Keeping the Geriatric Dog’s Brain and Body Fit with Exercise

From improving memory and cognition to strengthening muscles and enhancing quality of life, regular exercise is beneficial to the health and well-being of your geriatric dog. 

by Laurie McCauley, DVM, DACVSMR, CCRT, CVA, CVC, and Evelyn Orenbuch, DVM, DACVSMR, CCRT, CAVCA

We’ve all seen it. The 80-year-old ladies lifting weights, doing Tai chi, going for power walks, staying healthy and mobile. These active octogenarians are striving for not only a long lifespan, but a long healthspan as well. Likewise, our older canine dogs need to exercise and keep moving to achieve a health-span that matches their lifespan. But first, let’s look at the terminology and science around aging, the changes we are combating, and what exercise can do for the geriatric dog.

How Exercise Can Slow Age-Related Decline

The hippocampus is the area of the brain in charge of memory and learning. In elderly humans, sequential imaging studies have shown hippocampal atrophy. Think about your elderly relatives. Do they process as quickly or learn as easily as they used to?  Some of this aging process may be prevented or reversed by exercise. Indeed, older adult humans who exercise throughout life have less brain tissue loss than sedentary individuals. Also, physically fit aged humans performed better on cognitive tests than their sedentary counterparts. In short, we can use physical exercise to prevent or reverse hippocampus atrophy in our dogs

Preventing Sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is a syndrome characterized by progressive and generalized loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, and is correlated with physical disability, poor quality of life, and death. Risk factors for sarcopenia include age, gender and level of physical activity.

The loss of muscle mass is associated with an increase in body fat. Despite normal weight, there is a marked increase in weakness. The loss of muscle quantity appears to be mainly due to a degradation of contractile protein, resulting from both the reduction of single muscle fibers and a decrease in the cross-sectional area of residual muscle fibers.

There is an important correlation between inactivity and loss of muscle mass and strength. This suggests that physical activity should be a protective factor for the prevention and management of sarcopenia. Progressive exercises can produce substantial increases in strength and muscle size, even in the ancient population. Preventing or postponing the onset of this condition enhances survival in people, and should also be a natural part of recommended management for our senior dogs

Five Exercises for Your Senior Dog

Now that we know the science, what are the best exercises for geriatric dogs? Here are five favorites:

1. Cookie Stretches – When done correctly, this exercise can be used to flex and extend the cervical, thoracic, and in many dogs, the lumbar spine. They can also be used as a diagnostic tool to assess for pain or restrictions along the spine, and as an exercise to cause weight shifts onto one or a pair of limbs. Cookie Stretches enhance balance and can be considered similar to “doggy yoga”. They can be done every day and performed by most owners with little risk of harm.

A cookie is brought sequentially to the shoulder, behind the front foot, to the hip, behind the rear foot (repeated on the other side), and to the chest, the floor, between the front feet as far back as possible, and lastly, with the front feet elevated at withers height or higher and the dog’s nose straight up to the sky.

Bonus: A nose straight up is of utmost importance for full spinal extension; if the dog can’t do it, there’s a problem that needs addressing.

2. Cavalettis – These can be used to decrease pacing, enhance even weight-bearing, increase limb joint flexion and stride length, improve balance and proprioception, strengthen muscles, including in the trunk, and reduce foot sliding.

Cavaletti spacing depends on the goal and the dog’s speed. The widest is for the patient with severe weakness and/or cognitive or neurological deficits. This width is usually 1 to 1.5 times the length from nose to tail base. This allows all four limbs to cross before the next obstacle is attempted. The distance from floor to withers is a starting point for the trotting dog. Spacing for the walking dog is approximately the distance from floor to point of shoulder. The narrowest spacing is for enhanced limb flexion. Small adjustments may need to be made for each option, wider or narrower depending on the speed of the patient.  The faster the dog moves, the longer the stride length.

Bonus: To check the distances, video from the side and follow one foot to make sure it hits in the same place between each set of Cavalettis. It is also imperative to start 5’ to 6’ before the Cavalettis to allow the dog to set their stride before they step over the first one.

3. Wobble Board – With the handler controlling the board, this exercise can be gentle and safe enough for one-week-old puppies and also challenging enough for competitive adult canine athletes. With no shear force on any joint, all the muscles that stabilize the limb joints and spine can be strengthened. By having different-sized domes and the ability to move them or add others, as seen with the OctoBoard, the challenge can be increased, and the limbs protected during exercises.

Wobble Board exercises can be done with the dog controlling the board, but the degree of difficulty or challenge is significantly limited when compared to having the handler control the board. With the handler standing on the board, the dog can have two, three, or four feet on the board. When three feet are on, the fourth limb has to balance the whole body, which is a fast way to increase strength while performing safe isometric contractions.

Bonus: Hold on to a solid surface to prevent losing your balance while you control the movement of the board.

4. Backwards Walking – This is one of the best exercises for strengthening the

Ollie, Dr. McCauley’s 12-year-old Mastiff mix, walking backward. He can easily walk 100′ backward without a break.

muscles of standing, rising and propulsion. It can be done any number of ways. Our favorites include placing the dog in a heel position and walking backward; getting in the dog’s space in front of them and walking into them; or luring them with a tasty treat at chest to nose height.

The idea is to have the dog take large steps with the rear limbs to strengthen the muscles on the caudal aspect of the fore and rear legs—the muscles of propulsion in the rear, and deceleration and standing in the front. Keeping these muscles strong prevents the way-too-often-heard: “We said goodbye because he couldn’t get up any longer.”

A very important detail is to have the dog looking straight out or down, not up. If the dog looks up, they are not able to take a long stride with their fore or rear limbs, significantly decreasing the ability to strengthen the targeted muscles.

The goals of this exercise can be achieved in as few as three to five steps before each meal for a weak dog, all the way up to walking backwards 100’ to 200’ in the yard for a stronger dog, whether geriatric or young.

5. Sideways Walking – This is the best exercise for strengthening the muscles that

Dr. McCauley uses her hand to guide Syd’s hip for sideways walking while feeding him with the other hand.

stabilize the hips and shoulders. As dogs age, they frequently have a tendency to lie with their elbows lateral to the body instead of under the shoulders. This puts stress and stretch on the deep and superficial pectoral muscles. As these muscles remain in a stretched position, and atrophy, it creates a situation in which the dog is more likely to have a splay injury.

The muscles that support the hip joints also atrophy if the dog is not active as they age. Dogs with hip dysplasia commonly have atrophy of the pectineus, gluteal, and biceps femoris muscles, the muscles that help hold the joint together. When these weaken, greater laxity can occur in the joint, leading to more pain and less active exercise.

By adding Sideways Walking to a dog’s exercise program, we specifically target all these muscles. To perform the exercise, the handler can literally walk into the dog from the side; stand in front of the dog with a treat and walk sideways holding an arm extender to guide the dog; or place the dog on a raised surface such as a bed or countertop so they do not have to lean over.

Science shows that exercising decreases the pain associated with osteoarthritis, improves cognitive function, can reverse age-related memory loss, strengthen muscles and improve quality of life in your dog.

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