Way Better Than Euthanasia, Prevent Death With This

senior pet exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Lack of mobility is a common cause of euthanasia in senior pets, but it’s one that can often be avoided by encouraging daily physical exercise
  • To prevent muscle atrophy in dogs, a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise a minimum of three times a week is necessary, but to build muscle mass and strength and prevent atrophy, more is required
  • To improve mobility in senior pets, maintain a healthy weight, start physical activity gradually and increase intensity as strength builds and be sure to challenge your pet’s mind, too
  • Exercises that target the hind limbs can help your pet regain the strength to go up and down stairs or jump up on the couch

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Lack of mobility is a common cause of euthanasia in senior pets, but it's one that can often be avoided by maintaining a healthy lifestyle for your pet. While it's best for your pet to stay active from his youth, even senior pets can build strength and flexibility — and improve their overall mobility — via daily exercise.

"Maintaining an active lifestyle through daily physical exercise may be the No. 1 thing pet owners can do to promote muscle strength, joint flexibility and overall health in senior pets," says rehabilitation specialist Dr. Kara Amstutz in DVM 360.1

How much exercise does your dog need? To prevent muscle atrophy, a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is necessary, but to build muscle mass and strength, more is required. While it's true that senior pets may not exercise with the vigor they did as pups, age-appropriate exercises are crucial for preventing the loss of mobility that may shorten your pet's lifespan — and your time spent together with your pet.

If Your Dog Is Slowing Down, Here Are Five Steps That Can Help

If you've noticed your senior pet isn't as spry as he used to be, it's time to take action to stave off additional losses in mobility. Amstutz recommends the following steps to improve your senior pet's health, but really they can be used for dogs of all ages (and long before loss of mobility occurs).

1. Make Sure Your Pet Is a Healthy Weight. Obesity in pets is associated with osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease and cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries in the knee joints, all of which can make getting around more difficult for your pet. It also places excess strain on joints and muscles, which can exacerbate injuries and pain. Losing even a small amount of weight can make a major difference in your dog's mobility, even encouraging more active play sessions and exercise.

For instance, among obese dogs with osteoarthritis, modest weight loss in the range of 6 to 9 percent of body weight led to a significant decrease in lameness and noticeable improvement in gait.2 Your veterinarian can tell you for sure whether your dog is a healthy weight, but some telltale signs that your dog may benefit from weight loss include the following:

  • He has an oval shape when you look down on him from above
  • You cannot feel your dog's ribs
  • You cannot feel the bones near the base of your pet's tail (his pelvis)
  • You can see excess fat on his abdomen, hips and/or neck

2. Start Physical Activity Gradually. If your senior pet isn't accustomed to vigorous exercise, don't expect him to start zipping around your yard on day one. Instead, start slow, as slow as a five-minute walk a day, gradually increasing the distance until he can comfortably walk for 30 minutes daily. Do watch out for signs of pain, such as lagging behind or refusing to walk any farther, and get him checked out by your veterinarian if you think pain is an issue.

Once he's mastered the walk, add in some new challenges like walking up hills or on a different surface, such as sand. As your pet's strength grows, walks will become less challenging, signaling that it's time to add additional, more vigorous physical activity to his days.

3. Strengthen Hind Limbs. Many dogs lose the ability to climb stairs or jump onto the couch due to loss of strength in the hind legs. Exercises known as step-ups are a great way to encourage hind limb strength. Amstutz explains:

"Encourage your pet to put both front feet up on one step. Doing so will shift his weight to the hind legs. Hold this position for up to 60 seconds. As your pet becomes stronger and more comfortable with this exercise — and if his size allows it — see if he can reach the next step up to increase the level of difficulty."3

4. Challenge Your Pet's Mind. It's important to exercise your dog's mind along with his body; a bored dog will have far less incentive to get moving again than one presented with intriguing new experiences. For midlife dogs, agility training, which involves teaching your dog to run through obstacle courses, is one such option, and it can be done just for fun or at a competitive level. This is an excellent way to keep pets moving as they age, as many dogs enjoy this sport throughout their senior years.

You can even create an obstacle course for your dog in your own backyard using tools like a chair (to run under or jump over), a modified cardboard box (to crawl through) or a garden hose (to step over). The great thing about mentally challenging activities like obstacle courses is that they stimulate your pet's brain while also strengthening his physical body.

Other options for dogs that need something fun to try include tracking and rally events, and nose work is fantastic for older dogs that may need less fast-paced activity, but still need mental stimulation and daily movement.

5. Stay Positive. Even dogs already struggling with mobility can regain strength and flexibility, but it may take time and patience, so don't give up. Most exercises and play sessions can be adjusted to fit the needs of senior pets and senior pets with mobility issues, and the more activity your pet gets, the greater his strength (and your bond) will become.

If your pet is unable to exercise due to injury, rehabilitation therapy, such as joint mobilization, therapeutic stretches, laser therapy and massage, may be necessary. Make sure to discuss joint supportive supplements and natural pain management (if needed) with your integrative vet.

Best Exercises for Mobility

In addition to step-ups, Amstutz recommends the following simple exercises to keep your senior pet moving:4

  • Three-legged stands: While your pet is standing, gently pick up one limb for 10 seconds, working up to 20 seconds gradually. "This forces your pet to shift his weight onto the remaining three limbs, improving strength and balance," Amstutz says. "Do this with each limb, working your way around to all four limbs."
  • Sit to stands: Ask your dog to sit, then ask him to stand. Repeat the sequence, gradually building up to 10 to 15 repetitions twice a day. (Offer healthy treat rewards during this exercise to keep your dog motivated.)

The following three types of strengthening exercises can also support healthy mobility in aging canine bodies:

  • Passive range-of-motion (PROM) exercises can benefit both incapacitated and physically healthy pets.
  • Balance and proprioception (spatial orientation and movement) exercises help older pets remain flexible while also encouraging improved balance and physical stability.
  • Targeted strengthening exercises are designed to work the big muscle groups that help with standing, walking and running.

Finally, if you suspect your dog is having mobility issues (the signs can often be subtle, like a change in grooming or play habits), be sure to get him checked out by your veterinarian. Sometimes lack of mobility is the result of a progressive disease like arthritis, and in this case additional supportive care will be necessary.