Dogs Improve the Health of Seniors—But Take Caution

Seniors, dogs, leashes, and gravity may make a dangerous mix.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

Bob Jagendorf photo - Creative Content License
Source: Bob Jagendorf photo - Creative Content License

Over the past two decades it has become increasingly clear that owning a pet, particularly owning a pet dog, is good for your health. In fact, in 2013 the American Heart Association published a task force report which concluded that dog ownership is associated with significantly better cardiovascular health. More recent research, involving many thousands of cases, has confirmed this conclusion and led to the idea that if you want to live longer you should get a dog. Dogs have also been shown to have psychological benefits, such as the reduction of stress, and although these effects can be significant in children, the preponderance of research has suggested that older individuals, particularly those living alone, benefit the most from having a dog as a companion.

Because the scientific findings have been so uniform, and the size of the beneficial health effects of dog ownership have been so impressive, there has been somewhat of a sea change in societal attitudes and in the perspectives of members of the medical profession. Many living facilities and assisted care homes that cater to the needs of seniors now allow residents to have pet dogs. In addition, many physicians now advise seniors who could benefit from increased exercise to get a dog. Since the dog requires a daily walk, it is hard for its owner to ignore its needs, and in the process, the dog owner gets to benefit from increased physical activity.

However, there is a downside to such dog ownership, especially for older individuals. This became evident to me just a week or so ago. At the time of this writing, I am 76 years old, with significant arthritis in a number of my joints. I also own two dogs. The older one (Ripley, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel) does not like cold or wet weather and is usually content with a brief stroll around the block. The younger one (Ranger, A Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever) is a high activity dog that requires a much longer outing once or twice each day. On this particular day I was taking Ranger out for his walk, and he was attached to me by a long extendable leash. As part of the day's walk, I planned to stop by a mailbox and drop off a letter, so as I left the house and began to descend the stairs, I glanced at the inner pocket of my coat to make sure that I had brought the envelope along. At that moment Ranger dashed down the steps and hit the end of his leash. Although he is only 45 pounds (20 kg), the impact resulting from his moving at high speed caused me to spin around and lose my balance. As I fell, I somehow managed to grab one of the support struts on the railing to keep myself from actually tumbling down the stairs. My front staircase is sufficiently high so that had I hit the ground I would have possibly done some significant damage. Even though I had avoided severe injury, I ended up with a left arm and left leg that were badly bruised, and these injuries were the cause of discomfort for the remainder of the week.

According to some recent data coming from a research team at the University of Pennsylvania, I was apparently quite lucky. In the year 2017, 4,396 people, aged 65 years or older, ended up in hospital emergency departments with fractures and bone breaks which resulted from walking leashed dogs. The data was gathered from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System database of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. This database includes information on people who suffered product or activity related injuries and then went to one of the approximately 100 hospital emergency departments that contribute reports. Specifically, the research team searched the records for evidence of dog walking having been associated with injuries, and then they counted the number of bone fractures that resulted and projected their findings to the entire country. The data spanned from 2014 to 2017.

During the survey period, over three quarters (78.6%) of those seniors who have been injured were women. The most commonly fractured part of the body was the hip (17.3%) followed by the wrist (13.7%) and the upper arm (11.1%). Over a quarter of these individuals (28.7%) had injuries that were severe enough to require hospitalization. The authors found the hip fractures to be of considerable concern since this type of fracture is "associated with long-term decreases in quality of life and functional capabilities, as well as mortality rates approaching 30%."

Another interesting feature of the data is the finding that the number of seniors who suffer from dog walking injuries has been steadily on the rise. In 2004 there were 1,671 bone fractures and this rose to 4,396 in 2017. This rise is most likely due to the fact that more seniors are now being encouraged to have dogs because of the demonstrated benefits of dog ownership on physical and psychological health. In recognition of the magnitude of these benefits, the authors do not recommend that seniors should not have pet dogs, but rather point out that clinicians should provide some advice to their older patients in order to reduce the likelihood of dog walking-related injuries.

The most useful form of advice is that seniors should consider smaller dogs as their companions. An 8 pound (3.5 kg) Pomeranian hitting the end of the leash at full tilt might jolt its owner, but is unlikely to unbalance them. The second form of advice is to make sure that the dog is obedience trained.

The third form of advice (not in the published scientific report) comes from my own recent experience with Ranger, and that is to pay attention to what the dog is doing when walking him. That should allow seniors to brace themselves or grab support before their pet hits the end of the leash.

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Pirruccio K, Yoon YM, Ahn J. (2019). Fractures in Elderly Americans Associated With Walking Leashed Dogs. JAMA Surgery. Published online March 06, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2019.0061