a bell on the collars of small dogs so their trusty humans always know where Fido is, even in the dark.

Another thing to watch out for are large dogs that pull at the leash or overpower their owners.

“Teach them to walk at your side,” Dr. Conlan said, suggesting some basic or advance obedience classes to minimize the risk of falls.

Another caution: Wrist and hip fractures tend to occur in patients with associated osteoporosis, so such patients should be extra vigilant.

Still, taking your dog for a walk can also bring big health rewards, one joint specialist said.

“Pets can provide companionship for older adults—and the physical exercise from regularly walking a dog may improve other aspects of physical and psychological health,” said Dr. Matthew Hepinstall, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“So, the risks of walking a dog should be balanced against potential benefits,” said Hepinstall, who helps direct joint surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

The new research was led by Kevin Pirruccio, a second-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. His team tracked national data and found that among people aged 65 and older, fractures associated with walking leashed dogs rose from about 1,700 cases in 2004 to almost 4,400 cases in 2017—a 163 percent rise.

More than three-quarters of the fractures occurred in women, with hip and arm fractures being the most common. About half of all fractures occurred in the upper body, with fractures of the wrist, upper arm, finger and shoulder leading the way.

The most common type of fracture was a broken hip (17 percent). That’s cause for concern, Pirruccio’s team said, because the death rate linked to hip fractures in people older than 65 is close to 30 percent.

The researchers added that the study only involved data on fractures treated at emergency departments. The actual number of dog walking-related injuries among seniors might even be higher if injuries not typically seen in a hospital—for example, tendon or muscle tears—were factored in.

Why the rising rates of fractures tied to dog walking? The study authors theorized that increased pet ownership and a greater emphasis on physical activity for older adults may be driving the trend.

In a university news release, Pirruccio stressed that walking your pooch each day “has repeatedly demonstrated social, emotional and physical health benefits.” It’s also “a popular and frequently recommended activity for many older Americans seeking new ways to stay active,” he said.

On the other hand, “patients’ risks for falls must be factored into lifestyle recommendations in an effort to minimize such injuries,” Pirruccio said.

Hepinstall agreed.

“The take-home message for older adults and their families is that, when choosing to care for a pet, be sure to consider the strength and coordination of the older adult, and the size and expected behavior of the pet selected,” he advised.

Pet ownership and care may need to be re-assessed with age, Hepinstall added.

“When the mobility of older adults changes, they should be encouraged to re-evaluate their ongoing ability to care for any pets,” he said. “This will help ensure that the health and other needs of the adult and of the pet can be properly managed.”

The study was published recently in JAMA Surgery.