Your pup isn’t a puppy anymore. He’s up for a game of fetch, but he might move a bit slower and tire out sooner. Your job now is to learn how to keep your senior citizen active but respect his aging body.
Keep On Keepin’ On
Unless your dog has an injury, don’t stop the exercise, says Ellen Burbrink, DVM, co-medical director of Crosspointe Animal Hospital in Fairfax Station, VA.
Things like walks and games of fetch help your dog keep his strength and muscle tone. And they keep the extra pounds off, which can keep his joints healthy. The key is to lower the intensity. Throw the ball fewer times, and shorten his walks.
“A 20-minute walk 3 times a day is better than a 40-minute walk twice a day,” Burbrink says. “You’ve got to keep them active. Just don’t push them too hard.”
How Much Is Too Much?
Watch your dog and ask yourself these questions:
- Is he less happy about heading out for a walk?
- Does he get tired on walks sooner than he used to?
- Does he lag behind you on the leash or pant more than usual?
- Is he stiff after exercise?
- Is it hard for him to get up after he’s been lying down?
- Does he refuse to jump into or out of the car?
- Does he limp?
These could also be signs of osteoarthritis. It’s common in older dogs (and their humans). It happens when the tissue that cushions joints wears away and the bones rub together. That makes movement painful, Burbrink says. Your vet can help you find out what’s slowing your pet down.
Check the Weather
How do the seasons affect your aging dog? Does he have a hard time walking in summer due to the heat? Go out in the early morning and the evening.
Does the winter chill make his joints stiff and slow him down? Walk him at the warmest point of the day, and consider using a doggie sweater or jacket, says Jamie Peyton, DVM, of the U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. If he’s stiff in the morning, but loosens up by afternoon, wait until then to get out for some exercise.
Therapy for Your Dog
“As your dog ages, consider adding in some swimming,” Burbrink says. It’s great for his heart and muscles. Plus, it puts little to no impact on achy joints.
You might take your pup to a canine physical therapist, Peyton says. This kind of doggie doctor can figure out which muscle groups need strengthening, and she'll send you home with exercises. Pooches love to learn new tricks, so the routine will be good for his body and his mind.
Gear Can Help
If your dog has a hard time with stairs, try one of the many harnesses on the market that allow you to help out by using handles along his back. And if he no longer wants to jump into or out of the car, you can get a ramp that he can walk up and down.
If your dog can’t control one set of legs (front or back) because of nerve damage, arthritis, or both, but his other legs are still strong, get him fitted for a cart. The wheels take over for the bad limbs, and he guides himself using his good set. If just one leg is a problem, you might be able to get him fitted for an orthotic brace that can help shift his weight to the other three. Your vet or a pet rehab specialist can guide you through these options.
Movement is key to keeping your pal healthy, Burbrink says. Don’t use a stroller, backpack, or anything else that does the walking for him, unless you have a long trek planned and think he’s going to be able to make it only partway. Or, if a health issue like congestive heart failure makes exercise dangerous, a stroller is a safe way to get some time outside.
Meds for Pain
Pain management is a big part of keeping your older buddy active. Vets often prescribe canine nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for joint pain. For some dogs, these meds can cause stomach, kidney, and liver problems, so the doc will want to watch your pal closely. Never give your dog ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Both can be toxic to him.
Some vets say acupuncture and cold laser therapy can also help against arthritis pain in older canines.
A treatment plan that includes “both medications and non-drug therapies -- acupuncture, cold laser, and nutritional supplements -- is ideal to continue a high quality of life in their golden years,” Peyton says.
It might take some work to keep your older pal active, but the look in his eyes as he catches up to you on the sidewalk or trots past you to fetch that ball lets you know it’s all worth it.