As our dogs get older, it's important to keep them active and engaged in order to support their cognitive function, keep them active, and help them maintain a healthy weight. But the exercises and activities dogs enjoy as pups can put too much stress on a senior dog.
Low-impact exercise is any activity that gets your dog moving without putting unnecessary stress on their body, especially their joints, bones, and muscles.
Why do senior dogs need low-impact exercise?
Appropriate exercise is important for dogs of all life stages. As puppies, they need exercise that supports their growing bodies, without putting them at risk of injury or overworking underdeveloped joints and muscles. As adults, dogs need exercise to stay fit and maintain a healthy weight. And as seniors, dogs need regular activity to keep their minds sharp and their bodies limber.
But not all exercise is appropriate for all life stages—or for all individual dogs within a life stage. Some senior dogs have age -or mobility- related conditions that make it difficult to do the things they used to enjoy, such as running or jumping. Other older dogs are perfectly healthy but simply don’t have the energy they used to. So, what’s a pet parent to do when their aging dog needs to get moving but can’t (or shouldn’t) do high-impact exercises?
These low-impact exercises can be tailored to your senior dog's unique needs while still providing the mental and physical stimulation they need. As always, talk to your veterinarian before beginning these or any other exercise with your senior dog.
1. Leisurely "scent walks" are excellent exercise for senior dogs.
Walking is a terrific low-impact activity for all dogs, but it’s especially good for seniors. It provides just the right amount of cardio without being too strenuous, and it’s generally easy on the joints. Plus, walking is a great way for you and your dog to spend quality time together.
Walks with your dog are the perfect time to exercise their brains, too. Instead of simply circling the block to get your dog's daily walk over with, allow them time to literally stop and smell the roses. With their hundreds of millions of scent receptors (compared to our measly 6 million), dogs "see" the world around them through sniffing. And, because about a third of their brain is dedicated to processing odors, it's an essential activity to keep them mentally engaged. Taking in the interesting smells of the outside world is arguably what your dog enjoys most (aside from that special time spent with you) about going for their daily walk.
If your senior dog isn’t used to walks or has trouble getting around, start slow with short distances and gradually increase the length of your walks as they get more comfortable. Avoid hills or uneven terrain, and keep an eye out for obstacles that could trip up your furry friend. You may also want to invest in a padded harness or leash attachment that goes around their chest instead of their neck to avoid putting any extra strain on their bodies.
2. Swimming is a great way to get your senior dog moving without putting stress on their joints.
Swimming is a fantastic low-impact exercise for all dogs, but it’s especially good for senior dogs because it’s easy on the joints while helping to keep muscles engaged. If your dog enjoys the water, swimming is a great way to help them stay active and fit—and have some fun too!
If your dog is new to swimming, start slowly by letting them get used to the water and then progress to short swims. You may also want to use a life jacket or flotation device to help them feel more confident in the water. Choose a body of water without a strong current or large waves. Shallow swimming pools, slow-moving rivers, ponds, or lakes are generally the best options for senior dogs, especially those with limited mobility.
Dogs of all ages should always be supervised when swimming, especially if they’re in an unfamiliar body of water.
3. Exercises that improve balance and increase stability are essential for senior dogs.
As your dog ages, they may start to experience problems with balance and coordination. This is a normal response to aging and the weakening of joints and muscles. Luckily, there are exercises you can do to help them stay steady on their feet.
First, start with your dog in a basic standing position. For some dogs, especially seniors with diminished mobility, simply standing can be tough. Can your dog stand still, without wobbling, shifting their weight, or trying to sit, for ten seconds? Twenty? Thirty? As with all balance and stability exercises, start slowly, don't push your dog beyond what's comfortable for them, and keep practicing.
If your dog can stand comfortably for thirty seconds, add in some mobility-boosting stretches. With your dog standing on all four legs, use a high-value treat to lure his or her head toward her shoulders and then hips, without letting him or her step out of place. If your dog can't stretch all the way to their shoulder or hip, only go as far as they can comfortably reach. Do this on both sides of the body and repeat once per day. You'll eventually begin to see them become more flexible.
Another exercise that can keep your senior dog's spine limber and strengthen her stabilizing muscles is the figure eight. Set up a pair of cones, 2-liter bottles, or even your own legs, about as far apart as your dog is from their nose to the base of their tail. Then, use a treat to lure your dog into following a figure eight pattern around the obstacles. Perform this exercise two or three times each day.
4. Brain games are a fun way to keep your senior dog's mind sharp, too.
Just like people, dogs need regular mental stimulation to keep their minds sharp as they age. Brain games are a great way to give your senior dog's noggin a workout—and they can be a lot of fun for both of you!
There are all sorts of brain games you can play with your dog, from simply practicing your training and obedience commands to having your dog solve more complex puzzle toys. Start with something easy and work your way up as your dog gets the hang of it. And don’t forget to praise them lavishly when they figure it out—they’ll love the attention and it’ll motivate them to keep learning.
With a little bit of creativity and effort, you can help your senior dog stay active, healthy, and happy well into their golden years. And, who knows? You might just have some fun in the process too.
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