Our dogs tend to become less active as they age. Many things can contribute to this, including arthritis, failing eyesight, weakness, heart or respiratory problems, weight gain, injuries, or even mental conditions like anxiety or senility. Even so, exercising your senior dog is an important part of keeping them healthy as they age. Provided your veterinarian gives you the "all clear" to exercise your dog, then going ahead with a gentle, regular exercise routine will help your dog stay as healthy and mobile as possible into his golden years. Here are some tips on how to keep your dog active, encourage him to stay active, and how to recognize when it's time to head home.
Old dogs don't have to sleep away their retirement years. Exercise is both fun and stimulating for them, and has lots of benefits, too.
Maintaining Strong Muscles and Flexibility
Despite the natural aging process that can see the development of medical conditions, there are things we can do to keep our senior dogs as healthy as possible. Gentle, daily exercise can make a tremendous difference:
- Keeps muscles working, active, and strong, which in turn supports the joints;
- Helps to maintain flexibility;
- Helps to maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity in dogs can make existing medical conditions (like arthritis) worse, as well as cause other issues (such as breathing problems).
Dogs like to explore with their noses. Being outside, with all the interesting (and often new) smells is great mental stimulation. Most dogs enjoy the fresh air. They enjoy exploring all the sights, sounds, and scents that they come into contact with while walking. Social dogs may also like seeing their other human and dog friends as well. Keeping your senior dog's mind engaged is a good thing!
It's normal for pets to feel a little more stiff and sore as they age. It's important to address any underlying medical concerns, including managing pain. Pain on its own can cause pets to be reluctant to engage in any form of exercise.
How to Help Your Dog
- Your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help manage pain. There are also complementary therapies like canine acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, massage therapy, and specific physical therapy exercises that can be customized for the dog to help him feel better and stay as mobile as possible.
- Here are some additional ways to help a pet with arthritis.
- Keep your dog at a healthy weight (even on the lean side of a healthy weight, provided your vet gives you the okay). The less weight he carries, the less pressure his joints have to support.
- Keep your dog's nails trimmed. Nails that are too long can alter the way your dog stands, as well as the way he walks. It can be difficult to trim a dog's nails if he's uncooperative; if it doesn't tolerate it well, it may be better to bring him to the vet for the trim and save both you and your dog the stress.
- Offer your dog a supportive, comfortable orthopedic bed. After exercising, your old dog will probably be in the mood for a good nap. A good dog bed can provide support where he needs it most and help keep him comfortable. Memory foam beds are popular ... but keep in mind that softest, thickest beds aren't always the best choice for every dog - they can cause dogs to sink so far into them that it's difficult for them to get up. An elevated, cot-style bed is another good option, especially for dogs who like to stay cooler.
Once pain issues have been managed, dogs will often show increased interest in engaging in more activity.
Older dogs who aren't completely stable on their feet will understandably feel less secure when walking on slippery or uneven surfaces, or on an incline. When they don't feel secure moving around, they'll move around less. That can lead (once again) to more weight gain, which leads to being less active, which leads to weight gain ... and so continues a vicious cycle. Help your senior dog feel more secure and confident on their feet with these products:
- Indoor socks for traction. Slippery floors are common in our homes but they're not the best for our senior dogs. There are dog socks designed specifically to help give our furry friends more traction while they're in the house. They can make a world of difference in walking across hard floors, and when the dog is getting up from a down position.
- Mobility harness. Lots of older dogs still love to walk but need a little help. Their back ends may be too weak or too wobbly for them to walk entirely on their own; a mobility sling or harness helps owners take some of the load, so that their dogs can walk a little easier. It also comes in handy for those times when you may need to support your dog while he's having a potty break.
- Car ramp. Lugging dogs - especially big dogs - in and out of the car is no fun. Ramps make it easier. If need be, hold onto your dog's harness when he's climbing on or off the ramp. This helps to keep him stable and feel safe. Check the weight rating to be sure that the ramp will safely hold your dog. Here's a comparison of dog ramps for large, older dogs.
- Indoor ramp or steps. This is the same idea as the car ramp, only for indoor uses like allowing your dog to more safely and easily climb short sets of stairs, or get up on the bed or the couch.
- Carpeted stair treads. Many of us have homes with hard flooring. Older dogs often find it slippery to navigate these types of flooring, especially on stairs. Carpeted stair treads are an easy and economical way to add traction for your aging dogs.
Extended games of frisbee or ball are usually too much for an older dog. The leaping into the air and fast, hard movements can make it more likely that the dog will over-exert himself or get injured. Gentler exercise is typically more appropriate for senior dogs.
Walking and Hiking
You may need to put a little more thought into where you walk, now that your pet is getting older. Walking trails or paths without a lot of obstacles (like protruding rocks, fallen tree limbs, uneven surfaces or holes, etc) are a lot easier for senior dogs to navigate safely. Dogs who are unstable or wobbly in the hind end will find it a more manageable to walk on level ground rather than in areas with hills.
Older dogs can be more sensitive to heat, cold, rough, or slippery terrain. Senior dogs also sometimes drag their paws when they walk; boots will protect their paws from getting cuts or scrapes. Old dogs are also often less stable on their feet, so boots that can help them with better traction will also help to prevent slips. This is especially important during the winter when icy surfaces are everywhere.
Many people think that 'outfitting' their dogs in such a way is ridiculous; just remember it's not about 'dressing your dog up' for fashion's sake, it's about helping to keep them safe and feel secure. Dogs who feel secure in their footing are more likely to engage in exercise.
Familiar routes may be comforting to older dogs as well. It's not uncommon for senior dogs to feel anxious in unfamiliar surroundings, especially if their eyesight or sense of hearing or smell aren't what they used to be. Familiar routes help to make them feel safe.
Swimming or Walking in Water
Water takes a lot of weight off the joints. Even dogs who don't enjoy swimming can still walk through the water. Stairs or a ramp are handy for dogs to get out of a pool if you're using one. A life jacket is a good idea. Many also have handles on the top so that you can help guide your dog.
If you have access to a canine physical therapy centre, ask if they have an underwater treadmill you can use.
Both swimming and walking in the water are amazing exercise - your dog will be exercising against the resistance of the water - so keep exercise sessions short and make sure your dog doesn't overdo it. Make sure to dry your dog off right away when he's done.
Don't force your dog to exercise in the water if he doesn't want to. The stress and the anxiety aren't worth it. There are other ways to exercise your older dog.
Nose work is when dogs use their sniffers to do a task. One form of nose work is playing food games - they're simple, they're fun, and they're great mental stimulation in addition to providing some physical exercise. Be sure to account for the extra food you use in games when feeding your dog his regular meals.
- Avoid outdoor exercise during times when it's excessively hot or cold. During the summer, early mornings or late evenings are great times to get outside and enjoy some exercise. In the winter, mid-day may be warmer.
- Avoid strenuous exercise when air quality isn't great (for example, when there's wildlife smoke in the air). Remember that 'strenuous' is relative; it applies to whatever counts as 'strenuous' for your older dog.
- Several shorter, exercise sessions during the day is preferable to one long one. It keeps the dog moving and joints lubricated, and gives them more to look forward to throughout the day.
Always bring water for your dog. Older dogs don't have the same stamina or tolerance to exercise as younger ones, and may need to drink more often. A portable water bottle with a built-in bowl is a convenient way to carry water while walking.
Let your senior dog set his own pace. Dogs generally like to try to please their humans, so be careful not to set a pace for your dog - even if it's too fast for him, he'll probably try to keep up and overexert himself. Likewise, don't get stuck on a route and continue leading your dog along that route - he may try to keep going, even if he's tired, just because he loves you. Here are some signs that he's had enough:
- Refusing to continue, sitting or laying down, stopping in his tracks, etc.
- Slowing down or showing reluctance to continue;
- Repeatedly looking back towards the way you came;
- Struggling / showing extra difficulty moving around;
- Coughing or hacking;
- Heavy panting or drooling.
It's up to us to pay attention to our dog's signals. Take note of how much exercise he's able to do and end the exercise session before he becomes exhausted. Ideally, by the time you're finished, your senior dog will have had just enough exercise (rather than having over-exerted himself) and is ready for a comfortable nap.
"Happiness starts with a wet nose and ends with a tail."