This article was published in NOVADog Magazine in May 2018.
These days, our animal companions are living longer than ever. But many of those last years can prove quite challenging given the rate of cancer, heart problems, degenerative diseases and orthopedic challenges that our older dogs face – just like the aging human population. The tests, treatment options, and supportive therapies can seem overwhelming when your dog is experiencing a significant health problem. The costs can be crippling. And while we all want our animal companions to stay with us as long as possible, what most of us really want is for them to be happy and have quality of life all the days that they are here.
I spent the better part of the last 12 years tending to elderly and dying dogs, both my own and others’. I ran Gunny’s Rainbow, a warm water healing facility in Bethesda, for 8 years and specialized in supporting geriatric dogs and their people. While I started out swimming with all kinds of dogs – from young ones looking to swim for exercise to surgical rehab to geriatrics – over time, I focused exclusively on the elder canine statesmen and stateswomen.
I did that for a few reasons. Fundamentally, old dogs are my calling and my passion. I love them. They are my life coaches! In addition, I had built Gunny’s Rainbow for my elderly dog, Gunny, and it was the elderly whose lives I wanted to impact by giving them better quality of life. I was one person and I did not have the capacity to handle more than 25 dogs a week, so I focused on the elderly, knowing there were other swim options for the younger pups.
I literally could write a book about all that I learned from the dogs, their humans, and some very committed and knowledgeable specialists and holistic practitioners. In fact, I AM going to write that book! But for now, I want to share some of what I learned about supporting an older dog with significant spinal or orthopedic issues – which is more common among large breed dogs than small dogs, but can affect any dog.
Sometimes less is more
When your dog starts to limp or acts tired during or after playtime or retrieving, rein in the activity as this is a sign of discomfort, not just being older. Their big canine hearts sometimes want to do more than their aging bodies can handle. Maybe you should consider several 15 minute walks instead of one or two 20 to 30 minute ones. For most dogs, the only thing better than two walks is three! You also may need to limit retrieving the ball for extended periods even when the drive is there and they want to go go go. Just like people who have arthritis, moderate exercise several times a day is much better than a long marathon session that over stresses their muscles and joints. Last but not least, do not ask your elderly dog to be a “weekend warrior”. Asking them to go for a long 45 minute walk on a nice day when they are only accustomed to short ones can do more harm than good.
Water is magic
While weight-bearing exercise has its place, for an old dog with disk disease, a condition like degenerative myelopathy, or arthritis, it is weightless aerobic exercise that can really make the difference. The benefits of water exercise are well documented and numerous. Swimming or walking in an underwater treadmill allows your dog to work his muscles and joints without the concussive impact of walking or running on pavement, which can really be painful. The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps with joint pain if they stay in the water long enough. If you can find a facility with water upwards of 87 degrees, you can get a lot of pain relief from the heat penetrating the joints. When you reduce their pain, they can use their muscles and joints more normally and walk better.
Even if your dog was not a water fan earlier in life, give it a try. The ability to exercise without pain can make almost any old dog a fan of water exercise. As important as those physical benefits are, the mental and emotional benefits are no less impressive. I cannot count the number of retrievers I swam who literally “came back to life” at being able to retrieve a ball for their Mom or Dad for the first time in years. They are so proud and happy to feel like a “big young dog” again. One of the reasons for that is biochemical: just like us, when they get their heart rates up, they release endorphins, dopamine, seratonin, and other feel good chemicals that lift depression and improve their mood. Think about it. Your 13-year-old dog likely doesn’t run anymore and really get his/her heart rate up, and that means they’re not really getting good aerobic exercise. Exercising in water allows them to do that safely (assuming they have no underlying heart condition), so it is both a physical and psychological win.
Do not wait to address aging issues
Many times I silently lamented that someone waited so long to bring his or her dog to swim. If only they had come 6 months or a year earlier when their dog had more muscle I could have helped more. Just like your grandmother no longer builds muscle, your 13-year-old dog is very unlikely to build muscle once it is gone. The name of the game, especially for degenerative conditions like disk disease and arthritis is to maintain muscle mass for as long as you can. You can do that two ways: by easing their physical pain so that they can comfortably exercise and by getting the right kind of exercise (see points 1 and 2 above).
There are so many options now to help your senior dog, both holistic and traditional. Explore them all, and don’t be discouraged if a particular thing doesn’t work as medical care is not one size fits all. Try something else. Some options cost very little, like making Golden Paste (a natural anti-inflammatory made from turmeric). Some are relatively expensive, like regular acupuncture or chiropractic care. And there are exciting new things out there like CBD oil made from hemp or cannabis that can really ease pain.
There are lots of options! Talk to your vet. Go see a neurologist or an orthopedic surgeon/rehabilitation therapist practice. Consult a holistic practitioner. But mostly, don’t wait until your dog can no longer get up on his own or is falling down to deal with the problem. It is not going to get better with time. Only worse. With patience and determination, my experience is that you can find a combination of therapies that helps your dog.
The small stuff matters
- Keep your dog’s nails trimmed short so that they can really get all the way up on their paws and are not shifting their weight back to their weaker hind end.
- Cut the hair in between the paws on their feet. When they walk and that hair covers their paw pads, it is like being on ice skates on a hard wood or slick floor. Paw pad traction helps their stability.
- Invest in carpet squares, runners, or yoga mats and put them on stairs and on slick surfaces where you dog walks. It is easy to strain a groin muscle if they go splat with their hind legs out, and very tough to fully recover from that.
- Get a harness to help them off the floor and/or a sling to support them going up and down stairs. Going down stairs is very dangerous for a dog with hind end weakness because they end up descending like a runaway train and can really injure themselves. Fall prevention is obviously preferable to recovering from a fall.
- Be sure that your dog is eating a low to no carbohydrate diet and getting appropriate supplements like fish oil, Vitamin E, and Vitamin B if appropriate.
- Learn some basic massage, stretching and passive range of motion techniques to help keep your dog limber and their muscles more supple and comfortable.
Do not confuse incontinence with end of life. Many dogs with disk disease become fecal incontinent and sometimes urinary incontinent. It is a nerve conduction issue. It is not painful nor is it a quality of life issue for your dog if you keep them clean, use diapers as necessary or even better, learn how to stimulate them to poop so that they don’t have accidents when they are left unattended. It isn’t hard and your vet can show you how. We think nothing of buying Grandma Depends diapers at the grocery store. We don’t talk about euthanizing her. Please use the same products and learn the skills to help your dog. He/she doesn’t want to poop in the house any more than you want them to. And remember that your beloved companion is sensitive, so not making a fuss about an accident goes a long way to making them feel okay about what is happening.
My beloved Gunny lived for 14 years, 9 months, and 5 days. I treasure each and every one of them, even the really hard days. I learned a lot of things the hard way and I want to make it easier for you to enjoy the time with your elderly dog. It is in that spirit I hope to share what I learned from all the dogs in my life and the people that came with them!