How to Start an Age-Appropriate Exercise Plan for Your Senior Dog

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Katie Grzyb, DVM on Apr. 21, 2019

Reviewed for accuracy on April 22, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. While this isn’t necessarily true, one thing that you can be sure of is that senior dogs can still be active and still need exercise. By engaging your senior dog in age-appropriate exercises, you can help improve her quality of life.

Finding dog exercises to help your senior pup stay active and healthy is part of being a responsible pet parent. Just because your dog has entered into her golden years, it doesn’t mean she can’t participate in fun activities to keep her mentally and physically stimulated.

If you want to start you senior dog on an exercise plan or modify her current exercise regime to match her life stage, here’s an easy checklist you can use.

Take Your Senior Dog to the Vet

While it varies by your pet’s breed and size, generally, your pup is considered a senior dog somewhere between the ages of 7 and 9 years old, says Dr. Jeff Werber, a veterinarian at the Los Angeles-based private clinic, VCA Century Veterinary Group.

Around this time, your veterinarian will likely recommend senior physicals and blood panels, which usually involve taking a closer look at your dog’s joint and bone health, heart health, muscle tone, and kidney and liver condition.

The outcome of these exams will also tell you a lot about your senior dog’s exercise needs and capabilities, says Dr. Werber.

After viewing the results, your veterinarian may also recommend dog supplements for joint health, like Nutramax Dasuquin with MSM joint health dog supplement. This supplement contains joint-healthy glucosamine and chondroitin; other options for joint health include omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

“I’m a big fan of Dasuquin,” says Dr. Werber. “I also have most of my older dogs on probiotics to help their digestive health. As long as you talk to your vet and stay within a reasonable dose, there are no downsides.”

Your veterinarian can then help you determine the best activities and exercises for your senior pet, along with the appropriate duration and intensity.

Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for bringing your senior dog in for future checkups, as their capabilities can change over time. This will help your pet lead the longest and healthiest life possible.

And in general, bringing your pet in for the recommended visits and “finding problems early leads to better outcomes,” says Dr. Jennifer Mathis, a veterinarian at the Family Pet Veterinary Center, with offices in West Des Moines and Norwalk, Iowa.

Help Your Senior Dog Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity is the number one nutritional disease affecting pets young and old, says Dr. Werber. If your pet is overweight, it can affect her ability to exercise.

“It’s a vicious cycle. The bigger they get, the less they can do. The less they can do, the bigger they get,” says Dr. Werber.

Extra weight also puts stress on a dog’s muscles, bones and joints, as well as their respiratory tract. It can also lead to diabetes. These are all problems we want to help our pets avoid, especially senior pets.

Talk to your vet about a weight management plan and exercises that can help your pet achieve their ideal weight. Putting your dog on a plan to shed pounds can possibly improve your senior dog’s heart and joint health without the need for prescription pet medication, says Dr. Mathis.

Don’t Stop Exercising Your Senior Dog Simply Because They’re Older

Don’t assume your senior dog can’t exercise anymore simply because she’s older. A proper dog exercise routine can help her lose or keep off extra pounds, says Dr. Werber. “Without exercise, there’s a likelihood to gain more weight as they get older,” he says.

Working with your vet to develop a proper exercise routine can also help dogs with back problems, like degenerative or bulging discs.

“With a lot of those conditions, it’s important to keep moving,” says Dr. Mathis. “What happens when we sit all day? We get stiff and sore.” This is true for our senior pets, too.

Learn How to Read Your Dog to Determine Their Exercise Limits

Who is the ultimate expert in your pet’s exercise needs and capabilities? Your dog.

It’s important to invest the time to learn how to read your dog. work with your veterinarian to help you understand your dog’s body language and figure out what the right amount of exercise is.

If your dog is panting excessively, hanging her head and/or isn’t keeping up on a walk or run, these are signs that your senior dog is overexerting herself, says Dr. Werber. At the same time, if she seems restless after a walk, it could be a sign she’s up for more of a challenge.

The key is to stop and check in with your dog frequently to gauge how she is handling any activity.

“They can’t tell us what they want to do,” says Dr. Werber. “We have to learn how to read them.”

Embrace Low-Impact Exercises for Dogs

Your veterinarian can help you modify your dog’s favorite activities to ensure they stay active without overdoing it.

In general, activities like walking and swimming are gentler on their joints, says Dr. Mathis. (Of course, you should never let your dog near the water unsupervised.)

If your dog enjoys a good game of fetch, you can consider altering how fast and where you throw the ball. You don’t want your senior dog to change directions as she’s chasing the ball or make excessive start-and-stop movements, which can further stress her joints.

“We don’t want to stop exercising,” says Dr. Werber, “but we do want to modify their routine to meet the needs and capabilities of the pet.”

Factor in the Weather

“Exercising your dog in inclement weather is never okay. It’s even worse for an older dog,” says Dr. Werber.

You also need to be aware of the limits of certain breeds when it comes to the weather. For instance, brachycephalic dogs cannot pant and cool themselves in warmer weather.

You want to make sure your dog has plenty of water at all times, especially on hotter days, says Dr. Mathis. If it’s too hot, you can modify your dog exercise plan and do an activity like swimming or an indoor game of fetch.

Dr. Mathis calls products like the KONG H2O stainless steel dog water bottle “ingenious.” Adding a few drops of low-sodium chicken broth to the water can also encourage dogs to drink more on hot days, although after exercise, dogs are usually thirsty already. Make sure that your dog is not allergic to chicken before you try this.

In cooler weather, warm dog apparel, like the Frisco dog and cat parka coat, can help keep your senior dog protected from the elements. Keep your dog’s coat length and breed in mind in colder weather, and talk to your veterinarian about taking proper precautions for winter workouts with your senior dog.

By: Helen Anne Travis

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