Trip-and-fall mishaps can be caused by pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

tripping over pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • A doctor who asked friends on social media how many trip-and-fall accidents had been caused by pets was shocked when 47 people responded within a few days
  • The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reported 86,629 injuries linked to people falling over their pets in the U.S. between 2001 and 2006
  • Seven-and-a-half times more trip-and-fall incidents involved dogs compared to cats, and the most common physical results reported by unfortunate owners were broken bones, cuts and bruises
  • Pets that stand near their owners, jump up on or run around their legs tends to be a common cause of such injuries, but retractable leashes, distracted owners and lack of proper training also can lead to problems
  • Shorter leashes, an extra-wide gate for dogs to walk through and a bell to attach to your cat or dog’s collar might alert you to the presence of your pet, but being aware of your surroundings is one of the best ways to prevent such injuries

If you're the loving owner of a pet, such as a dog or cat, you know how much fun and joy they bring into your life. According to multiple reports from doctors and psychologist, and possibly you, having a pet can even improve your mental and emotional health.

But if you've never experienced it yourself, let the record show that the pet mishap known as trip-and-fall accidents occurs more often than some pet owners would like to acknowledge, even to themselves. It's a very real calamity that, although unintentional, can negatively impact your life.

But while tripping is one thing, falling down as a result is something else altogether, and a surprising number of these incidents end up sending unfortunate pet owners to the emergency room. In more than a few cases, they can also precipitate a hospital stay due to a broken limb or worse.

Being aware that such a hazard may exist in your life can help you take the steps necessary to prevent it, both for yourself or for someone in your household, and potentially, a visiting friend, meter reader or mail carrier.

How often do trip-and-fall accidents happen?

A doctor researching the number of trip-and-fall accidents caused by pets in the wrong place at the wrong time asked acquaintances on social media who had experienced such a thing. Expecting several responses, he was shocked when 47 people answered in the affirmative within a few days. He disclosed one case in Psychology Today:

"Diana Rayment of Melbourne, Australia was taking Bolt, her Rottweiler, for a walk. Suddenly, Bolt spotted a group of kangaroos and took off after them full tilt. Unfortunately, his leash was tangled around Diana's legs. As she fell, Diana's body was twisted around by the leash. She wrote … in an email, 'this effectively separated the bones of my foot from the bones of my leg.'

Luckily, she was soon discovered by a couple of neighborhood kids and rushed to a hospital. The x-rays revealed she had suffered 'fully displaced comminuted spiral fractures of both the tibia and fibula' — her lower leg bones. Diana underwent three surgeries over the next year. She now has a permanent limp."1

In its own research regarding the frequency of such accidents, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control,2 a division of the CDC, reported in 2010 that not only do most people admit they've tripped over their pet before, there were 86,629 such injuries in the U.S. between 2001 and 2006.

Interestingly, 7.5 times more of these incidents involved dogs compared to cats, and the most common physical results reported were broken bones, cuts and bruises, "most of these occurring in the extremities," reports Pet MD.3 According to the CDC study, while you might think most of the injuries involved people 75 years old and older, the falls happened to people across all age brackets.

How do such animal-related accidents happen in the first place?

According to Portland, Oregon-based veterinary behavior technician Jenn Fiendish, it's common for pet owners to suffer an injury as a result of tripping over their pet.4 It's usually because the pet lunged at another animal and in the process jumped onto or dashed past their owner, or yanked on their leash without warning.

It can happen anywhere, though — in your home, at someone else's home, at the mall or outside. Often, owners are standing at the stove or by an open refrigerator door, and their pet positions himself nearby in hopes of snagging a quick snack if a piece of food gets dropped.

Another common scenario is when pets are "followers;" they just want to be close to their favorite human. Sometimes pets stick so close that an unconscious pivot on the part of the human meeting with the adoring presence of their pet is the set-up for a fall. It's not hard to imagine the number of times someone comes home with an armload of groceries to be greeted by an excited, expectant canine. The dog's been waiting for this moment all day long, only to find their human groaning in pain on the floor next to them.

A number of dogs, especially puppies (or rescue dogs who haven't yet had the benefit of proper training), jump up on people or run around their legs, either greeting them happily or trying to figure out if someone is a friend or foe. And that's the type of behavior you want to prevent.

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Inside and outside, keep your eyes open for your pet

Trip-and-fall accidents can happen outside as well as inside, and retractable leashes are often the culprit, says Melissa Winkle, an occupational dog therapist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who's seen dogs as well as people come away with injuries from this style of leash.

That's especially true when dogs change direction unexpectedly or get tangled up. Winkle describes the set-up: "People give their dogs 8 feet of leash, and the dog sees something or hears something and gets a running start, giving them mechanical advantage, and pulls the person over."5

A suggestion to prevent injuries resulting from such mishaps is to use a fixed-length leash measuring 4 to 6 feet. But practically speaking, one of the best preventive tactics, similar to driving or walking outside after dark, is to be aware of your environment. Keep your eyes open in anticipation of situations that might inspire a dog to make a run for it.

Of all the places these scenarios play out, dog parks are the most common. People talking on their phones or to other people can get distracted and forget to watch their dog. Meanwhile, dogs typically keep their eyes on other dogs when they're in the same vicinity, and that's when an overeager jumper can crash into someone looking another direction.

How to help prevent trips and casualties

Of all the ways you can prepare to prevent a casualty, the best thing you can do is to obedience train your pup, the CDC report advises. When you walk your dog, you should use not only a shorter leash, but teach him to stay on one side of you, which is known as heeling. Fiendish says those are two rules of training that can be the most effective at reducing the risk.

"Typically we see people get new pups or smaller adult dogs, and families allow the puppy to jump ... Then the pup grows up knowing that this behavior will be rewarded,"6 Winkle says. Pets with severe behavioral difficulties, especially if they're afraid of their leash or react aggressively when they're nervous or afraid, need a qualified trainer or behaviorist who can work on getting to the bottom of their behavior and reducing it.

As mentioned, cats can cause obstructions as easily as dogs, especially small dogs. This is where "belling the cat" — placing a bell on their collar — can come in handy and be a bona fide lifesaver. Depending on the situation, it might also work for dogs. "It gives an owner the ability to hear the pet and thus alerts them to their presence,"7 Fiendish explains.

Environmental controls like an extra-wide gate for dogs to walk through might work for some owners. They have a shallow "step-over," and they're tall enough to keep larger dog breeds from entering areas where there are a lot of people coming, going and not necessarily looking for a dog to be nearby.

However, Fiendish also advises people who may have trouble getting around to think twice before getting a large "exuberant" dog or one that's small and has a tendency to dart around. "Hard-to-keep-track-of animals are often not a great choice for those with mobility issues," she notes.8

Experts agree that the best way to keep such accidents from taking place is not only to make sure you, as a pet owner, have trained your dog to know what's expected, but to remember yourself that a small animal might be right behind you. Remember not to turn around and start walking too quickly. Look around you first, locate your pet and keep mishaps from ruining your day.