CDC Analysis Tracks Pet-Related Falls and Resulting Injuries

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

Federal government researchers yesterday filled in a blank spot on the map of life's hazards -- the part occupied by Spot, Fifi, the chew toy and the water bowl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that an average of 86,629 Americans visit the emergency room each year after a fall caused by pets or their paraphernalia.

That's the equivalent of 240 ER trips a day, and roughly 1 percent of the 8 million visits for falls of all sorts.

About one-third of the falls broke bones, about one-quarter caused bruises, one-fifth caused sprains and a little more than one-tenth caused cuts. About 62 percent of the dog-related falls and 86 percent of the tumbles involving cats occurred at home.

"We know that pets have many benefits," said Judy A. Stevens, an epidemiologist at the CDC's injury center. "We just want people to be aware that pets and pet items can be a fall hazard and can lead to injuries."

Dog-related falls account for 88 percent of the total, cat-related ones 12 percent. Children 14 and younger recorded the most injuries, but the highest rate of injury is in people 75 and older.

Women were more likely to be injured than men; they suffered 68 percent of the falls involving dogs and 72 percent involving cats.

Exactly how many of the falls occurred when a leashed dog took off after a squirrel, a cat streaked by underfoot or the water dish spilled and made the kitchen floor slick isn't known. Nevertheless, the study, in the center's Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, gives a rough sketch of hazardous activities.

About one-quarter of the dog-related falls occurred during walks, about 3 percent while running away from a dog and one-half of 1 percent while breaking up a fight. In one-third of the falls, a person tripped over the dog. Being pulled by the animal caused a fifth of the falls.

About 12 percent of the cat-related injuries involved chasing the animal. In two-thirds of the falls, a person tripped over the cat.

The CDC researchers offered tips for avoiding such falls. The big one, Stevens said, is that an "owner should know how a pet behaves on risky activities such as walks." Obedience training for dogs is highly recommended and rooms with a lot of pet and human traffic should be well-lighted, she added.

To get the data, professional hospital chart reviewers examined the records of about 8,000 ER visits at 66 U.S. hospitals. The facts of the cases involving pets and falls where "abstracted" -- boiled down and rewritten -- and presented to the researchers. The information was then applied to the entire country.

This is the first national enumeration of falls caused by pets and among the earliest known research on the subject.

A search of PubMed, the database of medical literature run by the National Library of Medicine, using the terms "pet" and "fall" and "emergency" pulls up a single study, from Australia in 2004.

Researchers looked at ER visits for falls among the elderly and found 16 over an 18-month period involving pets. About 80 percent of the people who fell were women.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company