Rejuvenating and Energizing for Your Older Pet - Sends Aches and Pains Packing

geriatric dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your senior or geriatric pet needs to stay active even though he's getting up in years
  • Exercises to help older pets stay mobile include passive-range-of-motion exercises, balance and proprioception exercises, and targeted strengthening exercises
  • Massage and gentle stretching are also helpful to keep muscles loose and toned, and ease the stiffness of arthritis
  • Chiropractic, acupuncture, water exercises for dogs and appropriate joint supplements can also be very beneficial for older pets

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Just as humans need to stay active to fully enjoy their golden years, so do senior and geriatric cats and dogs. The process of getting older can trigger a bit of a vicious cycle, in that aging bodies lose 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. 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. Fortunately, with your help your older pet can break the cycle and gain tremendous benefits from anti-aging activities, including:

  • Exercises specifically designed to maintain strength, flexibility and balance
  • Short, frequent walks with your dog or interactive play sessions with your cat to maintain heart health
  • Massage to relieve sore muscles and joints, and other aches and pains

Some activities require the expertise or guidance of an animal rehabilitation therapist, but others don’t, such as taking your older dog for several short walks each day to promote cardiovascular fitness, or committing to two or three 20-minute daily interactive play sessions with your senior kitty.

You can also learn how to do massage on your pet from your veterinarian, most animal rehab therapists or a professional small animal massage practitioner.

Exercises to Help Your Older Pet Stay Active

There are three types of exercises that are beneficial for aging bodies:

  • 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

PROM exercises can benefit both incapacitated and physically healthy pets. They are performed on a pet who is lying on her side in a comfortable position. The limbs are gently flexed and extended one at a time. 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:

Forelimb flexion

Shoulder flexion + elbow extension

Hind limb flexion

Hip and stifle extension

Shoulder and elbow extension

Shoulder abduction

Hip flexion + stifle extension

Hip abduction

Balance and proprioception (spatial orientation and movement) exercises

These include the use of cookie stretches, which are exercises that help older pets remain flexible while also encouraging improved balance and physical stability. The cookie stretch starts with a dog in a standing position. The goal is to have her 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 she 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 stretch 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

These exercises in older pets are designed to work the big muscle groups that help with standing, walking and running. The sidestepping 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 three to five steps and work up to 10 to 15 steps in each direction.

For step-ups, have your pet put both front feet up on one step, which shifts her weight to her hind legs. Hold the position for 60 seconds. You can also have her move her front legs up to the next step for added intensity if she's large enough to reach it.

If you want to try three-legged stands, while your pet is standing, gently pick up one of her paws, which will cause her to shift her weight onto the other three paws. This helps to build strength and balance. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds and repeat with each limb. For sit to stand, have your pet sit and then have him stand. Repeat the action 10 to 15 times, and offer treats to keep him interested.

Massage for Senior and Geriatric Pets

Pet massage, especially for older furry friends, is different from human massage. The technique for dogs involves slow, gentle strokes and stretches, combined with light, rhythmic tapping.

When it comes to cats, the approach to massage is 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 he doesn't enjoy being handled, it's likely massage won't be a healing or comforting experience for him. Benefits of regular massage for pets:

  • Helps 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

Gentle stretching is also a great natural tool to improve the well-being and longevity of your pet.

Additional Tips for Keeping Your Pet’s Aging Body Comfortable

Encouraging your pet to stay physically active throughout life will help alleviate the aches and pains of an aging body, but it’s still important to watch for signs of pain. If your pet seems physically uncomfortable, a visit to your veterinarian is in order. The sooner a health problem is diagnosed and treated, in most cases, the better the outcome.

Keeping your furry family member at a healthy weight and physically active will help control arthritis and degenerative joint disease as he ages. Chiropractic adjustments, water exercises (usually not a favorite with cats!) and acupuncture can also provide enormous benefits in keeping pets mobile in their later years. There are a wide range of supplements that can be added to your pet's diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage. These include:

Glucosamine sulfate with MSM and eggshell membrane

Omega-3 fats (krill oil)


Supergreen foods like spirulina and astaxanthin

CBD oil or capsules

Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)

In addition, talk to your vet about Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis.

+ Sources and References