Elderly Man Walking a Dog

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BALTIMORE — Walking a leashed dog is a common daily activity for many adults, but new research has found that it can be associated with a risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among adults. According to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, TBIs were the second most common injury among adults treated in U.S. emergency rooms for injuries related to walking a leashed dog from 2001 to 2020.

Researchers also report that women and adults aged 65 and older were more likely to sustain serious injuries, such as fractures and TBIs, than people in other demographic groups.

The study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, analyzed data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System database, which is operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The researchers found that an estimated 422,659 adults sought treatment in U.S. emergency rooms for injuries resulting from leash-dependent dog walking from 2001 to 2020. Nearly half of all patients were adults aged 40 to 64, and 75% of patients were women. Most injuries occurred due to falling after being pulled by, tangled in or tripped by the leash connected to a dog they were walking.

Senior woman walking dog in snow
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The three most common injuries among all adults were finger fracture, TBI, and shoulder sprain or strain. TBI and hip fracture were the two most common injuries among adults aged 65 and older. TBIs identified in this study consisted of both concussions and nonconcussive internal head injuries, which can include brain contusion (a bruise of the brain tissue), epidural hematoma (bleeding in above the brain’s outer membrane) or subdural hematoma (bleeding beneath the brain’s outer membrane).

Women with injuries related to dog walking were 50% more likely than men to suffer a fracture. Older dog walkers were more than three times as likely to experience a fall, more than twice as likely to have a fracture and 60% more likely to sustain a TBI than younger dog walkers. The researchers posit that the quadrupling of the estimated annual incidence of injuries due to leash-dependent dog walking over the 20-year study period may be due to concurrent rising dog ownership rates and promotion of dog walking to improve fitness.

The team hopes its findings will promote awareness among dog owners and encourage clinicians to discuss the injury potential of leash-dependent dog walking with their patients.

“Clinicians should be aware of these risks and convey them to patients, especially women and older adults,” says Dr. Edward McFarland, the study’s senior author and director of the Division of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “We encourage clinicians to screen for pet ownership, assess fracture and fall risk, and discuss safe dog walking practices at regular health maintenance visits for these vulnerable groups. Despite our findings, we also strongly encourage people to leash their dogs wherever it is legally required.”

The researchers have also analyzed cases of leash-dependent dog walking injuries among children under age 18. Those findings will be released in the near future. Dog ownership has been shown to have many benefits, including reduced stress, improved mental health, and increased physical activity. However, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with dog walking, especially for older adults and women, and take appropriate precautions to prevent injury.

Of course, this study should be weighed against other studies on dog owners that have found several health benefits. For example, previous research has found that dog owners cover over 1,000 miles a year and seniors who own dogs lead healthier, more active lives overall.

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