While everyone loves puppies, senior dogs are sweet, calm, and you’ve built years memories together. But just like people, as we all get older, health and mobility can become an issue.
As someone who has a senior Lab mix, I’ve learned a lot about how to help my pup stay happy, engaged, and active, while reducing her risk of injury. This lets us life together with slightly more moderate zoomies.
Read on to learn about how you can help improve the quality of your senior dog’s life.
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Help Them Get Around the House
We’re all getting older and unfortunately that comes with its share of aches and pains. Arthritis and old age can make it more difficult for dogs to jump, get up or down stairs, get up from a laying position, reach down to the ground, and safely navigate slippery surfaces.
You can give your pup some help with the following ideas:
Make Stairs and Jumps Easier
If your dog frequently has to get up or down from a surface–for example, if you let your dog up on the sofa–you can buy a ramp from sites like Amazon or Chewy. If you’re handy enough, you could DIY it.
This also works for small staircases, such as 2-3 stairs from a door to the yard. Other sites offer collapsible or foldable ramps that you can use to get your pup in and out of the car. If you still need to carry your dog, check out our post on how to properly pick up your dog.
Avoid Slippery Surfaces
If you have a lot of wood, tile, or linoleum flooring in your house, it can be easy for dogs (or kids) to slip. My dog has a hard time with back leg abduction (that’s bringing the legs towards each other) and can easily do the splits if she’s on slippery ground.
While dog boots may be another option, we instead chose to put down mats in our house. You can use cheap yoga mats (such as $5 mats from Five Below) or buy “exercise mats” (the kind that go under treadmills and exercise bikes). We used these to make a path from our pup’s favorite hangout spot, to her food bowl, and to the backyard door. This has cut the rate of accidental splits to almost zero!
We did something similar with our stairs, adding non-slip strips and carpeting to the other staircases in our house. This helps with dog grip and also prevents other accidents in our house, since our dog is not the only accident-prone one!
Food and Drink
If your dog hangs out in one part of the house but has their regular water bowl in another part of the house, consider adding a second water bowl so it’s easier for them to stay hydrated.
Also consider raising their food and water bowls, especially if your pup is tall. This makes it easier on their neck and shoulders.
Help ‘Em Up Harnesses
If your dog is having a hard time getting up from the ground, you can buy a harness. Some of these are meant to be left on all the time, so you can have a handle to help them up from the ground, going up stairs, and so on. This is also a lot easier on you, too! Having a top handle reduces the amount of stress on your body as you don’t have to get underneath your dog to lift them.
There are a lot of advancements in veterinary science and related products that can help your dog as they get older. Depending on your dog’s age and health conditions, some of these options are more preventative than others.
As always, make sure you talk to your vet about your dog since the applicability and details of any of these treatments is “it depends!” We are offering the following options as things that have worked well for our dog, but it is not veterinary advice. Use this section to start conversations with your pup’s vet.
A blood test can alert you to imbalances or upcoming issues before they become a problem. This is a good preventative step that vets often recommend throughout your dog’s entire life, but blood work is especially important as your dog approaches senior age. Getting blood work done is typically quick and easy, so give your vet a call this week.
Everything in this section is firmly in “talk to a vet first!” territory. But glucosamine can help your dog’s joints before arthritis becomes a serious issue. It’s essentially a big tablet of fat that helps lubricate the joints.
The effects don’t last forever and will taper off as your dog gets older. But, my dog had a noticeable improvement in mobility after we started on glucosamine to the point that we’d joke about her being a brand salesperson.
It’s also easy to administer, just take one out of the bag and toss it in your dog’s kibble.
Talk to Your Vet About Medication
I know, the title sounds like a commercial for some new medicine. But if you’ve tried glucosamine and it’s not enough for your dog, schedule an appointment with your vet to talk about other medication options.
For example, they could prescribe a mild painkiller like Rimadyl. The term “painkiller” sounds scary and kind of intense, but Rimadyl is a dog-safe NSAID like Tylenol or aspirin (do not give your dog over the counter medicine without vet approval!)
How do you administer something like Rimadyl? You’ll have to give your dog a pill once or twice a day. Depending on how picky your dog is, this might be a little trickier than glucosamine.
As always, you’ll want to talk to your vet about it, rather than taking the word of a blog that has never seen your pup in person. Having a mild painkiller can help your dog move around easier, which makes things like regular exercise easier and more enjoyable for everyone.
If you need another step above glucosamine and mild painkillers, your dog’s vet might prescribe something stronger than Rimadyl. Or they might recommend something like Adequan.
Adequan is an FDA-approved “disease-modifying” drug for osteoarthritis. It helps stop cartilage loss and restore joint lubrication. If the Rimadyl/NSAID option is pain management, this is a step above and helps treat the underlying cause of arthritis pain. We opted to go with Adequan instead of a stronger painkiller, since the additional painkillers we tried made our dog very lethargic.
There are versions of it for race horses and cats, too. I happen to have friends with horses and cats on Adequan, and it’s made a big difference for them. We’ve recently started giving our 14-year old dog Adequan and I see a noticeable difference in her too. This is especially true in the week after she’s had her dose, now that she’s in the “maintenance” period, which I’ll describe later.
The downsides are cost and how you administer it. Adequan has to be injected subcutaneously. In practical terms, this means you measure out a dose with a syringe, and inject it in your pup’s neck fluff. This is quite a bit easier than injection into a vein, but is understandably difficult for people who are squeamish around needles. You can also have your vet administer it.
The other downside, cost, is very dependent on your dog’s size and dosing schedule. Here’s how it worked for my dog: for the first month, she got two doses a week. Then the following month, she had a dose every week. Then a month of every other week, and now she’s on a “maintenance” schedule of roughly once a month. Our dog is a Lab mix and got approximately 1.4mL per dose. A bottle of 5mL costs about $50 at the time of this post, so the 14 Adequan shots before her maintenance schedule began cost us about $200.
Of course, prices are changing so this information might be out of date. You can check prices online but will need a vet’s prescription to buy it. We administered the shots so we did not have to drive to her vet frequently. If you go this route you will also need to buy syringes, but these are relatively cheap compared to everything else.
Doggy physical therapy
We know, this one sounds bougie! Your city might have a vet office that offers dog physical therapy. This can help alleviate your dog’s pain, help them recover from injuries, and generally improve their quality of life.
What does dog PT involve? Well, it depends. But in general, you can expect some water treadmill time, on-land exercises similar to human PT, plus massage and/or laser therapy to help with soreness. And your pup’s physical therapist will likely send you home with daily exercises for your dog.
While dog physical therapy is often reserved for dogs with recent injuries or surgeries that they’re recovering from, senior dogs can also benefit from it.
Depending on where you live, dog PT will cost at least $75/hour. While this is a big expenditure for most people, you could talk to your vet’s office about doing a small set of sessions (for example, weekly for 4 weeks).
Quality of Life
Last but not least, the basics of exercise, rest, social interaction, and love can go along way to keep dogs (or humans) in good health. Most of the items in this section are low cost, and can make a huge positive impact over time.
One of the important things to do if you or your pet have arthritis is to keep moving! It helps maintain your strength levels, gets circulation and joint fluids, and improves your mood. Regular exercise can help improve the quality of your dog’s life, extend their life expectancy, and make both of you happier.
Still, exercise can be a challenge for senior dogs. One solution I’ve found for this is that I let my dog decide how long we walk. I take her out every day after dinner so she expects a walk, but I leave it up to her to decide when we turn around. When we get to an intersection or crosswalk, I let her decide the direction (after we check for traffic). If she starts slowing down, I ask if she wants to turn around and motion in the direction of our house.
Letting your dog choose the length and location of their walks lets them tailor the walk to their ambition and energy levels that day. It also keeps things interesting! It’s a better experience for them when they have some control.
You might be thinking: if I did this, my dog would wear themselves out! Sometimes my dog does this, or wants to walk in the direction of a park that’s about 30 minutes away. If they’re headed in a direction that’s clearly too much for them (or you!) you can encourage them to take a different route.
For example, when my dog wants to go to the park but we don’t have time or energy, I will direct them in a shorter loop back towards the direction of our house. We get to explore a new side street (exciting!) and that helps soften the disappointment of not going to the park.
Consider sight and/or hearing loss
As your pup gets older, they will likely start to lose their sight and/or their hearing. While there’s not a whole lot you can do about this, you can avoid accidentally scaring your pup.
If they are not hearing as well as they used to, try to avoid sneaking up on them. They might not hear you walking behind them so try to position yourself or announce yourself before you pet them, so they aren’t startled.
You can also try to keep obstacles out of the way so your dog doesn’t run into things. Additionally, give other family members and visitors a heads up that your pup is having trouble hearing or seeing.
A Nice Bed
Our dog’s orthopedic bed isn’t her favorite (yes, she has several). But as she gets older, it’s easier for her to get in and out of bed compared to plushier beds.
We also use a nursery bed liner underneath her bed cover, in case of accidents. Check out our guide on cleaning dog beds for more information on getting a bed clean.
Keep Them Cool (or Warm)
While you should take care to keep your dog cool or warm enough, regardless of age, senior dogs are at heightened risk for heat stroke.
If you live in a warmer climate, make sure your dog is getting enough water, and has a cool, shaded place to stay out of the sun. If you are out for a walk, keep an eye on them so that they don’t overheat, and modify your walk plans accordingly. One option to consider is a cooling vest, which a dog wears to lower their temperature on hot days.
You may need to start bringing water with you on your outings, and can also see if they like having ice in their water at home.
On the flip side, sometimes your pup is too cold. When dogs get cold, they can curl up in a ball for warmth. However, it can be difficult for older dogs to do this because of spine or hip arthritis.
One solution I’ve found is having a heating pad for my dog. We’ve built a small, 1-foot high railing around her bed. One side has a small heating pad attached to it, with a faux fur cover so the heating pad is not directly against her fur. If she is cold, she can situate herself with her back against the heating pad. Otherwise, she can lie against the other side of the bed, or in the middle.
Safety note: it is important that your dog does not get stuck on the heating pad! This can cause burns. If your dog struggles to get up or cannot otherwise get away from the heating pad, then they risk being injured. Amazon shows a lot of dog beds like but you do not want to do this for senior dogs! Instead, set up a heating pad in a way that allows your dog to choose whether they want to have it near them or not, like on a vertical surface as described above.
Social Interaction and Mental Stimulation
If you’re not a young pup anymore, and especially if your arthritis makes you slow or defensive, it can be difficult to get social interaction. Dog parks can be overwhelming for some senior dogs. You might have friends or neighbors with calm dogs who can be (gentle) playmates for your pup. Our dog’s arthritic hips make it difficult for her to play with other dogs, but we recently found a new neighborhood playmate while out on a walk: a happy, 2-year-old Golden Retriever who seems to intuitively understand that he needs to be gentle. Still, they both have a great time.
You can also buy toys for mental stimulation, whether this is a puzzle or your dog’s favorite treat with a new twist. Think a kong toy, but with frozen peanut butter inside.
Go to new (but calm) places like parks or forests. I like to look on Google Maps for “hiking trails” and then use uploaded photos to find locations with paved and/or easy terrain. No hills or stairs, but lots of new sniffs!
Last but not least, give your dog regular love and attention. They might not be able to zoom around like when they were younger, but they still are full of love and loyalty and enjoy your company.