The Five Most Important Things for Our Senior Dogs

This article is part one of a two post series on maintaining healthy habits for senior dogs.

Overview

Some dogs are seniors at 7 years of age, while others don’t reach their senior years until well into double digits. What makes the difference? It isn’t always what you’d think. Some of it’s about genetics and size (on average, larger dogs do tend to “age” earlier than smaller dogs). But it’s also related to how lean, fit, and mentally stimulated our companions are.

We can maximize our dogs’ comfort, mobility, emotional and mental well-being, and their joy of life through many different tools and techniques, most of which are quite easy to implement.

Home Environment

As dogs age their joints start to hurt and aren’t as mobile as they once were. They have a bit more trouble getting around the house. Imagine yourself this way – perhaps it’s a stretch, but bear with me – what if you had painful hips or knees, or you had trouble walking around? Now imagine you’re wearing plush socks on your feet and you’re walking on a polished hardwood floor. You’d have to shuffle a bit, be a bit more careful, and take shorter steps. Your whole body would have to work hard to help stabilize you.

That’s the situation for many senior dogs I see. The slick surfaces might as well be ice. The hair on the bottom of their feet creates a slipper that makes it hard for them to walk (or even stand!) on slick surfaces. Here’s how we can help:

  • Provide runners, rugs, and other nonslip surfaces wherever our dogs need to walk or stand
  • Trim the hair on the bottom of the feet every 2 weeks so that the pads are completely visible
  • Trim the nails at least monthly
  • Toe Grips (which go over the nails and stay on all the time) or boots (there are many options, all should be used intermittently) provide even more stability
  • Ensure that stairs have nonslip runners or treads or that you assist your dog up and down the stairs
  • Outside provide grassy areas (keep the grass short) or firm dirt surfaces for your companion. Deep mulch, tall grass, and uneven surfaces are all difficult for the senior dog to navigate.
  • His bed should be thick enough to provide plenty of padding for your dog’s hips, elbows, and chest. The best bed is supportive but also fairly thin since many dogs have trouble getting up on thick plush beds as they age. Consider an orthopedic dog bed.
                                   Untrimmed paw

                                  Untrimmed paw

                       Trimmed paw with short nails

                      Trimmed paw with short nails

ENRICHMENT

Dogs benefit from keeping their minds and bodies active as much as we do. In fact dogs that experience dementia (cognitive dysfunction) find relief through increased physical and mental stimulation. You heard me right, mental stimulation. These are some key ways to keep your dog mentally, emotionally, and physically stimulated, no matter what their age.

  • Enrichment toys – all dogs that like to eat, like it even more if they have to “work” for it. One of the most basic of kibble-dispensing (enrichment) toys is the Kong. Once he’s an expert at the Kong (which might take 3 seconds or it might take a few days) you can progress to more challenging toys, which you can find at most pet stores.
  • Play – all mammals enjoy play, which stimulates the body, the mind and the emotions. There’s nothing better than a good laugh. For your senior dog, that laugh is probably going to be a wagging tail. If your dog isn’t interested in tugging or toys, try conditioning exercises. For most dogs, they’re really fun and will get that tail wagging.  We will be presenting specific suggestions on the blog in two weeks!
  • Field Trips – if your companion enjoys other people, consider taking him to the dog-friendly outdoor café at your local coffee shop, or on an excursion to your favorite pet store to pick out some treats and get some pats from the friendly staff.
  • Brushing – make sure to use a brush your dog really likes. However, if he doesn’t enjoy brushing this doesn’t count as enrichment.

ASSISTIVE DEVICES

As our canine companions have more trouble getting around, it can be hard on our own bodies helping them. It can certainly be harder on their bodies when slips and falls result in painful muscles and joints. Thankfully there are many devices that can help.

  • Harnesses and slings – The Help ‘Em Up Harness is my favorite for dogs with compromised mobility. With parts for the chest and the pelvis, it allows you to easily help your dog to rise, go up and down stairs, or walk. For most dogs, the harness can be worn all day and is adjustable at many points, allowing for a comfortable fit.
Help 'Em Up Harness.jpg
  • Boots – there are many types of boots and other paw coverings available to help dogs to walk on slick surfaces. You can find options at most larger pet stores.
  • Ramps and pet steps – consider a pet ramp to help your companion get in and out of the car and pet steps for getting on and off the bed or couch
Lean dog top view.jpg

WEIGHT

A lean body weight is critical for our senior companions. The very first pain relieving measure for a dog with mobility challenges is a lean physique. Not only do studies show that a dog will live up to 2 years longer if kept lean, fat is actually pro-inflammatory, meaning your dog is fighting an uphill battle with the inflammatory pain in his joints if he’s overweight. Don’t stop at “not fat”; get your companion all the way to LEAN.

How to tell if your dog is lean:

  • There’s a waist between his ribs and his pelvis
  • Easily felt ribs – place your hand on a table in a relaxed position and feel the bones in your hand. This is close to how easily you should be able to feel your dog’s ribs. They should be easily felt, but not visible.
  • There’s a tuck to his belly between his chest and his hind legs      

    For the fifth important thing for senior dogs, check back in two week's for Dr. Blackmer’s companion article, "6 Exercises for Your Senior Dog."

    This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Triangle Dog.