Pet-Related Injuries in the Elderly - and How to Prevent Them

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Each year, emergency rooms treat an estimated 21,000 elderly folk for pet-related injuries. Hip and upper extremity fractures in dog walkers aged 65 and older more than doubled between 2004 and 2017, per a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Data collected from roughly 100 hospitals nationwide revealed that fracture injuries in this population resulting from dog walking jumped from 1,671 in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017 - a 263 percent increase. Researchers at Penn Medicine cited increased pet ownership and an emphasis on maintaining physical activity in the elderly as the reasons for the spike in reported injuries.

Hip fractures are especially concerning because the mortality rate in patients older than 65 is about 30 percent. This particular injury has been known to trigger a domino-effect of declining health including lowered immunity resulting from inactivity and prolonged hospitalizations.

“This study highlights that, while there are undoubtedly pros to dog walking, patients’ risks for falls must be factored into lifestyle recommendations in an effort to minimize such injuries,” wrote the study’s lead author, Kevin, Pirruccio, a second-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Does the JAMA report suggest that elder pet lovers forego animal companionship? Absolutely not! We more creaky folk need only keep our radar tuned to live reasonably safe lives with our pets:

Mindfulness: Many pet-related injuries result from carelessness. Maintaining awareness of where we and our pets are helps us avoid accidents as we maneuver about in our environment. Dogs and cats - as well as their toys and food - can spring out of nowhere during fits of exuberance. A small bell attached to a pet’s collar can signal their proximity to us. Walking a dog who barks, pulls and tugs when another dog approaches? Keep calm, pull off the sidewalk and shorten the leash (but keep it loose!) until the other dog/owner passes by.

Physical Balance: Vestibular (inner ear) problems frequently occur as we age. This can effect the part of our brain controlling eye movements making us more prone to vertigo, dizziness and falls, especially if we have a loved-one leashed to us! Medication, exercises and medical procedures may be indicated depending on the underlying cause.

Bone Health and Overall Physical Conditioning: Osteoporosis (loss of bone density) may plague those of us of advanced years. Brittle bones snap like kindling and may confine us to a hospital bed. Reduced mobility can lead to respiratory illness or other infections, extending our hospital stay. Diets and/or supplements rich in calcium can help keep our frames sturdy. Regular exercise oxygenates our blood, revitalizes organs and preserves muscle mass.

Dog Walking Service: If you tire on longer treks, enlist a trusted animal person for that hike in the hood. While it's sad not to share all the activities we used to with our pooch, we want to maintain their health and happiness.

Behavioral Intervention/Training: For our dogs and us, too! Unruly dogs may lunge suddenly at the slightest distraction or perceived threat, pulling us in any direction, including directly in front of us - an invitation to a headlong tumble. Larger, jumping dogs can literally bowl us over. Trained dogs are calmer in a variety of situations and so are we. But we can’t forget that the foundation of successful behavior-shaping is our persistence, consistency and love.

Breed and Size: It’s impossible to escape age-age-related changes; we’re not as big, swift and agile as we used to be. Okay, some hearty specimens scale Mount Whitney or go ice fishing (and take the plunge afterward). Generally speaking, life has routed the sharp edges off most of us seniors. If we’re in our eighth or ninth decade of life, we may want to consider small-to-midsize dogs with a more mellow temperament as we peruse the pet adoption profiles.

No one should be denied the chance to give and receive unconditional love during their twilight years. At no time is the need for companionship greater than a phase of life sometimes fraught with loneliness and depression. What better antidote than to reach out and touch a being who quells those internal questions (and judgements) about our place in the world.