Exercise for senior dogs isn’t just important, it’s crucial to their mental and physical health. The problem is, though, that when your senior dog has arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other age-related concerns, finding a comfortable exercise routine can be difficult.
Jet was diagnosed with unilateral hip dysplasia when he was very young, for us that meant a lifetime of balance between exercise, careful monitoring of his weight, and as he got older, it meant getting creative with exercise.
so, today I want to talk a little bit about the things that you can do to help your senior dog (or limited mobility dog) at a healthy weight and well exercised despite their health concerns.
Exercise for Senior Dogs: Why Your Senior Dog Needs Exercise
Let’s start by looking at why your senior dog needs exercise.
It may seem unfair or even cruel to push your senior dog to exercise especially if they have a health condition that mitigates their ability to exercise normally. So why do you have to exercise them? Why can’t you just let your dog do what they want to do at home?
Loss of Strength
As your dog ages, they will experience a decline in strength (like most people). This is particularly troublesome when you have a large breed dog. A loss of strength makes it harder for your dog to lift themselves off the floor, climb stairs, etc. If your dog loses their strength and is unable to do these things, they will soon become helpless, unable to move on their own, unable to walk through the house, unable to come upstairs to bed…
A loss of strength can be assisted with a Help-Em-Up harness, but the best thing that you can do to slow down your dog’s loss of strength is to continue with an exercise routine that suits their ability and activity level.
Like the loss of strength, muscle wasting is something that happens naturally as your dog ages. Muscle wasting is, again, more noticeable in larger breeds and is most frequently seen in the hind end.
As Jet hit his geriatric years, the muscle wasting in his hind legs was extremely noticeable. He went from a young pup with solid muscle mass and the ability to dive off a pier, to an old man who had trouble just holding up his 65lb. frame. Yes, that muscle loss can lead to weight loss too.
The Help-Em-Up Harness is also something that can assist with dogs that have suffered significant muscle wasting either as a result of aging or disease.
To combat muscle wasting, it’s important to regularly exercise your senior pup. This will help to maintain muscle mass and strength.
Stiffness is another big concern as our dogs hit their senior years and develop arthritis in their joints.
Many senior pet parents think that they’re doing their dog a favor by avoiding exercise because it means not having to move those stiff arthritic joints. The problem is, however, that the longer you avoid exercise, the stiffer those joints are going to get.
A regular light impact exercise routine will help to keep your dog’s joints mobile and reduce stiffness that sets in after long periods of inactivity.
Imagine for a moment that you never leave your home…EVER. Soon enough you will become stir crazy. You will become so completely bored that you’ll either start making up your own entertainment or becoming despondent. Your dog is no different even as a senior.
Exercise provides your dog with stimulation. When outside and moving, they are not only exercising their primitive desire to “roam”, but they are also burning off excess energy and stimulating their other senses as they sniff, dig, and investigate the world around them.
Even if you decide on alternative exercise routines for your dog, you are providing them with something “new”, something that stimulates them mentally, and gives them something to work for.
Exercise For Senior Dogs: What Are Your Choices?
So, what are your exercise options for your senior dog?
You want to keep their weight in check to avoid excess body mass straining joints, you want to avoid stiffness in the joints, you also want to avoid boredom…but what options do you have? What exercise choices are available that won’t leave your senior pup in pain?
Our favorite exercise of choice for Jet was hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy uses an underwater treadmill inside a tank of warm water. The treadmill moves, pushing your dog to walk, but the buoyancy and warmth of the water relieve any impact on the joints as well as soothe any pain already manifesting in the joints.
While we found hydrotherapy to be fabulous for Jet’s joints, it is an expensive exercise solution that not every pet parent can afford for their senior dog.
There are a few ways that you can save money on your dog’s hydrotherapy:
- Ask about buying hydrotherapy session packages for a discount – for example, buy six sessions, get one free.
- Ask your vet if you can provide any type of service or barter in return for hydrotherapy sessions for your dog.
- Consult local veterinary schools for resources on lower cost hydrotherapy services.
- Consider investing in a pool at home that your dog and your family can use (hydrotherapy without the treadmill)
- Scour classified ads and online selling forums and you might get lucky and find a hydrotherapy tank – that’s actually how our vet found theirs! Just be sure to work with your vet if you do this so that you use the machine properly!
- Lastly, if you have the means you might consider buying your own hydrotherapy for dogs machine like this one.
Swimming, like hydrotherapy, takes advantage of the buoyancy of water to keep your dog’s joints from having to support their whole body weight while still allowing for exercise. For senior dogs, warm water is a must when swimming because it allows the muscles to relax rather than tense up as they would in cold water.
For your senior dog to get any benefit from swimming, it’s important that they SWIM. That means that a wading pool in the back garden isn’t going to cut it.
If you have your own pool, keep it heated and keep up with a daily swim for your pup, just 15 to 30 minutes a day (work your way up!) is plenty.
If you don’t have your own pool, look around for local canine aquatic facilities. Depending on where you live these can be difficult to find, but most vet schools will be able to point you in the right direction if they don’t have a pool of their own that you can use. If you do decide to use a local facility, keep in mind that you will have to pay for the privilege and depending on where you go, this can cost as much as hydrotherapy.
Our dogs LOVE walking and it provides a lot of stimulation as well as exercise. When walking your senior dog, however, it’s important to remember a few things:
- However far you walk, remember that you’re going to have to walk back so don’t overdo it or your senior may not make it without being carried!
- Avoid steep hills and hilly territory, this is hard on your dog’s joints.
- Only walk when it’s cool enough to be comfortable, senior dogs overheat easily and may also need a coat in winter weather.
- Speaking of winter weather, NEVER take your senior dog out on icy paths where their already unstable joints may be severely damaged by a slip and fall.
- Multiple short walks are a great way to exercise older dogs who have low stamina and regular short walks can also help to build up their stamina.
Talk to your vet about strengthening exercises for your senior dog.
There are more than a few “how to” videos online that can show you examples of strengthening exercises for your dog but don’t jump right in and try them yourself. Consult your vet and ask them to go through the exercises with you and your dog to ensure that you are doing them properly. When done incorrectly, these exercises can cause pain and even damage your senior dog’s joints!
The purpose of strengthening exercises is to build up strength so that they are more able to support themselves and rise from the ground more easily.
Your dog will also benefit from range of motion work as shown in the video above as well as balance exercises and massage. You can learn more about these exercise options on the Mercola Veterinary website here.
A Note About Exercise for Senior Dogs
Loss of strength and muscle mass, as well as arthritis and achiness, are natural parts of aging. You cannot expect to avoid these things or eliminate them by maintaining a regular exercise routine. The purpose of exercising your senior dog, however, is to slow the progression of these signs of aging and to make your dog more comfortable (and independent) in their senior years.
What exercise does your senior dog enjoy? Leave a comment and let us know!