By Dr. Becker
Just as humans need to keep moving and stay active to fully enjoy their senior years, so do older dogs and cats.
The aging process brings with it loss of muscle tone and balance, which can lead to inactivity.
Inactivity leads to weight gain and added stress on joints that are no longer well supported by adequate muscle mass.
It's a bit of a vicious cycle.
Aging leads to inactivity and loss of muscle mass and balance.
Inactivity and loss of muscle mass/balance promotes faster aging, as well as significantly increased risk of injury from slips, trips, falls, strains and sprains.
But like human senior citizens, older pets can benefit tremendously from anti-aging activities, including:
- Exercises specifically designed to maintain strength, flexibility and balance
- Short, frequent walks to maintain heart health
- Massage to relieve sore muscles and joints, and other aches and pains
Some of these activities require the expertise or guidance of an animal physical therapist, but certainly willing pet owners can take their companions out for several short walks each day to promote cardiovascular fitness.
You can also learn how to do massage on your pet from your vet, most animal physical therapists, or a professional small animal massage practitioner.
Exercises that Help Senior Pets Stay Nimble
There are three specific types of exercises that help aging bodies, including:
- Passive range-of-motion (PROM) exercises
- Exercises that maintain balance and fluid movement
- Exercises that target the big, body-supporting muscles like the hamstrings and gluteals
Passive range-of-motion exercises can benefit both incapacitated and physically healthy pets.
PROM exercises are performed on a pet who is lying down on her side in a comfortable position. Limbs are gently flexed and extended one at a time. Each position is held for about 10 seconds.
It's important to keep the leg's position parallel to the body wall to avoid torque on the joints. It's also important not to hyperextend the wrists or ankles.
Passive range-of-motion exercises include:
- Shoulder and elbow extension
- Hip flexion + stifle extension
- Shoulder flexion + elbow extension
Video of PROM exercise on dog's hind limb.
Balance and proprioception (spatial orientation and movement) exercises include use of 'cookie reaches,' which are exercises that help older pets remain flexible while also encouraging improved balance and physical stability.
The cookie reach exercise starts with a dog in a standing position. The goal is to have the dog reach for the cookie without taking any steps. The cookie is offered from various angles to encourage stretching in different directions.
The dog is rewarded with the treat when he achieves the desired position. The exercise can be made more challenging by requiring the dog to hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds.
Cookie reach exercises include spinal extension, spinal dorsiflexion, lateral spinal flexion, and lateral spinal flexion with rotation.
Another exercise to improve balance, strength and flexibility involves either walking or high-stepping a pet over Cavaletti poles.
Targeted strengthening exercises in older pets are designed to work the big muscle groups that help with standing, walking and running.
The side-stepping exercise strengthens the glutes and lateral thigh muscles. Stand facing your dog's side, with one hand on her collar and one hand on the opposite hip.
Step into your pet until she steps to the side with a lateral move, but no forward motion.
You can start with 3 to 5 steps and work up to 10 to 15 steps in each direction.
Other large-muscle strengthening exercises include walking up a hill or stairs, and sit-to-stand .
The Benefits of Massage for Older Pets
When many people think of massage, they imagine lying on their stomach on a not-too-comfy massage table while a professional masseur or masseuse stands over them and aggressively works out the kinks in their back and neck.
Pet massage, especially for older furry friends, is a different animal (pun intended!). As you can see from this short video, the technique for dogs is one of slow, gentle strokes and stretches, combined with light, rhythmic tapping.
Massage techniques for cats are highly dependent on what an individual kitty will put up with. If your cat enjoys being petted and is used to having his tail, paws, and head touched, he's probably a good candidate for massage. If your kitty doesn't enjoy being handled, it's likely massage won't be a healing or comforting experience for him.
Regular massage can help keep your senior pet's muscles toned and reduce the slackening that comes with aging.
Massaged muscles are looser, which makes it much easier for your pet to move around comfortably.
Massages improve circulation and encourage lymphatic drainage.
Regular massage also eases the stiffness of arthritis, which can help your pet maintain his normal gait and active lifestyle.
Massage loosens the muscles around joints, which also helps promote ease of movement.
Other Tips for Helping Your Senior Pet Age Well
There's really a lot you, as the parent of an aging pet, can do to make sure your dog's or cat's later years are active and enjoyable. There are many resources right here at Mercola Healthy Pets that offer advice and tips for families with aging dogs and cats, including:
- In Common Conditions in Senior Dogs and How to Treat Them you'll find information about 5 common ailments many older pets suffer with and how to prevent or treat them.
- This article addresses the problem with 'senior' pet food formulas, and this video is all about the surprising nutrient your dog or cat needs more of as she ages.
- Telltale Signs of Aging offers help to those of you with pets who are suffering hearing loss, eyesight difficulties, or problems with incontinence.
- In this article I discuss the symptoms of mental decline in pets and offer advice and tips for keeping your pet sharp through all the years of his life.