Exercise for Old Dogs:
The longer they keep moving, the longer they will last
A common question is “How much is too much exercise for an old dog?” We know that too much exercise has the potential to flare arthritic joints, that older dogs tire sooner, that they are more prone to injury, and all this needs to be respected.
But as much as we don’t want to over exercise an older dog, under exercising them is even worse. Once a dog becomes inactive, their health and quality of life quickly drops. Better to have an older dog take anti-inflammatory medication and lead an active life, than have it remain drug free but spend its time sleeping on the couch, too sore to enjoy the simplest outing.
There are many reasons why the health of under exercised patients declines so quickly, too many to cover in one blog, but here is a partial list:
Dysafferentation: This will get explained in more detail in a later blog, but the bottom line is that if the brain receives signals about body movement, it becomes less aware of pain. Active dogs feel less pain.
Muscle mass/tone: Geriatrics tend to lose muscle tone and bulk. Inactive pets also lose muscle tone and bulk. Inactive geriatrics lose muscling the fastest of all. Exercise is the best way to maintain muscle mass (use it or lose it). Good muscling reduces arthritic pain by providing stability to the joint.
Feeding the Cartilage: Nutrients are transferred from the blood stream into the joint fluid. Circulating joint fluid carries these nutrients to the joint cartilage. Joint fluid is circulated every time the joint bears weight. Lying around results in reduced nutrition reaching the cartilage, which accelerates cartilage degeneration and secondary arthritic change.
Neurologic benefits: Again, the notion of “use it or lose it” applies. Nerves need regular stimulation in order to remain healthy, the sort of stimulation that exercise provides. Exercise helps maintain co-ordination and strength in the limbs, as well as the mental stimulation needed to combat dementia.
But how much exercise is too much?
The answer to that question varies from patient to patient but here are a few thumb rules that you can apply:
- Keep sessions short and frequent – older dogs tire easily.
- If the exercise session doesn’t contribute to stiffness afterward, then it was good for your dog’s health.
- If the stiffness gets worse with certain types of exercise, avoid those types of exercise.
- Casual walk on level or mildly challenging ground are best. Rough-housing and sudden exertional activities (e.g. jumping down, hard braking etc.) are not as good.
- Have your pet examined by someone experienced in detecting musculoskeletal pain, and let them help you devise an exercise program.
Again, too little exercise can do as much if not more harm than too much. Any exercise that doesn’t increase pain and stiffness afterward was a good thing.