How To Exercise Your Senior Dog

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As your dog grows older, you might notice that he no longer jumps up when it’s time to go for a walk, and that he’d rather just snooze throughout the day. You might even be glad that he’s lost that excess energy from his younger years. However, remaining sedentary all day, every day is not beneficial for him. Exercise is just as important for senior dogs as they are for younger dogs, so don’t make the mistake of ignoring his exercise needs.

Senior dog; Great Dane; Pixabay

If you’re wondering what kind of physical activities you can do with him, and how much of it to do, you’ve come to the right place! Read on to find out more!

Why a senior dog has special exercise needs

Conditions such as arthritis, heart disease & diabetes are common in older dogs, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Chronic joint pain may limit his movements, heart disease may cause him to be out of breath on exertion and diabetes will have countless metabolic effects on his body. Furthermore, you may start seeing other important changes starting around 10 years of age. His eyesight, hearing and smell will start to decline progressively over some years. These changes are to be expected in your dog, and It’s your job as a dog owner to be prepared for them.

Imagine your senior dog has partial blindness and arthritis, for example. He may still be taken on daily walks, but these walks would have to be shorter, at a slower pace and on a familiar route. The key components here are closer supervision during exercise, understanding your dog’s physical & mental state and anticipating problems before they occur.

The good news is that with the right amount & intensity of exercise, the joint pain of arthritis will be eased, heart disease & diabetes may come under better control and obesity can be avoided. Simply put, a dog that maintains some form of exercise in his older years will be in a better state of physical and mental health longer than a senior dog who foregoes his exercise needs.

Outdoor exercise for senior dogs

Outdoor exercise will be best for most dogs. Other than the exercise itself, a change of scenery, meeting new people, smelling new things and getting some sun & fresh air will provide added mental health benefits.

Walks. Dogs of all ages will reap the physical and mental benefits of an outdoor walk. Senior dogs may do best with shorter walks twice a day instead of a longer walk once a day. Let your dog pick the pace & distance that he’s comfortable with, and stick to a route that he’s already familiar with. Avoid any surfaces that are slippery (rain, shiny surfaces), irregular (sand, the woods) or too steep an incline; a slight incline & surfaces with short grass will be best. A tip here, start setting a route for your dog to become familiar with before he loses his eyesight & hearing, so you can continue doing this route when he does lose these senses.

Swimming. Swimming is the best low-impact exercise for senior dogs. It’s great for heart health and to keep muscles strong. However, make sure to start your dog on swimming before he gets too old. Starting a senior dog on a new active sport such as swimming may not be safe or enjoyable. For dogs with arthritis, swimming (or even just floating) in water is a natural type of pain relief for their joints. And don’t be shy to get in the water with them, your dog will enjoy the activity all the more with you to accompany them!

Dog swimming; Pixabay

Other activities he enjoyed as a younger dog. Any outdoor fun your dog enjoyed when he was younger can be continued as long as your dog is able to keep up. Playing fetch or frisbee is fair game, just decrease the intensity and the duration of the play to a level your dog is comfortable with. Just 5 minutes of frisbee at the park will keep your dog happy and healthy.

Indoor exercise for senior dogs

For dogs that have more advanced blindness, deafness, arthritis or other conditions that make it dangerous for them to go outside at all, there are indoor exercises that will keep them active and alert.

Climbing stairs. This is possibly the best indoor exercise for dogs of all ages. Even for dogs that have arthritis, the up and down movement will keep their joints from getting too stiff from immobility. Just remember to take it slow and watch your dog for signs of over-exercise (discussed below), as climbing stairs can be quite taxing for older dogs. If your dog is unable to climb stairs, perhaps because it’s too steep or too slippery, a good alternative would be setting up a doggy ramp in your house.

Indoor games. Other than indoor fetch or frisbee, the best games that will engage any dog will likely involve treats. Simple chew toys that contain a treat hidden inside, or more complex toys that provide a challenge before revealing a treat – there are lots of these toys available in the market. These games will keep your dog stimulated physically and mentally.

Passive stretching. Passive stretching is an alternative reserved for dogs with limited capacity of movement, such as those who have lost muscle tone due to prolonged immobility or advanced arthritis. It’s a good way to provide your dog some physical stimulation and bond with him at the same time.

Mental exercise for senior dogs

Senior dogs may become forgetful or disoriented simply because their brain is aging along with their body. Exercising their brains will keep them alert and may prevent depression, especially for dogs who are no longer able to go outside due to their failing physical health.

Treats. Getting new treats is enough to pique his sense of smell and break the monotony of his regular meals. Going the extra mile by hiding the treats in toys or around the house can be an adventure for your dog to enjoy. Especially for a dog who is unable to go outside, treats can go a long way in maintaining his lust for life.

Toys. Toys will provide the same benefit as treats, in that it will break the monotony of your dog’s daily activities. Chew toys will provide an extra exercise benefit, just be mindful to get softer chew toys that will be easier on your senior dog’s jaws and teeth.

Signs of over-exercise to watch out for

Allow your dog set the pace & distance for any physical activities by observing what he’s comfortable with.  On the other hand, it’s up to you to say when enough is enough, because your dog will do everything he can to keep up with you. Pay close attention and you’ll see obvious signs that he’s had enough exercise.

Slowing down. If, at the start of a walk, for example, your dog is able to keep a comfortable walking pace, but after a block or two he starts to slow down and even stop – this is a clear sign that’s he’s had enough. Turn around and head back home.

Panting or difficulty breathing. Older dogs have a greater tendency to overheat. Panting is a sign that his heart & lungs aren’t able to keep up with the exercise and should prompt you to stop, take a break and have a sip of water, especially in dogs with heart disease.

Limping. Dogs with arthritis will begin to limp when their joints are too stiff to move. Instead of turning around to walk back home, let him rest, or consider carrying him back home.

These are just some of the common signs of physical distress in a dog. Your dog may display other signs, but you should be able to catch those too if you pay attention to him.

Other tips

Start slow. Just as with elderly humans, physical exercise can be very difficult on a dog’s body. Start your dog’s exercise regimen with a slow walk to assess what he’s capable of accomplishing; increase gradually but don’t push him too much. He may not be able to run 5km with you, and that’s okay.

Always consult your vet before changing exercise routine. If you intend to increase your dog’s physical activities, make sure you make a quick trip to the vet first. Your vet will help you decide whether your dog is fit for more strenuous activities. On the other hand, if you’ve noticed a significant decline in your dog’s activities, the vet will be able to tell if this is a natural decline in your dog’s health or if there is another problem that can be treated.

Be mindful of the temperature outside. Your dog will accompany you without complaint wherever you go, whether it’s in the scorching heat of summer or the biting cold of winter. Be prepared for the weather with a bottle of water in the heat, and an extra layer of protection in the cold.

Re-assess periodically. As your dog grows even older, he may slow down even further. Whereas he was able to walk to the park without much difficulty not long ago, that may not be the case a year later. There will come a time that his outdoor or even indoor activities will be limited. Be prepared for this eventuality and make the best of the situation.

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