- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
I see it all the time in my veterinary practice: pet owners feeling heartbroken that their once spry and energetic puppy is suddenly taking more naps and has a favorite spot on the couch. We all want our senior dogs to enjoy life like he or she used to by encouraging movement and exercise, but it’s hard to tell when to push them to move and when to let them enjoy their rest in peace. So let’s break down what is normal for a dog of advanced age and how you can help them get around better.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a dog is considered geriatric at around 7 years of age. This is equivalent to being about 56 years old in human years.
As our pets age, they’re more likely to have degenerative diseases that can threaten their mobility and quality of life, the most common of which is arthritis. Just like people, dogs develop arthritis or inflammation of their joints over time, and a diagnosis of arthritis can be made or ruled out by your veterinarian.
Vision and hearing changes are another reason why your pet may not want to move. A reluctance to go down stairs or cross a threshold can be the first clue that you’re your pet is having difficulty seeing.
If your vet gives your senior dog a clean bill of health at their annual checkup, then it’s OK to encourage your dog to move. The following movement tips will go miles in enhancing their well-being.
1. Customize your walks
Go on shorter and slower walks. Walking slower helps your dog move without causing injury, and shorter walks will allow them to still get the benefits of exercise without overdoing it. Use affection, praise, and positive reinforcement to encourage movement during and after a walk. This can reinforce the positive aspects of exercise for your pet when they don’t seem as motivated. If you use treats as a reward, make sure they are low calorie and that you don’t give too many.
2. Strive for a healthy weight
Keep your pet’s weight down. This will dramatically reduce the load that your pet has to carry on his or her joints daily. With a thinner frame, getting up and around the house takes less effort than with a larger frame. To help you discern if your pet is too heavy, use the Body Condition Scoring Chart.
If your pet is at 6 or higher, then it’s time to talk to your veterinarian about how you can manage your pet’s weight.
3. Use home accessories
Pet stairs and ramps for the couch, car, and other elevated spaces like porches can help preserve your dog’s joints. Most orthopedic injuries occur in pets from jumping on and off furniture, stairs, and other high places. Without as much musculature to protect their joints and bones, and as the soft tissue degenerates around them, bones can easily break, joints can dislocate, and discs can herniate in the spine. These can be very costly injuries and can lead to disability and further arthritis in the future.
While it may seem intuitive, you may want to avoid picking up your pet every time they need to go up and down the stairs. This is mostly for your safety, since you could slip, fall, or suffer a back injury. Let home accessories do the work for you instead.
You can also facilitate your dog’s ability to get up by slinging an old T-shirt underneath his or her abdomen and supporting their weight as your pet stands. The T-shirt can be used while walking as well. This can be useful for dogs who have had spinal injuries or hip problems.
4. Keep your pet from unsafe areas
Gate off certain areas of your home. By using baby gates, which are sold at most pet stores, you can block off the top and bottom landings of your stairs. This can prevent serious accidents and a pricey emergency hospital visit. It may be best to have your senior dog confined to the floor level area of your home with access to food and water close by and easy access to the outside door for walks.
5. Get appropriate bedding
Soft cushions, which prevent pressure on joints, are highly recommended for our older dogs. Look for beds that have memory foam or are advertised for orthopedic uses such as the Frisco Orthopedic Textured Plush Bolster Sofa Dog Bed.
If your senior dog has a disability that prevents his or her movement around the home or outside, there is still more you can do to help them achieve a great quality of life.
- Gentle massage can stimulate circulation and ease tense muscles, plus many dogs enjoy the attention from you.
- Move their body so that they can face you and the family, making sure both sides of their body are resting on the bed evenly and at regular intervals, which will prevent pain and muscle soreness.
- Keep their food and water close so they don’t have to walk across the room or to another part of the house to drink and eat.
- Make sure they have temperature control. For example, provide blankets, a fan, and keep them out of direct sunlight.
There are some good supplements that may relieve the signs of arthritis. Look for supplements with chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine. Also, supplementing with omega fatty acids can be great for the joints and coat. Look for senior dog food with words like “joint” or “bone” on the bag as these will usually have more omega fatty acids or antioxidants in them. Talking to your veterinarian about these supplements is important.
Caring for your pet in his or her senior years can be a challenge, but as you’ve read, you have many options for how you can make those years as memorable, mobile, and as affectionate as possible.