Eight Easy Steps to a Fit and Healthy Senior Dog
It's one of those cruel ironies of aging -- maintaining an exercise regimen is so important as we get older, because staying fit does an aging body good. But exercise is so much harder on seniors, no matter what their species. Between "Oh, my aching back" and "Yikes, my creaky joints," maintaining momentum isn't easy.
And yet dogs (and people, too) really need to keep moving well into their golden years to maintain optimal heart health. My sweet senior dog Sheba so looks forward to going out for her walks -- I daresay she anticipates them even more now than she ever used to! So please don't give up on senior dogs. With a few small adjustments to your daily routine, you both can get the maximum wellness benefit from your daily outings. Here's how.
Keep it short and sweet. Senior dogs no longer have the endurance they once had. That's okay: Instead of a mile-long walk, shorten the length of your outings, and take more of them. Studies show that short bursts of aerobic activity are great for maintaining optimal health. So take your pup on shorter walks more frequently. He will appreciate it! (And besides, seniors often need to relieve themselves more frequently, so from their POV, that's a big plus!)
Slow and steady. Senior dogs are long past winning races -- easygoing endurance is what it's about in the senior exercise arena. Don't expect Spot to maintain the pace of her younger self, so please be patient with your slow-moving sweetheart. Nothing is more inconsiderate than making a senior dog feel bad because she can't walk fast enough to fit her outing into your busy schedule. Do make time in your schedule for slooow walks, so neither you nor the dog feels rushed.
Weather or not. Rainy weather makes walking especially tricky for senior dogs. It's slippery outside, which causes dogs to be unsure of their footing -- plus senior dogs' joints hurt more in humid conditions, which compounds the discomfort. So please keep rainy-day outings short, and exercise extra precautions when navigating steps and slippery walkways. You don't want your dog to twist her leg and sustain an injury requiring costly attention from a veterinary orthopedist.
Snow and ice safety. Icy and/or snow-dusted walkways are a serious senior dog hazard; gray-muzzled friends can slip and fall, bruise, and twist their joints. Ouch! Orthopedic injuries in seniors often take much longer to heal, so it's in your own and your dog's best interest to avoid them. In certain parts of the country, Spring arrives on the late side, so canines living in the Midwest and Northern states are grateful if you don't stash the pet-safe ice melt until May -- and do sprinkle it liberally wherever you and your dog dare to tread.
Paws for a pedicure. As dogs age and they walk less, their toenails don't get a chance to be filed down by constant contact with the pavement, which acts as a giant emery board. Don't be surprised if, when you weren't looking, your senior dog's nails grew long enough to rival those of Howard Hughes, infamous for his eccentric-old-guy talons! Unkempt nails only makes the chore of walking harder still on a senior dog. So give your dog a pedicure with a handy electric toenail-filing device, or bring her to the vet to have a technician do nail-trimming duty the old-fashioned way: with clippers.
Strength in supplements. Add a joint supplement to your dog's diet to help ease the discomfort of arthritis and promote mobility. Joint-support supplements containing glucosamine and other effective active ingredients come in pill and powder form, while Omega-3 from fish liver oil is readily available. All are palatable, easy to administer, and sold over-the-counter without the need for a vet prescription, so please give them a try -- your senior K9 will thank you!
Stairway to heaven. If steps are part of your everyday routine, be sensitive to the fact that your senior dog has trouble walking up and down them. Bring along a handful of your dog's kibble, or some other tasty treat as a motivational "carrot" -- if he's like my Sheba, the dog will be more likely to cross the finish line (i.e., make it to the landing). If the stairs you need to navigate are outdoors, do your best to avoid them on rainy days, which compounds the fall risk. Indoors, be extracautious when navigating slick marble steps, especially on the way down (you don't want her to wipe out and injure her legs or back); if necessary, give Spot a lift by carrying her down the stairs.
Walking on water. Okay, so you and your dog used to go running together -- now it's time to switch gears. Swimming is the ideal low-impact exercise for seniors of all species, especially those suffering from arthritis. If you have a swimming pool at home and you're able to spend time supervising your pup in the water, by all means swim together (but stick to the shallow end of the pool, for safety's sake, and never leave a dog in the water alone). Or, contact your local veterinary hospital and inquire about hydrotherapy. Many hospitals offer technician-supervised time in a tank rigged with a treadmill -- walking on water (or, rather, through it) is the best senior-dog workout there is.