As your pet ages, she loses muscle tone through a process called atrophy. Age-related muscle atrophy eventually leads to a weakened skeleton.
This muscle wasting and loss of bony structure integrity invites degenerative disease into your pet’s body.
The aging process can also mean swapping lean body mass for fat, and your pet can wind up over-fat and under-muscled. This can result in back weakness, hip problems, a tendency for ligament ruptures like an ACL tear, neck injuries, and rear limb weakness with secondary neurologic degeneration.
Some animals with severe degenerative conditions end up walking on their ankles or dragging their feet.
Maintaining your dog’s or cat’s structural integrity is really an important factor in quality of life issues as she ages. Without a sound physical body, your pet could end up confined to her bed or reliant on you to move her around. This situation can deliver a terrible blow to an animal’s quality of life.
Regular Physical Activity is Key
Consistency in an exercise program is really important. No more weekend warrior stuff as your dog ages.
Research shows dogs and cats need to be exercised at least every third day to maintain muscle tone and prevent atrophy. Consistent daily aerobic exercise should be your goal with an aging pet.
It’s also important to elevate your pet’s heart rate for 20 minutes during exercise, but with an out-of-shape animal, you’ll want to start slow and build gradually to those 20 minute sessions.
Let’s say your older dog will walk with you to the end of the block, but no further. Slowly add a yard or two to the distance he walks each week.
Work with your integrative or holistic veterinarian for guidance in what exercises at what intensity are best for your dog.
Have You Ever Seen a Cat Parade?
As all of you with kitties know, it can be difficult to motivate a feline to exercise if he’s not in the mood. Older cats like to eat, sleep, look out the window – and that’s about it.
I play a slightly manipulative trick on the cats at my house to encourage them to move their furry little bodies more.
My cats are fed twice a day in the morning and evening. When they see their food dishes come out, they get excited and follow me around as I prepare their meal.
Instead of putting the dishes down for them right away, I walk around the house instead and the kitties follow right along behind me.
After about five minutes of this little kitty parade through the house, I begin to give them small lures of raw food from the dishes as we continue our march. I’m able to keep my cats moving for 20 minutes this way because they think they’re being fed, when in fact they’re being lured into movement instead. The treats along the way are their reward for following me through the house.
After about 20 minutes, I put their food dishes down and let them eat the rest of their meal.
This mildly scheming behavior on my part has the benefit of getting the kitties moving, which improves their cardiovascular fitness, muscle tone, range of motion and circulation in their joints.
Cats can be difficult to exercise, but physical activity is as important for them as it is for their canine counterparts.
Help for Pets with Pain
If your pet has a painful condition, consult with a pet wellness practitioner about the best way to help him be active.
There are lots of wonderful ways to reduce the pain your dog or cat is feeling before you embark on an exercise program.
There are many natural anti-inflammatory remedies, homeopathics, and nutraceuticals that can help reduce stiffness and improve joint fluid production by supplying the raw materials for cartilage repair and maintenance.
Exercise is also an important aspect of pain reduction. Mild but consistent exercise can actually reduce joint pain in older animals. But first you must get your pet over the hump of initial pain, and the guidance of a holistic vet will be a tremendous help.
Benefits of Hydrotherapy
If your pet is too weak, too debilitated or in too much pain to walk, check into a hydrotherapy program.
My favorite form of exercise for pets is swimming. Water activity allows pets to be weightless, which helps them move through a complete range of motion without having to bear their body weight. This is a tremendous benefit for, say, an 80-pound Doberman with tender knees.
Swimming is one of the very best ways to get a completely debilitated pet up and on his feet again. Ask your veterinarian about local hydrotherapy facilities for pets, or take him to a pond, lake or pool.
If your pet isn’t used to swimming, get some guidance from your vet or other wellness specialist before you introduce him to the water. It’s important that your dog or cat doesn’t develop an aversion to water therapy. All older pets should wear a safety preserver when swimming, at least initially, to prevent overuse of muscles or panic-related injuries.
Small Changes Add Up to Big Improvements for Your Pet
I hope today's information and in part one of this series has inspired you to start taking small, positive steps to improve the overall health and well-being of your dog or cat.
Aging and debilitated pets need our help to slow down the degenerative processes taking place in their bodies.
A little effort on your part can go a very long way toward improving the quality of life of your pet, no matter how old or debilitated she is, and no matter what lifestyle obstacles have been in her way up to now.
Make the goal to accomplish one small change at a time, then re-evaluate. Before you know it, you’ll be able to look back at your starting point and see how the small steps you’ve taken toward improving your pet’s health have made a big positive difference in the life of your four-legged companion.