By Jessica Remitz
As your dog heads into his senior years, he may not be able to run as fast, jump as high or have the stamina he once had. Whether they’re perfectly healthy or experiencing limited mobility as the result of a condition, it's important for owners to understand their dog's limits and create an exercise routine that all parties will enjoy.
Conditions That Limit Mobility for Senior Dogs
“The most chronic issue seen in dogs that limits their mobility and exercise level is osteoarthritis,” said Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC and spokesperson for the International Veterinary Senior Care Society. This degeneration of the joints due to long-term stress or use can happen naturally or become an issue with overweight pets. Congenital issues like hip dysplasia, which breeds like German Shepherds are predisposed to, and elbow dysplasia, which breeds like Labrador Retrievers are predisposed to, can be mild when a dog is young but worsen over time, Dr. Lobprise said. Rheumatoid arthritis or infections like Lyme disease can also limit mobility without proper care and early diagnosis.
“Senior dogs may also be limited in mobility because of injuries like slipping on something, sliding into something or turning too quickly as they chase after a toy,” said Sue Berryhill, BS, RVT, VTS (Dentistry) and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistant. “These seemingly minor slips and slides can cause anterior or posterior cruciate tears and be very painful to your dog. They usually occur when a dog’s weight is higher than their ideal body weight,” Berryhill said.
“A decrease in your dog’s exercise tolerance can also be due to decreased heart function, with valve and heart diseases limiting your pet’s mobility,” Dr. Lobprise said. Valve disease is prevalent in smaller breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel while muscle diseases like cardiomyopathy are prevalent in larger breeds like the Doberman Pinscher. If you notice your dog getting winded more easily or not walking as well as it used to, Dr. Lobprise advocates bringing them to your vet for a heart checkup.
Types of Indoor Exercise for Senior Dogs
Providing an environment full of both physical and mental stimulation will help keep your dog feeling youthful and active. How do you accomplish this? Dr. Lobprise recommends bringing home a few treat toys that will dispense their meals in smaller doses to improve both physical and mental function and promote weight loss in heavier pets. If they’re able to go up and down the stars, have them move around your home and go up and down stairs slowly to keep their joints moving and muscles loose. Should climbing stairs be out of the picture, invest in some ramps to help your dog keep moving around the house without causing them too much pain.
Types of Outdoor Exercise for Senior Dogs
As a senior your dog should still be getting regular walks throughout the week, but keep them short and try not to overdo it if your pet is experiencing any kind of condition. Dr. Lobprise recommends talking with your vet to make sure you know how much your pet is capable of and what a comfortable distance will be for them to walk each day. Swimming is another excellent activity to help exercise the muscles without hurting joints. According to Dr. Loprise, swimming is also an excellent part of a therapy routine for dogs that have some sort of injury.
Dogs with physical limitations may want to keep moving, running after balls and jumping for Frisbees as they used to, but likely don’t have the stamina. “Limit non-stop games of fetch, swimming for long periods and walking in deep grass or sand for too long — these activities, while fun, will be very fatiguing after extended periods of time,” Berryhill said. You’ll also want to recognize your senior dog’s sensitivity to temperatures both hot and cold. Keep them hydrated and in the shade in the heat, especially if they’re overweight or are a brachycephalic breed like Bulldogs or Pugs.
Keeping Senior Dogs Healthy
Weight management and overall care of your senior dog is extremely important. Make sure they’re properly groomed — with trimmed nails — and at an ideal body weight to be able to move around comfortably. According to Dr. Lobprise, providing dogs who have mild or moderate pain with comfortable bedding will also help their symptoms when they are sleeping or wake up from a nap.
Talk to your vet about orthopedic exams, X-rays (if necessary) and any prescription medication or supplements they recommend for your specific pet to help keep them active and healthy. If your dog has had an injury or is experiencing a chronic illness, Berryhill suggests contacting the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians. They can help you design a rehabilitation program for your dog that may include exercise, acupuncture, cryotherapy or chiropractic appointments. Early detection is key to keeping up an exercise program.
“If you can recognize changes [in your dog] early, you can manage it from an early stage to help make it better quickly,” Dr. Lobprise said. “Always talk to your vet about any treatments that they need — if you catch it before it's too severe, you can really help your pets out.”