Exercise and Older Dogs: An Interview with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, DVM
How active does your senior dog need to be?
The golden years don’t have to be quiet years. In fact, older dogs can greatly benefit from regular exercise, as long as you keep a few tips and adjustments in mind.
We talked to holistic veterinarian and book author Dr. Cathy Alinovi, DVM to learn about exercise and older dogs.
The Honest Kitchen: When is a dog considered a senior?
Cathy Alinovi: Calling a dog a senior really depends on the breed of the dog. The general rule of thumb is that for every year of life, a dog ages seven years for humans. That rule of thumb only works so well, considering small dogs like Chihuahuas can live upwards of 18 years while bigger dogs like great Danes may only live eight years. However, in general, a dog over seven years old may be considered a senior—roughly 50 years old for humans. If you look at 50-year-old humans there’s quite the spectrum, same thing for dogs.
Signs of aging in dogs include graying of the muzzle, decreased playfulness, tartar buildup and wear in the teeth, cloudiness in the eyes, poor posture, and possibly internal medicine issues/ill health. The more health issues a dog has, the faster it will age. An overweight, seven-year-old Labrador with heart disease, for example, will have more signs of aging than a similar seven-year-old Labrador who is fit, trim, and has no other health issues.
There are other signs commonly associated with aging that in actuality are associated with deteriorating health. These signs include exercise intolerance, confusion, changes in appetite, weight gain or weight loss, sleeping more, and confusion between days and nights. This second list of health changes occur with aging but are not consistent for all aged animals. Instead, they tend to happen in elderly patients who have concurrent health conditions. These health issues include trauma, heart, kidney, or liver disease, arthritis, and more.
Through exercise, great diet, and comfort measures, the symptoms of aging need not be experienced by all aged dogs. Exercise, diet, and comfort can reduce weakness, arthritis, dementia, and more in the canine population. Being elderly should be based on chronology, not pathology.
THK: When it comes to exercise level/intensity/frequency, when is the right time to start making adjustments?
Cathy Alinovi: Because we all know that we will all age, the sooner we plan for the senior years, the better those senior years will be. Starting in puppyhood, dogs should be fed and exercised to remain lean, and they should be fed high-quality nutrition. Minimal veterinary intervention and minimal use of chemicals will also help slow the aging process.
For those whose dogs are already senior, the same theory applies—the sooner exercise and healthy interventions begin, the better the outcome will be. Just because a dog is already 11 years old and showing signs of aging, does not mean that there aren’t things that can be done to prolong quality-of-life. Also, an older dog with many signs of aging who doesn’t exercise is not a critique on family or lifestyle—life is sometimes hectic and our pets are happy to share no matter what. When life circumstances change and more exercise can be added to the routine, things will only get better.
Signs of aging do not mean exercise level should be decreased. Consider it from this perspective: if a dog has great energy, then all of a sudden stops having energy, that dog is signaling that something is going on. It is reason to investigate further, rather than simply attribute the change to age. By using energy level as an indicator for health, pet owners can be more proactive in their pets’ healthcare. If the pet owner uses age as justification for behavior changes, it is more difficult to identify possible health issues when they become apparent.
When beginning an exercise program, an important thing to remember is that sudden changes in exercise or training can cause the most harm. Regardless of age, dogs who are not used to exercise will be very sore if they suddenly exercise vigorously. Instead, gradual buildup of exercise intensity in the senior pet will be best.
The more consistent the exercise, the better. Weekend warriors, regardless of species, are usually very sore on Monday.
Another important point about exercise is make sure that it’s fun. For each dog, there’s a different kind of fun. Some dogs love to play fetch. Some dogs love to chase ball. Some dogs’ favorite pastime is to walk around slowly, checking out the flowers. Other dogs like to swim, play Frisbee, or hike. Whatever exercise is their favorite, that will keep both the owner and the dog motivated. In all honesty, if our dogs are having fun the humans usually have fun too. Some favorite games will be based on breed, like swimming or retrieving for retrievers, but others just like to play tug of war.
THK: What’s the reason behind those adjustments? What changes as a dog gets older that might affect how much he exercises?
Cathy Alinovi: Regardless of age, healthy dogs remain strong and healthy if there is nothing else going on. Francis was a 14-year-old Chihuahua. His favorite thing in the whole wide world was to chase his ball. One day he acutely could not breathe and was gasping for breath and could not chase his ball. After diagnostics, it was determined that he had left-sided heart failure due to mitral valve prolapse. His owner’s biggest concern was what to do about the ball chasing. As it was his favorite thing, she didn’t want to take away ball chasing and degrade Francis’ quality-of-life.
It is important to remember is the heart is a muscle. Therefore, the heart still needs exercise. Once Francis’ heart function was well regulated with medication, not only did his breathing improve, but he maintained good quality of life and continued to chase his ball. Francis’ playtime had a little less duration and intensity as compared to what he did before he developed congestive heart failure, but he continued to exercise, maintaining his quality longer than if he had been force to keep calm. Lack of movement is not healthful.
On the flipside, if Francis had never exercised and developed congestive heart failure, then it would’ve been inappropriate to have him start chasing a ball for extended periods of time.
Similarly, muscles are only weak if they are not used. Elderly Labrador Retrievers with hip dysplasia who stop exercising will experience deterioration of muscle strength. But for an elderly Labrador who has stopped playing and is diagnosed with hip dysplasia, the owner can help restore muscle strength and function by slowly increasing duration of exercise. The exercise can take the form of walking, swimming, and even underwater treadmills; there are many ways to increase function and strengthen muscles.
THK: Are there any types of activities seniors should avoid?
Cathy Alinovi: The biggest caution is to not abruptly change exercise style. As long as there are no injuries, if your dog is used to jumping, then jumping should still be safe. However, because tendons and joints loosen up a little with aging, in order to keep things strong, consider animal chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage, while increasing exercise levels. Physical treatments keep the body limber so an older dog can maintain good function.
If the older dog has mobility issues, then that’s a different story. A history of previous injuries, or current weakness or lameness needs to be treated differently. When mobility issues are present, that does not mean exercise is inappropriate. Mobility issues simply mean exercise needs to progress cautiously. Body workers and canine fitness experts help dogs and their owners retrain the body, even if the body is older.
Jumping puts great strain on joints, worse when a dog is overweight. Jumping up stresses rear limbs; jumping down strains front limbs. Sudden changes in direction are riskier for dogs who have been previously injured, have hip dysplasia or previously tore a cruciate ligament.
Brachiocephalic dogs (smooshed faced-dogs like pugs and bulldogs) are prone to luxating patellas (knees that pop out of joint) and should move carefully. Other breeds predisposed to luxating patellas include Chihuahuas, Poodles and small terriers.
Most of exercise restrictions should be patient specific. If a weakness or previous injury is present, care should be taken not to cause re-injury; this does not mean the rest of the body cannot be strengthened to support movement.
Keep playing tag with your terrier, if needed, encourage trotting instead of racing. Fetch can happen at a walk, swimming can remain in shallow water if moderation is needed. There’s nothing wrong with Frisbee for the older dog, as long as that dog is still fit for the game; when fitness decreases, rolling the Frisbee on the ground is still exciting.
THK: What other adjustments should you make to the exercise routine of your senior dog?
Cathy Alinovi: Younger dogs recover better from strenuous and/or sporadic exercise than older dogs. While younger dogs can deal with inconsistent sports, senior dogs exercise do best with consistency in frequency as well as intensity and duration.
If a senior dog becomes ill or injured, then once the dog has recovered, exercise should resume but at a lower level then before the injury or illness. With time, slowly build up to where the dog was before the injury or illness, if the setback allows for return to full function.
Just like with people, if dogs stop using their muscles, they lose muscle tone. Another important realization is that movement not only makes the body better, but makes the brain work better. Information from the muscles comes in to the spinal cord, signaling the brain that there are four legs, a tail, and a lot of dog between. The brain receives a bright picture of the dog’s body when it moves and exercises, as compared to the dog who sleeps all day. In conjunction, when the brain works better, the body works better. This is a wonderful positive feedback loop demonstrating why senior dogs should continue to exercise.
It’s like common for older dogs to be arthritic. Arthritis often causes some degree of discomfort. Some dogs ignore the discomfort while other dogs may be incapacitated by pain. The great thing about exercise and movement is the nerve input from the moving muscle blocks pain directly at the spinal cord. Gentle walks can do as much for pain control as pain medication in some dogs.
THK: What about changes in reaction to cold/hot weather when going outside to exercise?
Cathy Alinovi: Some senior dogs are more sensitive to the elements than when they were younger. Some of this temperature sensitivity will depend on the dog’s medications—steroids tend to make dogs warm. Many dogs feel the extremes a little bit more then when they were young as they don’t thermoregulate as efficiently as in their youth. Also, dogs with arthritis will know when the weather is going to change, with aching joints and increased coughing, just as do humans with arthritis and respiratory/cardiovascular issues.
Some senior dogs have a tendency for weight issues, either being overweight or underweight. Overweight dogs will be more sensitive to heat, while underweight dogs will be more sensitive to cold. If your dog is plump and overweight, don’t exercise it in the middle of the day when it is hot. Instead exercise in the morning or evening. Awareness that thin dogs do not have an extra layer of fat to keep them warm when wet, so clothing to protect from rain or snow will head off a chill quickly.
There are dogs who like to wear clothing, even boots; other dogs will alligator roll until they clothing is removed from their body. If your dog wears clothes well, it’s possible to exercise during the rain without creating a chill. On a windy day, just as we wrap a scarf around our neck, it is a great idea to wrap a scarf around a slender dog’s neck for warmth and wind protection.
THK: What would you say is a good exercise routine for a senior dog?
Cathy Alinovi: For senior dogs weighing over 20 pounds, who have never been on an exercise regimen, start slowly and build up as your dog succeeds. Start with a five minute walk every day for three days then increase by five minutes every three days. If the walk is so long that the next day your dog sleeps all day, then it was too much.
For small dogs, under 20 pounds, exercise is sometimes as easy as a run down the hall several times a day. Just like Francis chasing his ball, as discussed above, 20 minutes of exercise was plenty to keep Francis fit without overworking his heart
On rainy days, stair climbing can be quite healthy—once if it’s a new exercise, building up to 4 times up and down the stairs.
For the senior dog who has been active his or her whole life, unless there is an injury or illness, don’t stop favorite activities. Just because your dog celebrated a 10th, or a 15th birthday, doesn’t mean it’s time to slow things down. Again, the heart is a muscle that benefits from daily, consistent exercise and muscle movement inhibits pain—the result is great quality of life.