Growing Old – Staying Healthy

By Dr. Claire

Staff Writer Flexpetz

 He’s been your loving companion for a long time. He’s still by your side, but he’s not as frolicsome or attentive as he once was. It’s inevitable – your beloved pet is growing old. His needs are changing, and he will depend on you more than ever to keep him healthy and comfortable. Just like in elderly people, older dogs need proper nutrition, regular checkups, strength training, and fitness to maintain muscles critical to metabolism.

It is important to start maintaining fitness early in the aging process, because lifelong endurance training in pets and people ensures improved metabolism in elderly individuals.  Good nutrition is essential, and in order to maintain optimum health, senior pets need a highly digestible diet made with quality ingredients.  In order to build muscle, senior pets also have greater demands for vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which is why giving senior pets a multivitamin daily is a good idea to help maintain overall health.

Overweight patients have a much higher risk of arthritis and muscle loss.  Maintaining a proper weight in your pet is a huge priority, and if your pet is overweight, even a loss as little as 5% of the overall weight loss goal can have a positive impact on his ability to get around comfortably.  In fact, studies have shown that weight loss alone resulted in a significant improvement in hind limb lameness in overweight dogs with arthritis.  Your pet is at an ideal weight when you can feel ribs, but not see them.  If you are unsure, you can also ask your veterinarian for an ideal weight for your dog.

Strength training can counteract the effects of aging and weakness in pets and people, but you shouldn’t wait until your pet experiences problems to get started, as strengthening works as prevention as well. Muscle can be strengthened in even the most debilitated pet as long as they have at least some ability to use and control muscles and movements. However, aged or debilitated pets usually have problems with endurance, and conditions like pain, heart disease, or hormonal disorders can complicate matters, so I always recommend working with a veterinarian trained in rehabilitation before started a debilitated pet on a strengthening program, as these pets really need to be monitored for fatigue and pain.

Apart from playing fetch and walks, there are some simple exercises you can do at home to help maintain strength and flexibility.  I call these pilates for dogs – one leg lifted, two legs elevated – will start to strengthen the core and legs.  With your dog standing, pick up one front leg, if your dog balances well, then slowly pick up the opposite rear leg.  Then repeat on the opposite side.

Another exercise is the sit-stand. Basically ask your dog to sit, and then by holding a small treat in front of her nose, encourage her to stand.  When he does, immediately give him the treat, ask him to sit and repeat the technique again.  Repeat ten times.

Coordination, which can wane in senior years, can be improved by walking your pet slowly through the rungs of a ladder. Flexibility can also suffer – an easy flexibility exercise is neck stretches.  Place a small treat in front of your dog’s nose, and slowly move the treat back toward to each shoulder, up, and down in between his legs.

All of these exercises work best if they are done twice daily with 10 repetitions, but exercise programs must be tailored to the individual. If you notice your pet is stiff, weak or getting tired, then stop, and please check first with your veterinarian before you attempt any of these exercises in sick or very aged dogs.

More complex therapies to build strength in debilitated pets require specific training to implement.  If your pet has weakness or pain, a rehabilitation veterinarian is your best option to help your aging companion animal have the best quality of life.  Rehabilitation procedures can include passive range of motion and stretching movements, underwater or land-based treadmill exercises, acupuncture, massage, therapeutic ultrasound, laser, swimming and more.  The field of canine rehabilitation is growing rapidly, and offers more options than ever to pet parents that want the best for their companion animals.  Remember – start early to get the best results:  high quality nutrition, good veterinary care plus lifelong endurance and strength training are keys for healthy, happy golden years.