Walking the walk: On joint pain, weight loss, muscle atrophy and exercise in old dogs
Pet owners make all kinds of excuses for their fat pets. This especially popular Dolittler entry from a few months back exposes them. Today’s post offers yet another I should have detailed. It's one that gets cited most every time I discuss a canine exercise regimen in any detail: “But she hurts whenever I try to exercise her.”
It’s a conundrum, really. And it's not just to do with overweight dogs. No one wants to begin a much-needed exercise program on a pet whose joint ills or non-specific sluggishness obviously holds him back. Even those who have always exercised their dogs extensively wonder how far to take their walks, whether the swimming is still safe and how much exercise “abuse” it’s fair to inflict. Even these active owners tend to slack off out of humanitarian concerns.
The implication, whether for an able but aging exerciser or a fat newbie needing rehab, is that exercise pushes pets past their comfort zone in ways we humans might be loath to undertake even for ourselves. So how can we possibly subject them to it?
It’s a perfectly legitimate consideration, but one that tends towards the overblown. After all, we humans have always been urged by our physicians and rehab specialists to accept the discomfort of exercise, to push past the initial pain with an eye towards its benefits, and to remain consistent in the application of an exercise regimen––sore muscles, stiffness, joint pain and all.
Too bad too many dog owners just don’t see it that way. Here’s what I hear:
“It’s cruel and inhumane.”
“I can’t stand to watch her suffer.”
“I’d rather have him die in peace.”
“It’s only prolonging her suffering.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way––no more than it is for us. Those who would argue that an exercise regimen for an older, arthritic dog simply prolongs suffering would probably do well to euthanize them immediately. Because exercise doesn’t prolong suffering––life does.
Exercise––done right (and it's easy)––simply offers tiny blips of soreness as it augments muscle tone, enhances coordination and “lubricates” stiff joints.
All those free radicals and muscle acids that speak in painful tones when we work out? We’re finding they’re every bit as essential to pets when it comes to mental health, immune system function and even in such seemingly unrelated areas as digestion, skin condition and––here’s a shocker––overall quality of life.
But what’s enough? And how much is too much?
Dosing exercise is the hardest part for me, the healthcare provider, to determine. A prescription for exercise must be precise enough for my clients to follow and doable enough to yield habit-forming stability, but not so rigid and rapidly soreness-inducing to elicit non-compliance after the first couple of walks around the block.
Moreover, exercise must often be accompanied by a dietary plan for my fatties (the bulk of them) and a pain-relieving regimen that usually involves a round-robin of supplements and drugs to limit the discomfort inherent to the flexion and extension of muscles attached to painful joints.
Curious about what a detailed prescription might look like?
- Feed 1/3 cup X food twice daily
- Offer up to 5 baby carrots or apple slices per day as treats
- Glucosamine once daily
- Fatty acids once daily
- Adequan injection twice weekly for four weeks
- 5 minutes exercise AM and PM daily (swimming, walking, ball-throwing, etc.)
- Twice weekly, two additional 30-60 minute outings
- Offer Metacam one hour before each longer outing or whenever extra soreness results after daily exercise
- Increase daily exercise by five minutes every two weeks until 30 minutes achieved
- Increase intensity level of daily exercise every second week after increased duration
- Consider hiring a dog walker/runner for exercise assistance
- Consider massage therapy and acupuncture
It’s a complex bit of calculus, this recipe, because it’s different for all pets and always requires tweaking and revisiting on all points, not just when it comes to the duration and intensity of the exercise. And for many pet owners, hand-holding is an inevitable bit of the equation, too.
Luckily, common sense and maybe a phone call or two is usually enough to help dedicated pet owners power through the rough spots inherent to such a regimen. But then, we can all guess at the stats on the prevalence of common sense.
Hence my frustration when, six months later, my daily schedule includes Fluffy at 3 PM for “can’t get up” because her owner couldn’t bear to “force her to walk when she didn’t want to.” Which means the regimen was over before it started. So it is that when I evaluate Fluffy’s legs at 3 PM, they’ll probably be the last she'll ever walk on, too far gone to heal and too painful to allow her to live with as they now are.
That moment is inevitable for all of us, including our pets. It's just sad to see that for some, I've failed to bring them another six months, a year, or maybe many more, because I couldn't get out there and do the work their owners couldn't do. Because I couldn't convince their humans that those last months or years were likely to have been comfortable, happy ones...as long as exercise had played a basic role.