Caring for the senior dog
Watching your dog grow older is often hard to see as we wish they could stay young and bouncy forever. From a veterinary physiotherapy perspective, however, there are various things you can do to make life for your senior dog more comfortable, that makes growing older as fun, happy and enjoyable as their younger years!
There is no specific age in which a dog can be classified as “senior” as it is dependent on breeding and size, with larger breeds being classed as senior a lot younger than smaller breeds. That is why it is important to understand and be aware of the signs that your dog may need a slightly slower pace of life.
You may notice that your dog has:
Started to slow down on walks
Not wanted to go for walks as often
Enjoyed walks but appears stiffer or quieter following exercise
Started sleeping more than usual or showing behavioural changes
When caring for your senior dog, it is sometimes difficult to come to terms with understanding that you and your dog may need to become accustomed to a new “normal”. This is particularly challenging if your dog has always been very active and now appears slower. It is important to remember that you can still enjoy all of the wonderful things that come with dog ownership, however just making a few lifestyle changes will make them more comfortable in their older years. Here are a few tips that I hope will help to understand the needs of your senior dog and ways in which you can implement them:
Little and often is so important
This is the biggest piece of advice I can give to any owner of a senior dog. Although not all geriatric dogs will develop osteoarthritis, 1 in 5 dogs will develop osteoarthritis with its prevalence increasing with age (Click here for useful canine arthritis management information) This means that the older your dog gets, the harder it becomes for them to do longer periods of exercise. If you and your dog often enjoyed 1 hour+ walks when they were younger, these nice walks together don’t have to stop completely! If anything, it is important with osteoarthritis to keep joints moving in order to avoid stiffness. It may just mean, however, that you have to do 3/4 short walks as opposed to one, hour long walk.
You may find that before and during a longer walk your dog is full of energy and very keen to exercise which is great and should be encouraged. Nevertheless, you will probably find the older your dog gets, the stiffer and quieter they appear following these long periods of exercise. Often,
the adrenaline of going to their favourite park, playing with their favourite toy or just the thought of going for a walk takes over from the pain and stiffness, hence them looking like they can walk for hours when in fact their body can no longer do this.
As stated above, doing these short and frequent walks will allow your dog to visit their favourite spots and provide sufficient exercise without tiring them out. This can also provide mental stimulation, if you can do various different routes in one day. Frequent walking also helps to keep weight down which is even more important in your senior dog (click here to read more about weight management). If you can only take your dog out once a day, try reducing their walk time and spending 10 minutes a few times a day in your garden or home encouraging your dog to move around with activities such as scent work, hiding toys or playtime (click here for various enrichment ideas)
Home adaptations that you can make
As I have previously written (see here), there are various home management changes that you can make that are simple and easy to do that will make life easier and more comfortable for your senior dog.
Ramps instead of stairs
Older dogs tend to struggle with stairs, so using a ramp with a non-slip surface can be extremely beneficial for senior dogs so that they can get into and out of the car or onto their favourite furniture without pain and discomfort.
Non slip flooring
For an elderly dog, avoiding slippery floors is essential as one slip or injury can enhance or provoke their pain and discomfort. There is also a worry that they may fall on this type of flooring and will not be able to get themselves up due to not being able to grip anything. By providing safety against these slippery floors, this will allow your dog to feel more confident, improve their mobility and stability when moving around your house and reduces the risk of pain, injuries, slips and falls.
Raised food bowl
For elderly dogs, having a raised food bowl reduces the strain placed on their forelimbs compared to using a food bowl on the ground, therefore reducing pain and improving posture.
Making changes to your elderly dogs bedding can be essential for allowing them to rest
comfortably as your elderly dog will require longer, more frequent rest periods. Using orthopaedic, memory foam beds with no sides means that your dog can have easy access to sleep comfortably throughout the day.
Keeping a diary
Keeping a diary is something I always suggest to people as I find it extremely useful to look back on. Keeping a diary to track any changes in your senior dogs behaviour makes it easier to make alterations and pinpoint when your dog may be worse. This information can then be passed onto your vet and veterinary physiotherapist, to then provide the correct advice for you and your dog on how to improve their comfort levels.
There are various factors that can affect your dog and when they appear worse. For example, some dogs struggle more first thing in the morning after lying down for a long period of time whilst others struggle more towards the end of the day, if they have been moving around a lot more. Similarly with the weather, human studies have suggested that colder, damper weather cause a flare up in arthritis symptoms. This is often similar for our four legged friends and by keeping a diary, this can help to establish if these things are affecting your senior dog.
Keeping nails short
It is integral that your dogs nails are kept to a suitable and comfortable length throughout their life however it is of utmost importance in your senior dog. Some dogs do not need their nails trimming as they regularly walk on pavement that allows their nails to naturally wear down. As your senior dog begins to exercise less, it is important to keep an eye on their nails as with limited exercise, this may cause their nails to overgrow when you have previously not had to be mindful of this. Overgrown nails can then cause extra strain, pain and discomfort for your dog which can lead to a change in posture and compensatory movement.
There are various other factors that can benefit your senior dog and help to make them more comfortable, such as: regular physiotherapy/hydrotherapy, acupuncture, pain relief and correct diet and it is very much a multi-model approach. Nevertheless, I hope these few tips can help to further understanding the needs of your elderly dog, particularly from a veterinary physiotherapy perspective, and some simple ways that you can allow them to feel comfortable whilst still spending that quality time together.
***Please note - it's important to always contact your veterinarian if you have any concerns regarding your senior pets health***