Helping your older dog with arthritis live their best life!

As our dogs get older, like us, their needs change…what they can manage changes…but we owe it to them to ensure they are happy, and their lives are as full, enriched and comfortable as possible. There are so many ways we can keep our ‘golden oldies’ happy and safe as possible, and if they have conditions such as arthritis, we do all we can to slow the progression of the disease. My own dog, Dylan, is roughly around 11.5/12 years of age (he is a rescue so its slight guess work) and so this blog has been motivated by his needs and changes I have made over the years.

Slippery floors are a hazard

 The majority of modern homes have flooring that is not very dog friendly – slippery surfaces such as laminate floor and tiles.  Slippery floors are very common causes of injury in the home. Dogs are unable to get a grip on these surfaces, and every time a dog slips it causes microtrauma – tiny damage and injury to the joints and soft tissue. In dogs without joint disease/arthritis, and in puppies, this can lead to injury and the increased likelyhood of joint disease and problems in the future……but in dogs with arthritis and joints that are already painful, this will be very painful and mean that the arthritis potentially progresses faster.

It is therefore, really important that we ensure our dogs, especially our older dogs, are not slipping on a daily basis getting around their home. A very simple solution is to cover slippery flooring with non-slip mats/runners or rugs. And if rugs or runners are not possible in some areas (in my house, for example, the only place I do not have a runner or rug is in the doorway to the living room, because it means the door is not able to close), then clear anti-slip tape is widely available and is very very effective.  This will all allow your dog to move freely around their home without the risk of slipping ,tripping, sliding, losing balance, being unable to get grip, all of which cause more pain for your dog.

 

A step closer to more pain

Dogs with arthritis will most likely not be strong enough, nor have the balance or coordination to navigate stairs in a safe manner. Due to this, they will often be likely to dash down stairs at speed – this is often seen to be the dog being enthusiastic, but in reality it is because that is the only way they can get down the stairs and is actually very dangerous.   In addition, dogs who have elbow dysplasia / arthritis (like my dog), going down stairs will put more stress through those already painful joints, and cause extra pain and potentially more injury.

It is therefore important to start to try and minimise, if not avoid, your dog having to negotiate stairs.  If possible, block stairs off with a baby gate. If your dog needs to go up or downstairs, depending on their weight and size, consider whether it is possible and safe to carry them? If not, you can support your dog with specific harnesses which are designed to take their weight and control their speed when navigating stairs.

It is not just stairs IN the home though – don’t forget the steps that your dog may have to negotiate every time they go out of the house or into the garden.  Consider whether you can make adaptations to those steps by maybe adding additional small mobility steps so that instead of having to go u and down one large step, there are 2 much smaller steps to negotiate. Or could you add a ramp at the doorstep – either a small car ramp or a made to measure ramp specifically to fit your door step? Below are pictures of the (not very pretty!) adaptations I have at my front and back doorsteps…I plan on getting a made to measure ramp for my back doorstep but have yet to do so.

Use car ramps

If your dog currently jumps in and out of the car, it is important to prevent them engaging in these activities. Jumping out of the car will place more than 4 times your dog’s body weight through their front legs –  this is an awful lot of pressure to be put through joints that are already weak and painful.  I have used a car ramp for many years, and I will always use a car ramp with any dog I ever have, regardless of age.

In terms of using the ramp, do not just get a car ramp and expect your dog to be immediately comfortable using it. You will need to expect to take time to train them to use it, at their pace. This should start by the ramp being placed flat on the floor, and rewarding your dog for simply walking along it, and then one end can be raised ever so slightly….again, while rewarding your dog a lot for walking across the ramp. The ramp can then gradually be raised so that one end is on the car.

If you have a younger dog, consider training them now to use a ramp to access the car.

Obviously if your dog is small, then it is easy enough to lift them gently in and out!

Changing exercise requirement

As dogs older, the same as with us, they cannot cope with the same amount of exercise. It is, however, very important that they do keep moving, especially if they have arthritis. If they lie around all day and dont move this will cause more stiffness and pain….gentle and regular movement is needed to keep the range of motion and keep those joints lubricated.

Older dogs / dogs with arthritis should be taken out for short, gentle walks which are little and often. The length of the walk will be dependent on your individual dog’s limitations, and should be guided by them. My dog, Dylan, for example tends to go for 2, maybe 3, short walks of around 15 mins. Sometimes if I am doing 2 walks and he is feeling good we do 20, but I am very aware of keeping it within his capabilities.

In addition, allow your dog to engage in more suitable and appropriate activities on walks.  Fast moving exercise, chasing a ball, should be avoided at all costs with older and arthritic dogs (in fact I make no secret of the fact I hate repetitive ball throwing for all dogs, but especially older, arthritic dogs, and wish those ball chuckers would be banned).  As dogs chase the ball, and then bring it back, an awful lot of pressure is put through their limbs and spine, by the sharp stopping and speeding up, an the twisting that often happens. Lots of dogs may appear to enjoy doing this activity, and some may appear to cope well, but older dogs with arthritis are highly likely to feel significant pain after such an activity.  And unfortunately dog will NOT necessarily avoid such an activity if it hurts – the adrenaline will take over and will mask, to a degree, the pain.

Instead of these activities, encourage your dog to sniff and investigate the environment….these are much more natural activities for dogs anyway.  Sniffing lowers arousal, is mentally tiring for dogs, and by moving in a calm, slow manner, with their head down, they will be gently moving their joints as well as working their core muscles, which also is very important.

Have buggy, will travel!

Having an older dog with reduced exercise needs doesn’t mean that your lovely dog walks have to stop! If your dog is starting to struggle with longer walks, then consider getting a dog buggy. These can, quite honestly, be a life changer for you and your dog. It will mean the time you and your dog spend together can actually be increased, and will mean you and your dog can visit places you may not have been able to access for a while. Your dog will be able to ride in the buggy when they get tired, and get out when they are rested for a short while.  In addition, this will provide some much needed stimulation for your dog.

A buggy isnt just for when dogs cannot walk at all…..it is a fabulous tool to widen your dog’s world and to mean you and your dog can spend more time together, not less. A buggy should be used to help your dog to exercise in an appropriate way that they can manage and not to avoid them exercising at all. Arthritis is a disease that progresses and it will worsen faster if those joints and muscles are not used.

As with car ramps, you will need to take the time to train your dog to be comfortable going in the buggy. I would start with the body of the buggy on the floor WITHOUT wheels on it – you need them to be comfortable going in and out without the added worry of the buggy moving. Then, when they are very comfortable, I would have the wheels on but the buggy stabilised so it actually cant move, and only build up to adding very very gradual movement when your dog is 100% comfortable with it not moving.  If you need any help in conditioning your dog to feel comfortable in a buggy please do get in touch (angela@politepaws.co.uk)

Sweet Dreams

The type of bed your dog has access to in the home is very important for our older dogs with arthritis.  The bed should be big enough so that your dog is able to stretch right out comfortably if they want to.  Those of you who yourselves have any issues with your joints (I have bad knees), think how sometimes it may be nice to curl up, but after a while you need to be able to stretch those joints out. It is the same with dogs.

 

 

 

 

Supportive beds, such as those made of memory foam or marketed as ‘orthopaedic’ are good options for older dogs. While the soft, squishy beds can look cosy to us, they can be a nightmare for arthritic dogs when they try to get up. Bolsters surrounding the bed can be also be really important, and a lot of dogs rely on these for support to lie against. However, the bed should also be easy to access without the dog having to climb over any high edges to get in or out.   Also avoid placing extra blankets on the bed that your dog could become tangled up in.

The area around your dog’s bed should also be non-slip – we dont want your dog getting out of bed and slipping, causing pain as we discussed earlier on in this blog.  So either have rugs or non-slip mats around the bed or place strips of anti-slip tape on the floor.

Try and place the bed somewhere quiet so that they are not always disturbed by members of the family walking close past them.

Arthritis hurts!

When dogs get old, they often develop joint disease such as osteoarthritis, and are more likely to develop other conditions that cause pain too. Now believe me – arthritis is painful! Its painful in humans….its just as painful for dogs!  So please – if your dog is getting older, is becoming less able to do things they could easily once do, are struggling with anything from getting up on the sofa, to getting off their bed, or are showing more pain indicators (these are signs that your dog  will show to indicate they are in pain, and what these are will vary depending on your individual dog). I know with Dylan, for example, one of his main indicators that he is in pain is that he pants a lot at rest, and his eyes show pain too.

A great resource to look at in terms of arthritis in dogs and pain indicators is Canine Arthritis Management – I would highly recommend everyone follows this page (they also have a great Facebook page), even people with dogs who are younger!  They also have an excellent online ‘good day, bad day’ diary which allows owners to monitor their dog and start to more easily notice changes in pain levels.

My point with this, however, is that it is unethical to know, or even think, a dog is in pain, and not provide pain management. Think how WE humans feel when we are in pain – any sort of pain – its unbearable a lot of the time. So please….if you think your dog is in pain, don’t just see it as them “slowing down”, please make an appointment with your vet and discuss pain relief. Supplements are NOT enough. There is actually no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of most supplements, so whilst most of them can do no harm (I say most – with some supplements there can be contraindications with other medications the dog may be on), it is simply not a sufficient replacement for pain relief.

Boredom = Pain

When dogs get older it is easy to not take them out much and they could spend more time lying around doing nothing (see earlier on in this blog for how important gentle exercise is with our oldies), but this inactivity can lead to boredom, and actually mean the dog actually feels more pain. If they are left at home to do nothing, there is nothing to keep their brains busy and distract them from the pain. By giving them something they enjoy to do, you can distract them from the pain and it can actually release ‘feel good’ endorphins which can temporarily disguise those pain signals!

So make sure you keep your older dog mentally stimulated. Split up their food allowance so instead of 2 meals a day fed in bowls, they can have a small lunch fed in some kind of food dispensing or enrichment toy . Food can be frozen onto a lickimat to encourage licking which is a calming activity which also encourages the release of oxytocin in the brain and releases endorphins. Food can be fed in some kind of treat ball, where your dog has to work out how to get the food out of that toy. This will also encourage gentle movement while keeping the head low, working those core muscles and stretching over the neck and back. Have some fun with some simple scentwork games – this can be searching for food or for an odour if your dog has been trained to do so.

Weight Watchers

Another important aspect of managing our older dogs pain levels is weight management. The fact that older dogs cant do as much physical exercise, means that their food allowance often has to be adjusted accordingly.  Keeping dogs at a healthy weight is vital in terms of managing their pain levels. If you are unsure whether your dog is overweight, please make an appointment with your vet or vet nurse.

Keep your dog warm

When the weather turns colder, it is important to ensure your older dog is kept warm. If you dog has arthritis, it is not only the joints that are to be considered, but also the surrounding muscles.  If your dog gets cold, the way they move will change accordingly and their muscles will tense up and ache.  So when walking your older dog in the winter months, consider a coat or jumper that will keep them warm, and that is easy to remove and take off without causing pain or fuss.  If it is raining it is also important to keep your older dog from getting damp, so also consider a raincoat. For Dylan, because he has quite a lot of fur, he wears a lightweight Hurtta raincoat when it rains (I chose this because unless the weather is especially cold, he could get too hot in a heavy raincoat), and an Equafleece jumper (that covers his elbows) or rug when it is cold. If it is cold and raining, he can wear his raincoat on top of his fleece.

So as you can see, there are so many ways to ensure our older, arthritic dogs live a full and happy life, and ways that we can ensure their home environment is safe for them to navigate. If you have any questions on how to manage your older dog, or indeed on how to apply these measures with a younger dog, please get in touch on angela@politepaws.co.uk

 

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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