Being a pet parent is associated with many health benefits, especially for older adults living alone. Dogs and cats provide companionship, and a sense of purpose, and can help reduce stress. Walking a dog routinely also encourages regular physical activity, spending time outdoors in nature, and frequently provides individuals with an opportunity to socialize and get to know their neighbours. But the family dog is also a frequent cause of injuries among older adults – and according to a new Johns Hopkins study, shoulder sprains, head injuries, and fractured fingers treated in the emergency room are often the result of walking a leashed dog.
According to a recent Washington Post Well+Being report, dog walking injuries have steadily increased over the past two years. Women and people over the age of 64 made up most of the more than 422,000 American adults who were treated in ERs for dog-walking injuries between 2001 and 2022.
Dog leashes often cause injuries when a pet lunges suddenly and the leash becomes wrapped around fingers or wrists or trips a person whose legs become entangled. Strong dogs can also pull their owner off balance and small dogs and cats can unexpectedly get underfoot, leading to a fall. Women and older adults, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are at increased risk for more serious injuries including brain contusions and bleeds.
Pet ownership has increased in recent years, and more older adults trying to stay active by regularly walking their dogs. But bone fractures among older adults have also been on the rise over the past 20 years.
To reduce the risk of injury while enjoying a daily walk, pet owners are encouraged to use a front-attaching harness to reduce pulling, choose a shorter leash to avoid tripping, and stay away from retractable leashes which can injure both owner and pets. It’s also wise to choose a walking route that will avoid distractions that might lead to pulling and lunging – like a schoolyard and carry treats or toys to regain control of your pet. Proper dog training is essential to teach dogs how to walk on a leash and give owners better control. Choosing a smaller dog that isn’t stronger than its owner is also important for older adults to reduce the risk of injury.