Pet 411: Tips for keeping older dogs active

ST Meeks Blog Logo Image 2016 01 28We all know how important exercise is to our well-being. Unfortunately, as we get older, it can be harder to persuade ourselves to get off the couch. It’s difficult to get motivated when your joints ache. The same is true for our pets. But keeping senior pets active goes a long way toward making their golden years happy and as pain-free as possible.

I was reminded of this after getting an email from a reader who contacted me about her 14-year-old Lab. She said her dog’s hips are stiff in the mornings and get weak when she stands for short periods. The reader wanted to know which exercises might be beneficial and if there were any other tips for helping her senior dog remain active.

For help, I turned to my colleague Dr. David Wohlstadter, an emergency clinician who is a certified canine rehabilitation therapist. Dr. Wohlstadter said the most important thing is to keep your older pet moving. “Don’t give up and say they are too old,” he said. “That’s just going to make things worse.”

He offered a number of different suggestions:

  • Short walks: Wohlstadter recommends trying to vary the terrain in order to work your dog’s different muscle groups. Try adding in a few hills or even creating a short obstacle course for your pet to navigate. Take it slowly, enjoy being together and be sure to avoid walking during the heat of the day.
  • Swimming: A dip in the pool is beneficial for dogs of all ages, but it’s especially helpful for older pups because this form of exercise is low impact and doesn’t put any pressure on joints. It not only helps build strength, it’s also naturally relaxing and comforting to most dogs.
  • Diet: There are a number of different dog food formulas that address joint health. Dietary supplements, such as fish oil, can also be helpful, Dr. Wohlstadter added.
  • Massage: Who doesn’t love a good massage? It might sound strange to some, but massaging your dog can help relieve pain and stress, calm nerves and strengthen the bond between the two of you. Dogs can also benefit from some gentle stretching. Dr. Wohlstadter recommends reading The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog if you’re interested in learning more.

No matter what, you’ll want to be sure to see your family veterinarian regularly (at least twice a year) in case there are any underlying medical issues that can be fixed. While you may think your dog is walking stiffly due to old age, he or she could have a torn cruciate ligament or a luxating patella (dislocated kneecap). These problems can be remedied through surgery.

Also, at this stage of their lives, it’s more important than ever to ensure dogs are at a healthy weight. Any extra pounds can put unnecessary stress on hips and joints. Studies have shown that dogs fed to their ideal body condition can live up to two years longer than average. Your veterinarian can give you recommendations regarding different formulas and portion sizes.

It might take a little effort, but keeping your senior dog healthy and active brings a multitude of benefits – both for your pet and for you.  Enjoy your time together!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.