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Fitness and the Senior Dog: The Do's and Don'ts of Exercise for Your Aging Pet
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 09/22/2017, edited: 11/17/2021
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As most humans are (excuse the pun) painfully aware, exercising as we grow older can become a bit more challenging. That morning run in our 20’s may have left us feeling invigorated, but by the time 45 hits, the knees and hips don’t quite have the same level of enthusiasm. The natural aging process means that recovery takes a bit longer, impact hits harder, and strength can flag as muscles naturally decrease over time.
While they can’t communicate as much to us verbally, our four-legged doggy companions often face the same issues as they age. Aches and pains, deterioration of cartilage in the joints, and wear and tear on joints all call for modifications in normal exercise routines. Since dogs age at a faster rate than humans due to their lower life expectancies, Fido’s exercise regime also may need to be changed at a swifter pace than their owners’ anticipate. Young or old, physical activity remains an important part of every dog’s life. With that in mind, here are a few tips to keep your senior dog fit and active well into their silver years.
Exercise with Caution When It Comes to Toys
As dog’s age, there is a natural breakdown of cartilage, that all-important connective tissue that holds together various bones and helps form bendable, moveable joints in your dog. Backs, hips, knees and elbows all have plenty of points where cartilage is both essential and easily damaged by sudden, awkward movements. As your dog ages, be cautions when engaging in rambunctious play such as tug o’ war sessions or frisbee or ball throwing romps in the backyard or park. A sudden twist or change in direction is one of the primary causes for ruptured ACLs and hip injuries. Keep up these activities that are healthy and enjoyable for both you and your pooch, but keep ball throwing to minor league levels and ease up just a bit when vying for the rope-tugging winner’s circle.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
On a similar theme, if you and Fido are used to those morning jogs in the park you may want to reduce the speed as your pooch ages. Running is a high-impact sport, whether in people or pups. Hips, knees, and elbows on your dog are especially vulnerable to repeated stress. In aging dogs, continuous running can cause tissue damage as well as stress fractures and running on hard or packed surfaces can exacerbate the risk.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you and Spot can’t enjoy the occasional romp together. If your dog finds running enjoyable, try to find paths where you can stick to the dirt while your pooch tracks the manicured grass by your side. This can give extra cushioning and reduce the impact for your pet. Also, consider slowing the pace down to accommodate your senior. This may mean taking extra, dog-less, runs at different times to meet your own exercise needs but trust us, your dog’s long-term health is well worth the extra effort.
Water Therapy for Low Impact Exercise
Finally, whatever your dog’s age it’s important for their overall health to maintain a comprehensive exercise regime. Physical activity that’s tailored to your dog’s overall energy levels and physical capabilities will be important to maintaining muscle structure and heart health, just to name a few benefits. For a low-impact exercise alternative, consider water-based exercise or hydrotherapy to keep your pooch active and eliminate stress on aging muscles and joints. Many local doggy rehab or veterinary clinics now have indoor pools or underwater treadmills where your dog can safely run, jog, or play. Consider taking your pup to the local lake or a willing neighbor’s pool for an occasional bout of water play. Remember to exercise caution and supply doggie life vests and plenty of supervision during water activities, just as you would with a human child.
The Silver-Furred Exercise Wrap Up
Exercise is an important aspect of your dog’s physical health, regardless of age. As our dogs grow older, their activity level should be modified to reduce impact on joints and avoid injury to tissues and bones that grow weaker over time. Owners should pay close attention for any signs of lameness or injury and continue to modify exercises for their pooch. With a little bit of inventive thinking and adding in of low impact exercise such as water-based play, you and your pooch can maintain excellent physical health and activities levels well into their senior years.