5 min read

Safe Ways to Exercise an Arthritic Dog


By Tim Falk

Published: 09/13/2017, edited: 11/02/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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If your dog has arthritis, the pain of stiff, aching joints may make them reluctant to exercise. But exercise is crucial for the health and general wellbeing of arthritic dogs. It helps them stay in a healthy weight range, prevents muscle wastage, and reduces the strain on their joints. Not to mention it provides them with wonderful mental stimulation.

But while regular exercise is essential, it’s also vital that you take care to ensure that you exercise your dog without worsening their condition or causing unnecessary pain. Let’s take a look at safe ways to exercise dogs with arthritis and give them a happy and healthy life.

The importance of warming up first

From swimmers to tennis players, all human athletes know it’s crucial to warm up before putting their body through its paces. The same applies for four-legged exercisers, especially if they have arthritis.

Warming up means getting your dog moving at a slow and easy pace before graduating to anything slightly more taxing. This allows your dog a chance to loosen stiff joints, stretch their muscles, and get joint fluid circulating. The result is greater range of movement and less pain for your dog, along with a reduced risk of reducing sprains and other injuries.

The following simple tips will help your arthritic dog warm up safely:

  • Start with a gentle walk around your home or yard for a couple of minutes.
  • Give your dog a gentle massage to encourage blood circulation and help them get moving.
  • Use treats and praise if your dog is reluctant to get up and about.
  • Consider using a heating pad to help raise muscle temperature and reduce pain around affected joints. 
  • Speak to your vet about other ways you can safely warm up your dog before exercising.

Once your pup is warmed up and ready to go, it’s time to try out some of the best exercises for dogs with arthritis.

Related: Top Activities for Dogs with Arthritis

person wearing khakis and a white shirt walking a golden dog in the grass

Go for a (slow) walk

Perhaps the simplest way to exercise a dog with arthritis is to take them for a walk. Of course, this will be a little different to the walks you and your pup used to enjoy when they were younger.

How long should you walk a dog with arthritis? That all depends on what your dog can handle — but know the pace will be a little slower and the distance shorter than what you once would have done. Short, leisurely strolls of 5 to 10 minutes might be plenty for some dogs, while others might be able to handle longer walks.

You should also keep your dog on a leash so you can stop them breaking into a run if they see someone or something exciting. Using a harness instead of a collar can also minimize the strain placed on their muscles. 

Finally, while gentle inclines and declines are fine, avoid anything too steep.

Go swimming

Swimming is a low-impact form of exercise, so it’s a great choice for arthritic dogs. Going for a paddle places minimal stress on your dog’s joints while building muscles, increasing joint range of motion, and helping them lose weight at the same time.

The safest way to take your dog swimming is to look for an animal rehab or physio center near you that offers hydrotherapy. A dog-friendly swimming pool is also a good option, but sharing it with other dogs might cause some pets to get a little excited and over-exert themselves.

Alternatively, you could look for a lake, river, or dog-friendly beach near you. But just watch out for potential hazards in and around the water, such as soft sand, seaweed or strong currents.

Related: Do Dogs Need Life Jackets?

Try out some scent games

Their joints may be stiff and sore, but your dog is still a super-powered sniffing machine — so why not use their amazing sense of smell to help them stay active? 

Scent games essentially focus on teaching your dog to sniff out specific odors. For example, you might train them to sniff out treats you hide around the house, or play a game of hide-and-seek with you. Playing hide-and-seek with a tennis ball will also work well for ball-obsessed dogs.

Whichever option you choose, putting their nose to work is wonderful mental stimulation for your pup and a simple way to help keep them moving.

three dogs standing on a green wobble board on top of blue mat

Get a wobble board

Also known as a balance board, a wobble board is best known for its use in agility training to build a dog’s strength and flexibility. But a wobble board can also be a very handy tool to help strengthen an arthritic dog’s joints and muscles. 

The idea is that your dog stands on a tilting platform (the degree of tilt is set to meet your dog's needs) which shifts their weight from side to side, strengthening the supporting muscles in the process. An animal physiotherapist will be able to show you how to use a wobble board to help your dog’s arthritis.

Tips for exercising your arthritic dog safely

Keep these tips in mind to help your dog stay safe while getting active.

Talk to your vet

Should you exercise a dog with arthritis? The answer is yes, but make sure to consult your dog’s vet before starting a new exercise regimen. They’ll be able to assess your dog’s physical condition and help you come up with a safe workout plan. They might also discuss the option of things like canine physiotherapy and/or hydrotherapy.

Warm up and cool down

We’ve already mentioned just how important it is to warm up before exercising, but it’s also essential to cool down. Give your pup a chance to slowly let their heart rate return to normal. A gentle massage can also help relax your dog and help them rest up.

Keep it low impact

Running, jumping, and fast changes of direction are a no-no for arthritic dogs, so high-impact activities like agility and games of fetch should be avoided. Stay away from jogs or runs on the lead, especially on hard surfaces like pavements. Instead, stick to forms of exercise that minimize the impact on muscles and joints, such as the examples listed above.

Keep it regular

Treat your dog to regular activity every day. But rather than lengthy exercise sessions, split their routine up into 2 to 3 shorter, daily sessions to reduce and prevent strain on the joints.

Don’t let them push too hard

Some dogs can struggle to control their excitement when confronted with certain situations. For example, your dog may simply be unable to stop themselves running, jumping, and playing boisterously with other pups at the dog park, even if it’s the last thing their stiff joints need. That’s why it’s up to you to know your dog and understand which places and situations are best avoided.

Think about the terrain

Stairs and steep hills, whether going up or down, can cause pain and be very difficult for arthritic dogs to negotiate. The same goes for loose or uneven surfaces like sand and rocks, so try to stick to flat surfaces that provide easy traction.

Consider the weather

The pain of arthritis is particularly pronounced in winter. A warm jacket could help soothe stiff joints when you take your pup outside, while you may need to give your dog a little longer to warm up. Also, don’t forget to steer clear of surfaces that may be slippery when wet and could cause an injury. 

Watch their body language

Dogs can’t tell us they’re in pain, or they can sometimes be having too much fun to realize that they’re pushing themselves a little too hard. That’s why it’s important that you understand your dog’s body language and can recognize the telltale signs that indicate they’re in pain (even after they’ve stopped exercising).

Arthritis can be painful and debilitating for dogs, but it’s a condition that you can manage. With regular, low-impact exercise, you can help keep your dog’s weight down, provide much-needed exercise and mental stimulation, and improve their quality of life.

Need more tips on exercising your dog with arthritis? Use Wag! Vet Chat to connect with a licensed veterinary professional 24/7.

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