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To avoid injuries while walking a dog, follow some simple precautions such as keeping the leash short and being aware of your surroundings.

Studies have evaluated the health benefits of having a pet in one’s life and the data, generally, makes a compelling case for a pet being a key element to a plan for health and longevity.

Depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease and cancer are examples of health concerns whose risk appears to drop when a pet is in the picture. Objective data has demonstrated that pet ownership provides a reduced risk of death from specific conditions, but the data becomes a little fuzzier when looking at whether pet ownership is associated with a longer life span overall.

It would seem obvious that if one's risk of dying from a heart attack were reduced due to dog ownership, then that person’s longevity has been increased. This is not necessarily true, in part, because things other than heart attacks can still kill you. So, while the jury is still out on whether pets make us live longer, I (Henri Bianucci) believe most of can agree that they make our lives better.

Having a pet provides a sense of purpose, and much needed companionship, in particular for older people, who may be alone. They keep us moving, which reduces obesity, joint disease and promotes cardiovascular health. While this relationship appears nearly ideal, there is an element that may actually pose a significant risk to our health, one that we should take seriously.

Mary (not her real name) is 81 years old. She had been living alone since her husband died several years ago, until she finally decided to adopt a dog.

The 7-year-old dog weighed about 30 pounds. This newfound relationship offered all of the benefits that having a pet confers. With Ginger, her depression lifted, she started walking two or three times a day, and even lost weight. She was, by all measures, living a better quality of life.

This all changed in an instant. As they were walking one afternoon, a squirrel appeared and the dog bolted. Unable to release the leash, Mary was pulled off balance and came down on her hip. She was lucky as the fracture was a hairline and healed with about 3 months of bed rest. She is now back to walking Ginger, but, lesson learned, she has implemented some preventive measures.

What happened to Mary is not rare, and appears to be on the rise. A CDC study looked at the period between 2000-04 and found that approximately 90,000 pet-related fall injuries occurred annually. Nearly 88 percent of these were dog-related, the other 12 percent were related to cats. About 50 percent of the injuries were to the extremities with about 30 percent being fractures. The injury rates and fracture rates were highest for women by almost 2 to 1, and the greatest at-risk group was women over 75.

A study by Penn Medical was just released this year and the indications are that these injuries are very much on the rise. In fact, fractures related to dog walking have doubled in the years between 2004 and 2017 in patients 65 and older, with 78 percent of the fractures occurring in women. The study found that hip fractures increased by 163 percent.

But, now that we are aware of it, this risk can, and should, be managed with some simple precautions.

  • Be sure, especially in the case of seniors, to invest in some training. Having a dog that follows simple leash commands will reduce the risk of the walker being entangled, tripped or pulled to the ground.
  • Never wrap the leash around your hand. If the dog suddenly begins to pull, releasing the leash may be the best alternative to being dragged.
  • Likewise, do not reach your fingers under the collar to restrain, as this can result in injuries to the fingers or wrist. Wear shoes that allow good footing and balance, versus flip flops, or heels.
  • Keep the leash short. The longer the leash, the more momentum the dog can build to pull you down, and the risk of tripping is higher with a long leash.
  • Finally, pay attention to your surroundings so you can anticipate potential problems such as other dogs, cats and squirrels.

While an orthopedic injury is a serious consideration, the mental and physical benefits of owning a dog, or a cat, in my opinion, outweighs the risk. And with a few precautions, this risk can be minimized.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.