Supporting Your Senior Canine
Many elements that we often think of as inevitable aspects of getting older – decreased energy levels, stiffness and reluctance to move, general grumpiness – are in fact signs and symptoms of discomfort. This discomfort is neither necessary nor inevitable, and there are many steps we can take to help our companions age as gracefully as possible.
As we veterinarians say, ‘age itself is not a disease.’ Senior dogs can continue to be active, healthy, joyful, and pain-free. By supporting our dogs well as they age, we can help keep this lifestyle a reality.
Common Approaches – Better Alternatives
It is challenging to watch your companion begin to have difficulty with activities and movements that were easier in their youth. We want to help them take things as easy as possible, and often we try to change our routines and interactions to make them more comfortable. However, this first ‘helpful’ instinct comes with pitfalls. Here are some common patterns we see from families with aging pets, paired with suggestions for more supportive actions to take to help your companion:
SOLUTION 1 | Adjust Both Frequency and Duration of Walks
It might be tempting to go for shorter and shorter walks to accommodate an aging dog. You may not even notice that your walks have become shorter, as there is a tendency to gradually adjust to your companion’s needs over time. The cost of shortening your daily strolls, however, is that your dog will be more prone to lose muscle mass as their body shifts to expend only the energy required to meet its current needs. If these needs keep decreasing (with reduced activity), their body will become less and less able to support anything beyond these needs (like rebuilding strength and fitness). While you may indeed need to decrease the length of your walks if your dog begins to tire, consider adding an extra, shorter walk later in the day – this way the benefits associated with your total daily walk time will remain, without overtaxing your companion.
SOLUTION 2 | Vary Exercise Intensity
Adding variety in the intensity of your companion’s exercise can be the key to supporting them as they transition to their senior years. This principle can be applied to the walks that you choose over the course of a week, and also within the course of a single walk. You’re probably familiar within your own exercise experience with the idea of ‘interval training’ – something similar can be applied for your dog! There are three main ways you can approach varying your walk intensity: the pace (increasing the tempo, then returning to a more sedate pace), the terrain (hills mixed with flat areas), and the walking surface (sand, chip trails, gravel, grass, etc).
SOLUTION 3 | Continue to Ask for Sits & Downs
Rather than simply avoiding the additional exercise of sits and downs if your companion starts to exhibit some reluctance, some simple modifications might do the trick. It’s important that your dog continues to use and move all the joints and muscles that help them sit and lie down – their hips, shoulders, knees and neck all need to keep limber and lubricated. Fewer repetitions at a time, but more often throughout the day, is a good shift to make.
For dogs who are experiencing a dramatically decreased range of motion, starting by asking them to ease back into a sit (even if it looks more like a squat) and then walk forward helps to fire and engage the muscles without causing undue aggravation. Moderation, and slow steady progress, are the principles to keep in mind.
SOLUTION 4 | Make Safe Use of Stairs
Although it can seem best to help your companion avoid stairs completely, stairs actually provide a valuable exercise opportunity if approached safely. While it is a good idea to limit free access to stairs if your companion is not steady on them, offering them the chance to go up or down with supervision several times during the course of the day can be very beneficial – this will activate much-needed stabilizer muscles that support your dog’s balance and mobility. One thing to keep in mind with exercises like this is the principle of moderation; more is not always better when working muscles. Consistency, on the other hand, can never be overrated!
SOLUTION 5 | Appropriate Diet Adjustments
It stands to reason that as your companion becomes less active with age, their daily caloric needs will change as well. Weight gain can be particularly problematic for older dogs who likely already have some degree of joint dysfunction. In combination with loss of muscle, the excess weight places a greater burden on the compromised joints. Fat tissue also is known to spur the body into an inflammatory state, further aggravating arthritic joints. Maintaining a trim, healthy weight can help ease joint strain and discomfort and encourage your companion to remain active.
Your veterinarian can work with you to choose an appropriate diet that supports any systemic issues your companion has, provides adequate fat and protein to help them sustain or rebuild their muscle mass, while avoiding diets or amounts that are too dense in calories for a senior dog.
SOLUTION 6 | Gradual Exposure to Ramps
While ramps can be very useful in helping less mobile dogs get in and out of the car, they can also be a risky element to introduce at a stage when your companion is already a little unsteady and accommodating novel experiences and surfaces can be frightening. Ideally, allowing your dog to become familiar with using a ramp when they are young and agile is best, so that they can learn what is expected of them and are used to the feeling of walking up and down a ramp. If you didn’t have this opportunity earlier in your dog’s life, it is still possible to introduce an older dog with mobility issues to a ramp, but the approach should be gradual and safe.
Start with the ramp on a flat, stable surface (a narrow hallway or along a backyard fence is best, to prevent them from hopping off the ramp). With your dog on a leash, walk them slowly along the ramp as you walk beside them – lots of encouragement and treats here, and never pulling or forcing them if they are wary or unsure. As they become more comfortable with the texture and sensation of the ramp you can begin to add a gradual slope, practising walking both up and down. Finally the ramp can be used in the car, always with someone beside the dog to guide them up and down to prevent any jumps or mishaps.
We Can Help!
There is much that can be done to support your companion as they age – the most important thing to keep in mind is that continued mobility matters. Rather than allowing your dog to transition to a more and more sedentary lifestyle, looking for ways to keep them active and mobile – while monitoring for any signs of increased discomfort – will serve them well.
Your veterinarian can play a key role in monitoring your companion’s health as they age, and in recommending activities, supplements, and complementary treatment options that will help your dog continue to live their best life. Regular wellness checks make it more likely that any emerging issues will be detected early, when intervention is likely to be most successful. Keep note of any changes in behaviour or habits that you notice, and never hesitate to ask questions or bring up any concerns – we’re here to help!