By Dr. Tracy Dewhirst
The adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was obviously invented by a cat owner. New tricks and activities keep senior dogs healthy, engaged and youthful. For all of us, a large part of the fountain of youth lies in being active -- and this universal truth applies to dogs. When body and mind are challenged with daily exercise and mental stimuli, your aging dog will likely be healthier.
A thorough physical examination is the starting point for any new exercise routine. A checkup might seem inconsequential, but it is necessary to assess your senior dog’s physical stamina, weight, heart health, joint stability, and pain, along with any other possible medical conditions that could worsen with exertion. It also establishes safe expectations and achievable goals.Watch for Signs of Arthritis
Most dogs do not reach their golden years without a few extra pounds or an achy joint or two. Weight and arthritis are common culprits for exercise intolerance.
Don’t ignore reluctance to exercise or intermittent lameness, which are signs of arthritis. Arthritis can limit joint mobility and overall flexibility, making exercise a dreaded chore. Treating painful joints with proper medications and supplements helps workouts become enjoyable.
Extra body weight strains joints and exacerbates arthritis. If your older dog needs to shed a few pounds, ask your veterinarian to recommend an appropriate food and calculate an accurate daily calorie limit. Don’t forget to include treats in your total count. Joint, ligament, and vertebral disk injuries are more common in overweight dogs; managing body mass will directly impact activity levels.Tailor Activities for Your Senior Dog
Older dogs that live in households with younger dogs are typically more active. However, trying to keep up with young dogs can put pressure on a geriatric canine. To avoid accidents and injuries, group exercises should be tailored to your senior dog, and older dogs should be given areas for respite at home.
The best exercises for older dogs include walking, hiking, running, taking part in light agility work, playing fetch and retrieving games, and swimming. Low-impact, repetitive workouts are typically best. Your dog’s enthusiasm for an activity is often the best indicator of success.Take These Precautions
If your dog has arthritis in its hips, avoid slick surfaces and jumping. Working on uneven terrain can be troublesome for dogs with vision deficits; dogs with spinal discomfort or severe joint pain may only tolerate swimming.
Levels of exercise tolerance and agility vary by dog, so try to understand your pet’s limitations. Gauge your dog’s tolerance by observing its respiratory effort, panting and willingness to continue. A good rule: Start with a 10-minute walk and determine if it’s too much or too little activity. Add a minute a day until you reach 20 to 30 minutes daily.Watch for Overexertion
After exercise, your senior dog might be a bit sore and tired. Watch for stiffness, lameness, depression and decreased appetite -- all of which are signs that your dog might have overdone it. Don’t forget: no ibuprofen or Tylenol. (Both are dangerous for canines.) The best remedies for tired muscles are a massage and a comfy therapeutic bed.