Every now and then, I start thinking about fond memories of my first Boxer, Gloria. She was an absolute sweetheart of a dog who sold me on the breed, and it’s why I have Janice and Leroy today. One thing about Gloria that I recall very clearly is how hard she tried to stay active in her later years, when arthritis was really settling in to her joints. To her, she was still the same energetic, frisky girl she’d always been. But to anyone watching her, it was clear that she was struggling.
Many owners treat older dogs carefully, coddling them with soft beds and as little activity as possible to help them deal with things like arthritis. And while it’s easy to understand why they’d go that route, it’s actually very important for older dogs to get exercise. Even if it looks like they’d rather just stay put all day, exercise helps keep the dog mobile and healthy. Yes, you will have to modify what you’re used to doing – but consider this: many dogs can be diagnosed with arthritis and signs of aging as early as three years old! Do you want your dog to spend the next 10 years or more of their life as a bored couch potato?
Even if you are just adopting a senior dog, you want their lives to be as long as happy as possible. (Want to learn more about helping senior dogs have happy lives? Check out “House Training an Older Dog” and other posts that I’ve shared on the peculiar habits of older dogs.)
I didn’t want Gloria to spend her last years bored and achy, so I learned how to get her exercising in a way that would work for her. Here are the five best ways to exercise with an arthritic dog, plus two activities that you need to start avoiding once you get that diagnosis.
Walking is still one of the best ways to exercise with an arthritic dog, hands down. While energetic younger dogs may not find a daily walk to be enough exercise, arthritic dogs will be happy to stretch their legs in a way that isn’t hard on their joints. If your dog is severely arthritic, you may want to limit a walk to 10 or 15 minutes, and then see how they feel after that. If they seem more stiff or restless than usual after, try a shorter walk next time. Daily is still the key though – it’s likely better to go for a five minute walk every day, than to shoot for 15 minutes three times a week. The consistency keeps your dog’s joints loose.
One thing that may bother an arthritic dog more than a younger dog is a collar pulling at the neck from a leash. If you’ve never looked into harness training, now would be the perfect time to try it out. It means that the force from the leash will be spread over the body more evenly, which is more comfortable for the dog. Lifepul’s No Pull Dog Vest Harness is a great one that is very affordable and works well.
Swimming is a great exercise for arthritic dogs because there is no pressure whatsoever on the joints while swimming. Swimming also utilizes the muscles in a way that doesn’t happen with walking, so it’s a great way to strengthen muscles around joints to support them better. Finally, swimming allows dogs to move with their full range, which is wonderful for dogs that have been limited due to stiff joints.
You can swim at beaches, lakes, your pool, or even some community pools if they have pet-friendly hours. If you do swim in a lake, be sure that you are aware of what types of wildlife you may encounter.
Hiking is a lot like going for a daily walk, but a little more “off road”. You still want to be sure that the terrain is mostly flat and even to keep your arthritic dog comfortable, but switching up between an off-road hike and a walk on the sidewalk will keep your dog engaged and interested during their exercise. Different trails and routes will do wonders for keeping your dog’s mind active, and you’ll get to see some pretty scenery along the way.
While I’m not sold on the idea of dog boots, there is something to be said for protecting your dog’s paws when hiking becomes a regular exercise. If your dog already deals with pain from arthritis, the last thing you want is for their paw pads to become cracked or painful as well. I like using a paw balm, like OmegaPet’s Paw Shield+, because it keeps paws soft and pliable, but doesn’t require the dog to wear silly boots. This is especially important in the winter, when dry and cold weather can make paws crack easily.
“Mental exercise” sounds like I’m saying you should focus on exercising the mind only, but that’s not it at all. Many dog toys and games that are designed to help them focus, are also physical in nature. For example, putting food in a Kong toy is a great way to keep your dog on their toes – but they’ll also be nudging, holding, rolling, and otherwise handling the Kong. It’s gentle exercise for sure, but it’s something.
The reason for offering your arthritic dog mental exercise is two-fold: first, it keeps them from getting bored. When dogs can’t be as active as they used to be, they can easily get depressed or even become destructive because they are bored. Second, it keeps their brain sharp. Dogs do suffer from foggy brains as they get older, just like many humans, and it can impact their quality of life. By helping them exercise their mind, they’ll stay younger in spirit longer.
Mental activities can include puzzle toys, learning new tricks, hide and seek, and other similar games. Try teaching your dog to identify toys by name, or give them a simple job to do around the house, like nudging open doors for you as you carry things.
The last one on my list of exercises for arthritic dogs is gentle games. This means anything that you may have done with them when they were younger, but in a gentler way. For example, most dogs love tug o’ war. Try playing a game softly, letting the dog set the energy level and following their movements. You can play a gentle game of fetch, just don’t throw the ball quite as far.
When using gentle games to help your arthritic dog exercise, it’s important to take breaks, and to make winning fairly easy. Your dog should be moving around, but not struggling to beat you at anything. Don’t go overboard and end up injuring your dog with sharp turns or fast stops.
Now you know five ways to help your older dog get some great exercise. These are all easy things to work into your daily schedule, and can really make a world of difference in a dog’s quality of life. But what about things that an arthritic dog really shouldn’t be doing? Here are two activities to avoid after that diagnosis. Keep in mind that I’m not a veterinarian. If you want to work these activities into your dog’s schedule, talk to your vet about their arthritis and how it could impact your dog’s health.
The first thing to avoid is a lot of heavy running. If your dog used to accompany you on many-mile-long runs, you may need to find a new running buddy. Running is very hard on the joints, and typically lasts too long to allow an arthritic dog to rest. Additionally, running can actually lead to a deterioration of the joints themselves, making the arthritis worse than it already is. Another problem with running is that many dogs get excited and start performing crazy antics (sometimes called “the zoomies”). This often includes sharp turns and fast stops – both of which are very hard on the joints.
Instead, teach your dog to play fetch using a gentle pace, and always try to encourage gentler play. If your dog does get into a mood to run, you may want to consider wrapping them in a heated blanket or giving them a massage after, to help reduce the stiffness that could follow.
Jumping and performing tricks on the hind legs is very bad for dogs with arthritis. Not only does it put extra strain on the joints, but it focuses that strain on the back legs, making those joints deteriorate at an even faster rate. If your dog is the type to jump, or has been taught to beg on its hind legs, or anything like that, you may need to discourage that behavior. Try adding more mental stimulation and gentle games to your routine, to distract the dog from the need to jump in the first place.
This does mean that for most dogs, Frisbee games are out of the question. If your older dog has always been a Frisbee champ, consider changing to a game of gentle fetch with a toy tossed low to the ground to prevent or discourage jumping.
Now that you know what exercises to do, and which to avoid, you may want to know why it’s so important in the first place. In addition to preventing boredom and keeping your dog happy, exercise for older dogs can also:
These reasons for keeping up with exercise in arthritic and older dogs are so important that this is one area where I would encourage a friend to talk to their vet about arthritis medicine for dogs. Their health and happiness are very reliant on their ability to move in some capacity. With the addition of a medication, your dog may be able to enjoy more low-impact activities, more frequently.
At the end of the day, exercise is every bit as important for an older dog, as it is for any other dog. Exercise has many proven health benefits, and dogs especially need movement to avoid negative behaviors. If your dog has recently been diagnosed with arthritis or signs of aging, don’t panic. There are many ways that you can still play together, with just a little bit of adjustment on your end.
Be sure to keep up the daily walks, and try adding in swimming, hiking, gentle games, and more mental stimulation. Avoid too much running or intense jumping. Always be sure to keep an eye on your dog after exercise, and adjust how long you spend exercising next time based on the way they feel. Consider heating blankets or massages for cool down time after exercise, and be sure to talk to your vet about what else you can do to make your pet more comfortable.
Leroy and Janice aren’t quite there yet, but when they do get there, I already know how I plan to help them navigate their senior years. Maintain good habits and keep loving your dog – they’ll appreciate the exercise even if they look like they’ve embraced couch potato status.