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One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever witnessed was a dog trying to stay active even after getting arthritis in their later years. I saw it with my dog Gloria (my very first Boxer, who sold me on the breed and led to my getting Janice and Leroy), and I’ve seen it with many of my friends’ dogs. To the dog, they only know that they still want to play and have fun – they have no real idea of why it’s harder every day to struggle through some fun wrestling time with you.
Many owners believe that once a dog gets to their senior years, they need to be coddled and cared for like babies. They’ll buy soft bedding and reduce their dog’s activity to nearly nothing. And while that seems like a sweet way to offer an old dog some rest, it’s actually harmful to the dog. Senior dogs need exercise to keep them mobile and to keep their weight down. Even if your dog acts like they’d rather just lay around all day, it’s very important to keep them going. Consider the fact that many dog breeds start showing signs of “old age” by around their fourth or fifth year of life – and with as many as 10 to 15 years of life to live, that’s a long time to be coddled!
I would never want any dog to spend any part of their life bored, destructive, or stiff from immobility, so I spent a lot of time researching how to keep senior dogs healthy and active. There are seven things to know about working out with your senior dog that will keep them going.
Why is Exercise So Important in Older Dogs?
Before we get started listing off some ways that you can workout with your older dog, I wanted to mention why it’s so important to keep them moving at their advanced age. In addition to preventing boredom and keeping your dog happy, exercise for older dogs can also:
Help them maintain a healthy weight. Dogs that are obese tend to experience more pain from arthritis and other age-related illnesses, so keeping them trim can really improve their quality of life.
Help relieve stiffness in the joints. Exercise keeps joints flexible so that things like arthritis don’t get worse.
Prevent cardiovascular diseases and illnesses. Hypertension and diabetes are common in dogs with arthritis specifically because their activity levels drop. Prevent these disorders with as much exercise as you can safely do with your older dog.
Sleep better. Poor sleep is common in dogs of advanced age because they get stiff during the night and the pain keeps them awake. Exercise releases hormones that help with sleep, and keeps the body in less pain, so it’s much easier to get some shut eye.
These reasons for keeping up with exercise in older dogs are so important. Their health and happiness are very reliant on their ability to move in some capacity, so I would encourage you to consider asking your vet about medication if your dog struggles with pain or mobility issues. With the addition of a medication, your dog may be able to enjoy more low-impact activities, more frequently.
Now let’s get on to the seven tips for working out with your senior dog:
(1) Leisurely Walks Are King
Walking is still one of the best ways to exercise with an older 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 older 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 older 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.
(3) You Can Still Hike with Your Dog
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 older 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 older 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.
One great thing to offer older dogs is gentle game time with their human. 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 older 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.
(6) Running Is Not That Great
The things we listed above 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 older dog really shouldn’t be doing? 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 age and how that 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 things like arthritis worse than it already was. Another problem with running is that many dogs get excited and start performing crazy antics (sometimes called “the zoomies”). This often includes sharp turn arounds 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.
(7) Jumping Can Also Be Harmful
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.
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 other age-related illness, 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 arthritic 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.