How to keep your senior dog comfortable.
As dogs age we watch their ease of doing everyday things fade such as walking, responding when we call, navigating around the house, sleeping through the night, or not having accidents in the house. Many ailments associated with aging are helped by medication but when pharmaceuticals are not effective or only do so much, keeping your dog comfortable is the best medicine. And part of keeping your dog comfortable is maintaining your mutual sense of connection.
What does it mean to “keep your dog comfortable”? Keeping your senior dog comfortable means managing their stress, anxiety, and pain, and continuing to do things that bring them joy and security. Providing comfort comes in many forms. As they age, how we provide comfort should adapt to their physical limitations, such as taking frequent short walks rather than fewer long walks. It also means maintaining your bonded connection, such as through facial expressions, verbal communication, physical touch, and being present. As your dog adjusts to making her own adaptations to her sunset years, knowing she is still a part of your routine can also bring her comfort.
Below are some ideas for how to keep your dog comfortable and maintain your connection as she ages. But first, it’s helpful to know the when and what of signals to look for so you can better understand how her comfort is affected.
Learn to see the signals.
Your dog has spent his lifetime learning commands and cues to earn treats, approval, and affection. For example, when the car door opens, he jumps in. When you throw the ball, he brings it back. When you say sit, he sits. It is up to you to notice when and how his performance changes with time. The signals are there; you need to be receptive to and understand them.
A common example of identifying the signals is when he hits his limbs more often against the car when jumping in, or when he puts his front paws in the car and looks to you for a boost with his back end. This could be a signal that his physical abilities are changing, and therefore, his comfort. Another signal is when it takes longer to move from standing to sitting, or becomes partial-way or lop-sided. This likely means the hip, elbow, and/or knee joints do not work as smoothly. Yet another signal is when he limps or moves slower a few hours after a game of fetch because the body aches and takes longer to recover.
Notice these things about your dog because dogs often push through pain in the moment to continue to do what they’ve learned to love. Unfortunately, dogs inevitably suffer the consequence a few hours later and, with unregulated repetition, these “exercises” can also have long-term debilitating effects. It’s up to you to identify signals which affect his physical abilities in order to help him adapt to different levels and types of activity, even when he appears to want otherwise.
Slower, shorter walks. If you’ve ever experienced chronic tendinitis, bursitis, had a sprain or muscle strain, then you know it doesn’t take much for a prior affliction to be agitated when twisted or stepped on a certain way. And so it is with dogs- it isn’t necessarily the length of a walk that can be uncomfortable, it could be those persistent injuries that get agitated by momentary imbalances or even a minor trip when moving from concrete to grass. Despite the chance of prior afflictions becoming agitated at any moment, modifying walks to be shorter and slower reduces the likelihood that chronic injuries will flare up. And if you are aware of your dog’s prior or current injuries, icing down the affected areas to reduce inflammation is ideal (after a walk and in the evenings). Walking long distances at a leisurely pace might still be a comfortable option for your dog but stay vigilant for signals to switch to slower, more frequent walks. Complete rest in between walks is a good idea so the body can recover. A great modification to long walks for your dog is longer outings with the help of a dog stroller. At first, you can push the empty stroller while your dog enjoys his shorter walk, then you can load him in the stroller and continue the outing when joints and muscles fatigue. You still get in your exercise and your dog enjoys the extended outing more comfortably.
New commands. Learning to switch up the routine by learning new commands is a great way to keep the mind stimulated while also prolonging comfort. If joints are achy, instead of asking your dog to “sit” for a treat, hold the treat in front of her (not above, which will encourage her to sit) and ask her to “wait.” Standing can sometimes be more comfortable and does not require physical effort to transition to a sit then back again to a stand once the exercise is over. Also, consider training her to wait at the car and then offer assistance such as a boost, even though she is still “programmed” to do it herself. Also, keep in mind that when her ability to jump in and out of the car is changing, you might also expect that she might soon need more assistance walking up or down staircases.
Harness for walking up/down stairs. A harness allows you to provide physical stability for your dog by taking weight off her joints and guiding her movement while ascending or descending staircases. Stairs become difficult to negotiate for older dogs with weak and stiff joints. Miscalculations can mean tripping, overcompensating for imbalance, or falling, which causes additional pain and potential injury. When ascending stairs, a harness allows you to lift some (not all) weight from your dog’s joints and to keep momentum going in an upward direction. When descending stairs, a harness allows you to lift some weight from joints to prevent jarring, and to guide downward momentum in a controlled manner. I prefer harnesses with solid straps that go around the rib cage/belly (for lift assistance) and across the front of the chest (primarily for bearing the weight while descending).
Mental stimulation. Maintaining mental stimulation becomes especially important when physical activity is reduced. In younger days, physical activity helped your dog sleep through the night. Now in her senior years, mental activity can do the same. Ideal mental stimulation comes in the form of nose work, whether it be on short walks, sitting in the yard, riding in the stroller, interactive toys, or new chew toys. When the nose is working, the mind is working. And the more diverse the scents, the more stimulation for the mind. Learning new commands and playing hide-and-seek are also good mental stimulation.
Lower-impact play. When your dog takes longer to recover from a fetch session or other playful exercise (e.g., slower and/or limps when getting up from resting), future sessions should be shorter in duration and lower impact. Lower impact fetch could mean rolling instead of throwing the object or rolling the object over shorter distances with a longer pause between rolls. But if your dog is an “all in” fetcher like mine was, meaning they chase, secure, and retrieve an object with gusto no matter how it’s thrown, it could be time to shift to a lower-impact type of play such as hide-and-seek or water fetch.
Hide-and-seek is a great replacement for fetch. Dogs often play all-in while in the moment and pay for it later when soreness kicks in. To reduce impact, I shifted to indoor hide-and-seek where I placed a cover over her eyes and told her to “wait” as she listened to me (purposely) rustling around furniture and making my way around the room to hide one of her toys (or her fetch ball). When the cover was lifted, I’d say “find it”. To keep her engaged after a few minutes in search mode, I gave her “hot-cold” clues by raising or lowering the level of excitement in my voice. She caught on very quickly and I think that is one reason she really enjoyed this game. Keep the game confined to the room you are in rather than any room of the house to maintain her focus. Start simple with easy-to-find hiding spots (ground-level) then gradually move to more tricky spots like door handles and chairs. Avoid hiding objects in areas that require climbing or excessive digging behaviors. Hide-and-seek uses the nose, the eyes, and ears while comfortably moving about the room. It also stimulates the mind, which exercises cognition and helps to sleep at night. And of course, your dog will enjoy hide-and-seek for the fun, interactive, and bonding experience with you.
Water fetch allows your dog to continue enjoying the game of fetch by swimming instead of running. Swimming still uses the joints but is less jarring, particularly when the dog “captures” the object. A flotation vest is ideal for dogs with severe joint issues because he does not have to paddle as hard to stay afloat. He still needs to use his legs to move about the water but will eventually learn to move more leisurely and therefore, comfortably with a flotation vest. If your dog has always enjoyed water fetch, continue the tradition when he is older in a nice pond or lake, somewhere without a current so joints don’t have to work harder than needed. If the water is nice enough, join him! But keep excitement levels low so he maintains a comfortable paddling level.
Modify Their Environment
Elevated bowls. For larger dogs, elevated food and water bowls provide easier access than on the floor and consequently aid ingestion. Place bowls in an area where wide turns in both directions are possible when leaving rather than in a corner for example, where turning one direction or backing up is required. Consider placing elevated water bowls in a couple areas, such as near where she rests on the other side of the house, particularly if mobility is difficult. Keep in mind that when your dog drinks more water, she will need more outings to avoid inside accidents. Water bowls throughout the house might also encourage hydration throughout the day such that water bowls can be lifted by 8pm, for example. Lifting water bowls in the evening prevents her from drinking large amounts of water just before bedtime which would likely require an outing in the middle of the night (or results in an accident).
Multiple Beds. Many dogs are used to being part of the family activity. As they age, they are less able to keep up when you travel room to room. Consider placing multiple dog beds throughout the house and in areas where your dog can see you across the most rooms from a single vantage point. For example, I placed a dog bed in the dining room along a wall where Takara could see me if I was in the living room, dining room, or kitchen. So, she was able to rest here and have eyes on me as I moved about those rooms without having to move room-to-room with me. Your dog might have a favorite spot to rest and multiple beds might not be necessary but providing options to be with you also lets her know she is still included.
Body temperature. A simple way to monitor another physical aspect of your dog’s comfort is to periodically gauge his body temperature by touch. Feel his ears and paw pads to get a sense of his comfort as it relates to temperature. If his ears and paw pads are hot, uncover him or turn on a fan. Another option is to put a polyester bedsheet on his bed which has a more cooling effect than blankets and cushions. [I tried gel cooling mats but found they became heated after long rests which defeated the purpose and were too slippery for comfort when adjusting a resting position or moving on/off the couch.] If his ears and paw pads are cold, add a blanket or take time for a cuddle session.
Non-slip surfaces. Bare floors can be difficult for older dogs to negotiate and slipping can lead to a fall or agitate a chronic condition. For some dogs, walking on a bare floor can be a bit like walking on ice to humans. Have you noticed when some dogs sit on a bare floor, their legs slowly slip out from under them? For older dogs, compensating for or recovering from this slipping can be uncomfortable. In areas of your home without carpet (including stairs) place rugs with no-slip lining. This will help your dog immensely when moving about the house, including when walking, turning, pivoting, or sitting.
Steps and ramps. My dog was a furniture dog and when she got older, she couldn’t pull her back legs high enough to climb onto the couch. At first a 6-inch-high non-slip step made from wood was enough to give her back legs that extra boost in height. Eventually, she needed something higher and wider, so I used a large dog bed stuffed with carpet padding. The padding was firmer than a sleeping cushion which allowed support as a step yet was soft enough for when she lowered her back end onto the bed when getting off the couch. Takara also slept in my bed at night and I didn’t have a bedframe at the time. The mattress set directly on the floor was the perfect height for her to come and go without assistance. There are a lot of ramps that connect to beds with frames on the market which is a good purchase to avoid injuries. Ramps to ascend and descend staircases around the home are also a good idea if you are handy (see also, Ideal non-slip surface for a dog ramp). If your dog struggles on staircases and you do not install a ramp, a harness can be a good substitute. Keep in mind if your dog uses a ramp or booster steps in the home, it’s a good idea to also provide assistance while getting into and out of the car.
Keep the Connection
Include them in your routine. Inclusion is simple acknowledgements throughout the day to let your dog know you are aware of his presence and that he is still an important member of the family. Acknowledgement can be a smile or intentional look your dog’s direction, a touch as you’re walking by, eye contact and gentle conversation, or simply being in the same room. Desire to be in the same room often increases as dogs age, or in dogs who have separation anxiety. To minimize his following you room to room, particularly when his joints could use a rest, try bringing your work within his proximity. For example, fold laundry in the living room or bedroom, depending on where your dog is currently, rather than at the dryer. When spending time on the deck or porch, bring out a dog bed (if not already available) so your dog knows she is invited no matter which area of the house you are in.
Participate in their routine. We often think about ways to include dogs in our daily routine but not how we can include ourselves in theirs. For example, if your dog enjoys lying in the grass, take some time and sit with him. You do not have to be touching or talking to your dog to be a participant. Just being present, in his element, can show him you can enjoy what he does. Consider this practice in passive participation rather than active participation.
Takara loved to lie in the grass in the backyard and sniff the air. I used to feel rejected when after I sat next to her, she’d get up, sore joints and all, and lie down again just a few feet away. Then I realized I was probably sitting too close for her routine. Her routine was to experience new and interesting scents delivered by the breeze. But how could she do that if my scent was overpowering those more subtle scents? Despite not being physically close, I’m sure she appreciated my presence in her routine because when I’d return to the house, whether 30 min or an hour and 30 minutes later, she usually followed shortly after.
On some walks, go where your dog leads and spend as much time at an odor as your dog desires. Consider these walks as her time; her opportunity to explore the outside world based on her curiosities and based on what she finds interesting feedback to her senses. You are along for the company.
Verbal and Visual communication. Vision and hearing are often reduced in a dog’s senior years, but there are other ways to communicate to let him know “I see you.” When it’s hearing loss, increased visual contact can be given in the form of eye blinking or winking, smiling with your face rather than just your mouth, eyebrow lifts, or “flash hands” where you repeatedly alternate between a fist and wide-open hand. These gestures aren’t seeking a response from your dog, rather they are to remind him that you are still aware of and are enjoying his presence.
When its’ vision loss, use the ears and/or nose to acknowledge your dog. Instead of using his name, which could suggest you want him to come, consider whistling or humming a 3-note tune and presenting your scent so he knows you are near, followed by gentle pets to let him know this tune means he has your attention. Eventually, just the tune and less frequent follow-ups can still indicate your acknowledgement of him. But of course, every dog can appreciate acknowledgement through touch.
The above are examples of how to keep your senior dog comfortable while also being cognizant of her shifting abilities. Your dog’s physical abilities change with aging, but you can continue to communicate effectively, even when routines are modified, to let your dog know she is still an important part of the family.
Additional ways to keep them comfortable
- Gentle massage and stretching.
- Cold pack treatment.
- Chiropractic care.
- Water treadmill.
- Cold laser therapy.
- Alpha stim microcurrent therapy.