Cat-astrophe? Dog Disaster? Pet-Related Falls Injure Thousands

An encounter in 2003 with a dog led to a painful injury for Jon Grayson, now 24, of Houston, Texas, but not in the way most might guess.

"I tripped over my mom's Chihuahua while I was at home," he said. "I didn't even see her; she's a little-bitty thing."

The stumble led to an aggravation of the broken left ankle Grayson had suffered a year and a half prior to the accident. And it was severe enough to sideline him from the University of Texas ultimate Frisbee team for two weeks.

Fortunately, Grayson's injury was relatively minor. For tens of thousands of other animal lovers, however, the consequences of pet-related falls can be far more serious.

A report released today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that, on average, an estimated 86,629 Americans receive emergency room treatment each year for fall-related injuries associated with a pet dog or cat.

All told, the number represents a small fraction of the more than 8 million patients treated in emergency rooms in the United States each year. Still, such injuries represent a significant problem for some people, particularly the elderly.

"The analysis showed that the highest rates of injuries occurred among persons aged >75 years, and the most common diagnosis was fracture," the authors noted in the report, adding that some of these fractures could be in the hip. "Among older adults, hip fractures can result in serious health consequences, such as long-term functional impairments, nursing home admission, and increased mortality."

Dr. Corey Slovis, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said he has seen such severe injuries firsthand.

"I remember a woman with a horrible leg fracture who carefully explained to me twice that it was her fault -- and not the dog's -- for her fall," he said.

Dr. Richard O'Brien, a spokesman for the Dallas-headquartered American College of Emergency Physicians, agreed that such injuries are all too common.

Perilous Pets: What Are the Biggest Risks?

"I see people falling over pets all the time," O'Brien said. "Not infrequently they suffer fractures of the ankle or wrist."

Idaho-based veterinarian Marty Becker said that he, too, has seen the ravages of pet-related falls in his practice. While most of his patients are dogs and cats who have sustained fractures from being tripped over or stepped upon, they are often accompanied by owners who are nursing their own injuries from the encounter.

But when it comes to falling hazards, Becker said, not all pets are created equal. Dogs appear to be the primary kind of pet involved in such falls, a trend that is reflected in the new CDC research, which noted that 88 percent of human injuries are in dog owners.

"The biggest risk is with puppies -- who fall asleep quickly and anywhere -- and with older dogs who are starting to have cognitive disorder syndrome, or early Alzheimer's."

Becker said these older dogs often sleep more during the day, which puts people moving around the house at more risk of stumbling over a sleeping animal. Also, these dogs tend to fall asleep in strange places, such as at the top of a flight of stairs or in a dark hallway.

Older people, too, may have a higher risk of suffering such accidents. "As far as humans, the most at-risk population is the shuffling elderly, the same group who trips on throw rugs," Becker said. "They lack balance, peripheral vision is poor, and they don't expect to encounter pets in weird places. And if they start to trip, they can't catch themselves."

Emergency room doctors said fall-related injuries can also occur outside the home, specifically while owners are walking their dogs.

"Dogs surge to threats and things to chase," Vanderbilt's Slovis said. "If you want to guarantee injury, be sure to walk more than one dog at the same time, especially if they don't have a history of being together long-term or are in a strange or new location."

O'Brien of American College of Emergency Physicians added that the time of year can also make a difference. "When you add snow and ice of the winter months, walking the dog -- especially if it's a large animal -- can be very hazardous," he said. "Sometimes the animal will suddenly pull you while your footing is not stable. I've seen multiple fractures from that scenario."

Protecting Yourself From Your Pet

In order to cut risks, Becker the veterinarian suggested that pet owners take steps to ensure that they don't become injury statistics.

"Be extra careful at 'treat time' when there's a delighted frenzy of fur at your feet," he said, adding that pets should also have access to a secure place to sleep so they can avoid snoozing underfoot.

And, he added, the health benefits of dog and cat ownership still far outweigh the potential risks. These benefits, according to the CDC, include lower blood pressure, lower triglyceride levels and lower stress levels -- as well as increased opportunities for exercise and socialization.

"Whether you're protecting yourself from some minor zoonotic disease like ringworm or a major one like rabies, preventing dog bites or minimizing the risk of falling over your pet, my mantra is always the same: Get rid of the risk, keep the pet," he said. "Because the health benefits of pet ownership are so strong, and the risks both minimal and manageable, you take the steps necessary to reduce risk."

Grayson, for one, said he has adjusted his behaviors at home in Houston to avoid a repeat injury to his ankle or any other body part.

"I'm definitely more mindful of my surroundings when I'm home," he said, adding that other pet lovers may be wise to follow suit.

"If my story can help just one person not trip over their dog," he joked, "then I feel like I've done my job."