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Do Pets Cause or Prevent Falls?

For many elders, being alone and/or living alone, can create a tremendous amount of stress, anxiety and depression. It can also lead to an increased risk of falling. When an elder’s thoughts are preoccupied by emotional problems, they may not be as mentally alert in recognizing a hazardous environmental condition (such as slippery floors, a loose stairway handrail, etc.) or an unsafe activity (not using a cane when walking, not holding onto a grab bar when entering the shower, etc.).

Numerous reports have suggested that an elder’s health can benefit from having a pet, which could potentially reduce their risk of falling as well. On the other hand, the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that that there are some circumstances where pet ownership can increase risk of falls to those who live with them.

So, for family caregivers who are thinking of giving their loved ones a pet to relieve emotional problems, how do they decide whether a pet would be beneficial or unsafe?

What Are The Benefits of Pets?
  • Having a friend. While isolation can make disorders like depression worse, having a pet to simply talk to can lift a person's mood. Many elders feel less lonely and depressed after spending time alone with a dog and other pets. Some elders have even suggested that interacting with pets is more beneficial than spending time with other people.
  • Relaxation. Simply by petting and interacting with a dog, cat or other animal one can relieve stress and anxiety.
  • A reason to get up in the morning. Having a pet adds routine to an elder’s day. Pets require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. This may be just what a lonely and depressed elder needs to get out of bed each day.
  • Contact with others. Caring a dog for a walk can provide opportunities to socialize with other dog owners, which helps to reduce emotional problems.
  • Dementia aid. Some studies have suggested that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are less agitated and more socially interactive when around dogs.
  • Mental focus. Having a pet helps elders focus on something other than physical problems and negative thoughts about loss or aging.

The benefits of pet ownership aren't just mental:
  • Physical activity. Elders that have their own dogs benefit from more frequent exercise (walking a dog several times a day), which in time improves one’s balance. As well, they gain good cardiovascular exercise that has a positive effect on blood pressure (high/low blood pressure is associated with dizziness and balance problems). In addition, people with pets have elevated levels of brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) that aid in relaxation and stress reduction.

While pets can help elders stay healthy, combat loneliness and encourage exercise—which helps to reduce the risk of falling--, pets aren't right for everyone. In fact, many elders go to the emergency room each year with broken bones and other injuries (sprains, bruises, lacerations, etc.) because of falls involving dogs and cats. The circumstances associated with pet-related falls include:
  • Slipping or tripping while dog walking
  • Being pulled over (loss of balance) while walking their dog on a leash
  • Being knocked over by a dog
  • Tripping or falling over a dog or cat
  • Falling while chasing a dog or cat
  • Tripping over dog and cat related items (such as a toy, food bowl, etc.)

The most likely people to be involved in pet-related falls and injuries include:
  • Women (they’re more likely to fall and be injured than men).
  • People over 75 (they’re more likely to break a bone).
  • People who have less strength, flexibility and balance (those that need to ‘catch’ themselves when they begin to fall).

The Bottom Line

Pets, particularly dogs and cats, can be wonderful companions that provide many health benefits for elders, including a decreased risk of falling. Moreover, medications to treat depression, anxiety, etc., which are associated with high risk of falling (side effects include, dizziness, drops in blood pressure, confusion, etc.), may no longer be needed or their dosages decreased. But pets can sometimes pull, bump, or get underfoot and cause falls. When an elder falls, there’s a great likelihood of broken bones and other injuries (head and spinal cord trauma), which could lead to permanent disabilities.

Dogs are wonderful companions for elders with no major physical limitations. For those individuals with physical health conditions affecting their stamina and balance, pets may actually increase the risk of falls. 

If an elder is determined to have a pet (especially a dog), here are some tips to consider:
  • Dogs large enough to be able to push or pull a person should probably be avoided. Older dogs may be better choices for people at higher risk for falls since they are less active and more predictable. Cats often need less care than dogs. A small dog (that's paper-trained) or an indoor bird is also sometimes an alternative.
  • Thought should be given to avoiding small dogs and cats that may potentially get underfoot and cause falls.
  • For cats and smaller dogs that may run under one’s feet, placing a bell on the pet collar will let people when the pet is nearby.
  • Since so many of the falls occur while walking the dog (and involve being pushed or pulled by the dog), dogs should be obedience trained to walk on a loose leash. Dog obedience should include a focus on appropriate leash behavior (such as nor pulling or jumping).
  • Dogs should be trained and regularly exercised to reduce destructive behavior (such as a sudden need to jump or run) that might cause falls.
  • Keep pet items like toys and food/water bowls out of paths and walk ways to avoid tripping over them. Wipe up spills immediately.
  • Know the pet’s behavior. Some dogs can knock people over if they get excited or pull people down if they run towards other dogs.
Guest post by Dr. Rein, this post originally appeard in E-CareDiary.com

Rein Tideiksaar Ph.D., PA-C is the president of FallPrevent, LLC, Blackwood, NJ, a consulting company that provides educational, legal and marketing services related to fall prevention in the elderly. Dr Tideiksaar is a gerontologist (health care professional who specializes in working with elderly patients) and a geriatric physician's assistant. He has been active in the area of fall prevention for over 30 years, and has directed numerous research projects on falls and has developed fall prevention programs in the community, assisted living, home care, acute care hospital, and nursing facility setting.

Dr Rein has written several online continuing education course on falls: 

Caring for People With Fall Risks
Facts About Falls
Managing Falls In the Nursing Home: Who, Why and What Next?
Managing Falls IN the Nursing Home for Administrators
Preventing Falls
The Fall Prevention Care Process

Click on Dr. Reins Bio to see his complete list of online #CEU courses.

Posted: 1/28/2015 11:32:34 AM
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