Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Senior Safety With Dogs

Walking a dog is good exercise for seniors, but they can be at risk for falls. Experts offer tips to help keep them fracture-free

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Turkan Tokcan was walking her daughter’s dog. As she stopped to look for something in her purse, she wrapped the leash around her two middle fingers. Another dog passed by, and Buster, usually calm, launched himself at the interloper. The result -- two painfully broken fingers -- took months to heal. Tokcan is still unable to fully bend one of them.

It’s not an unusual injury, especially when it comes to older dog owners. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the annual number of patients 65 years and older presenting to U.S. emergency departments with fractures associated with walking leashed dogs increased significantly between 2004 and 2017, primarily among women (78.6 percent).

“The doctors said they see these cases too many times,” says Tokcan’s daughter, Sebnem. “People underestimate the power of their dogs.”

Dogs cross in front of us, stop suddenly to sniff and take off running if they see a kid playing with a remote-controlled car. Humans, especially as they age, experience deficits in balance, hearing, vision, strength and flexibility, all of which can contribute to a fall when combined with an excited, fearful or poorly trained dog. Injuries to hips, wrists and upper arms were most commonly reported.

Accidents happen when people are distracted or aren’t paying attention while walking dogs. Here are some tips from experts on making dog walks safer for seniors -- and anyone else.

-- Hold the leash correctly. “Wrapping a leash around the wrist is a big no-no that’s likely to result in injury for anyone who does it, especially seniors who are at higher risk of injury due to brittle bones,” says Mikkel Becker, lead trainer for Fear Free Pets. “Learning how to hold a leash properly can be a life-saving technique to keep people from being pulled or dragged.” Use a strong grip that allows you to release quickly if needed.

-- Use a shorter leash. A good length is 4 feet, says Edward T. Creagan, M.D., an expert on healthy aging and a dog lover himself who lives with two golden retrievers. “The longer the leash, the more velocity the dog can have. Even if Fido is 30 or 40 pounds, a long leash becomes a vector for velocity and can pull the pet owner off their feet.”

-- Take a refresher course with a trainer who can focus on your dog’s leash manners. Dogs tend to walk all over the place, following their noses. Walking by our side at our pace is not natural for them, so they need training, says animal behavior technician Debbie Martin. “Choose someone who understands how to use motivators to teach a dog how to walk nicely on leash,” she says. “We have to make it worth their while and something that’s fun for them as well, so the walk is enjoyable not only for the people but also for the animal.”

-- Teach impulse control, especially at the top of stairs, at the door or when approaching a fun place such as the park. Dogs need to learn that patience pays off more quickly than pulling or pushiness, Becker says. Exercises to practice include waiting calmly to be leashed. A positive-reinforcement trainer can help with techniques.

-- Be mindful. Pay attention to your surroundings so you don’t miss a beeping horn, environmental obstacles such as curbs or tree roots that have pushed up a section of sidewalk, or the approach of another dog. “Inattention is a common mistake people make that leads to injury,” Dr. Creagan says.

Most important, keep walking your dog. The purpose of the study isn’t to discourage seniors from walking their dogs, says lead author Kevin Pirruccio. “We hope our results help make dog walking safer for seniors by raising awareness about which situations may put patients at risk for these injuries.”

Q&A

How to deter

bites from cat

Q: My 10-month-old cat bites me. Will he outgrow this?

A: You don’t describe the situations in which your cat bites, but a common one is when the cat feels overstimulated from petting.

Cats can’t say, “Hey, stop, I don’t like that anymore,” so they bite or scratch to send that message. If your cat bites when you pet him, pay closer attention to his body language. If the tail is whipping, eyes are dilated or ears go flat, sideways or back, stop! Let him chill before you pet him again.

Cats also bite if they don’t like where they’re being petted. Dogs love belly rubs, but cats ... not so much. That is the last place you want to reach out and touch them. Even if your cat loves and trusts you, it’s instinctive for him to protect his soft underbelly with a bite or swat. Don’t make him do it!

If your cat nails you, freeze instead of pulling away. Struggling and movement will excite him; the action is like that of prey. If you hold still, though, he will likely let go. Don’t yell at him, but redirect his attention to a toy.

By becoming aware of your cat’s tolerance levels, reducing triggers that make him bite and not using your hand as a plaything -- waggling fingers, for instance -- you will protect yourself from his teeth and claws.

The sweet spots for petting a cat are beneath the chin, behind the ears, on the cheeks behind the whiskers and at the base of the tail. All of these areas are where scent glands are concentrated. Scritching your cat in these places spreads his scent and makes his environment (and you) smell familiar, which is all to the good if you want to have a happy, purring cat. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Watch for signs of

arthritis in cats

-- Does your cat seem to be slowing down? She may have degenerative joint disease. Cats at increased risk include Maine coons, which have a genetic tendency toward hip dysplasia; Abyssinians and Devon rex, prone to patellar luxation; and Scottish folds, because the gene that causes the ears to fold is also associated with cartilage and bone abnormalities. Other risk factors include injury, obesity, chronic kidney disease and age. Take your cat to the veterinarian if you notice changes in behavior such as becoming aggressive or withdrawn; appetite loss; poor litter box use; constipation; difficulty grooming himself or dislike of being brushed or combed; and unfriendliness toward people or other animals with whom he was previously friendly.

-- In a survey of 3,673 pet owners, 45 percent expressed interest in learning more about nutritional adequacy of plant-based diets for pets. A commonly reported concern about feeding a meat-based diet was farm-animal welfare. The objective of the survey, which was published January 15 in the online journal PLOS ONE, was to estimate the number of meat-avoiding pet owners, identify concerns regarding conventional animal- and plant-based pet food, and estimate the number of pets fed a plant-based diet. While some dogs can subsist on a plant-based diet, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must have meat in their diet. Pets who naturally eat only a plant-based diet include rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, as well as certain reptiles, such as iguanas and land tortoises, making them good choices for vegetarian and vegan owners.

-- Life is never dull with a poodle of any size (standards are 18 to 24 inches, minis 15 inches or less, toys 10 inches or less). The active, athletic dogs excel in canine sports. Exuberant and enthusiastic, they view the world as their stage, with humans as their adoring audience. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.