Specialty Spotlight: Considerations for the Senior Dog

Considerations for the Senior Dog
Laura Perez, DVM, CVA, CCRT

What is a senior pet? Unlike humans, where there is an accepted set age to demarcate a patient as elderly or geriatric, a sliding scale based on body weight can help assign age labels for dogs. For small dogs weighing less than 20 pounds, age 10-12 years is considered geriatric. For medium dogs weighing 21-50 pounds, this decreases to 9-11 years. Large breed dogs weighing 51-90 pounds are considered geriatric by 7-9 years old. For the giant breed dogs weighing more than 90 pounds, the geriatric label comes quickly at 6-8 years old.

Aging changes can be seen in all of our body systems as we age. These same changes are also noted in our canine patients – lean body mass, including muscle, bone, and cartilage decline. Muscle atrophy, in turn, leads to loss of strength in tendons. Decreased tendon support leads to increased stress on the bone and cartilage. Neurologically, a decline in coordination and proprioception results in ataxia. This combination of loss of proprioception and muscle strength often contributes to falls in elderly humans and dogs alike. Sensory losses such as decreased vision and hearing contribute to a lack of awareness of the environment. Cognitive decline can also result in a change in sleeping habits, a lack of recognition of the environment, decreased interaction with other pets and people in the house, restlessness, anxiety, aggression, and vocalizing.

Modification to the home environment can have a huge impact on a senior dog’s comfort and mobility. Frequent nail trims and keeping the hair between the paw pads short will aid in traction. Runners, area rugs, and stair treads will help prevent slipping and give senior dogs more confidence when moving through the house. Stairs can be blocked off with baby gates, so they are only done with supervision and under control. Ramps and steps can be an option for vehicles, furniture, and tall beds. The best time to introduce these is before the pet needs them. Expecting a pet struggling with their mobility and/or cognition to now learn how to use a ramp or steps can add unneeded stress. Alternatively, a sling or harness, such as a Help ‘Em Up harness, especially in our larger seniors, is an option to provide a “helping hand” while ideally minimizing effort for the owner.

While we cannot stop aging from occurring, we can be proactive and try to slow these changes to minimize the impact on our canine patients. Targeted exercises can help maintain flexibility, strength, and proprioception/coordination. An exercise program can also be mentally stimulating and help maintain the human-animal bond. The following is not an exhaustive list but includes some basic exercises that would be reasonable for many senior patients.

  1. Cavalettis (ground poles) and Obstacle Course – these exercises are helpful for balance, coordination, and range of motion.
    • Broomstick handles, rakes, pool noodles, rolled-up towels, etc., can be used as the obstacle to having the dog slowly step over. The obstacle should not be so high that the dog tries to jump over it. The goal is to have them purposefully step over.
    • Pillows, couch cushions, balance discs, etc., combined with poles to step over, can create a mini obstacle course for the dog to navigate slowly.
  2. Sit to Stand and Hills – these exercises are helpful for hind-end strength.
    • If the dog cannot successfully sit and rise without assistance, consider having them sit on something like a cushion or lap so they only do a “partial” sit.
    • Walking uphill (easy incline) is a simple way to add difficulty to a walk and improve hind-end strength.
  3. Backing Up – this exercise is helpful for coordination and proprioception.
  4. Three Leg Stands – this exercise is helpful for balance, core strength, and overall strength.
    • Alternate holding up each limb for as little as 1-3 seconds and up to 10 seconds.
  5. Passive Range of Motion – this exercise is helpful for range of motion, flexibility, and movement of joint fluid through the joint
    • Slowly flexing and extending each individual joint or limb as a whole.
  6. Massage – this exercise is helpful for flexibility and pain management. There are many excellent books geared toward teaching owners how to massage their pets safely.


The patient’s current abilities and co-morbidities must always be considered, and any exercise program must be modified as necessary for each patient. We need to remind owners and be mindful ourselves of some general activity limitations for most senior pets:

  1. Avoid quick or major changes in intensity level – no weekend warriors!
  2. Avoid slippery surfaces and quick turns
  3. Avoid long-duration activities or moderate to high-intensity activities.


Classes such as scent work or rally obedience can be an option for owners and dogs still looking to “work.”  Any sport or class that is still mentally stimulating while less physically taxing could be considered.

Appropriate body weight is critical at all life stages, especially for seniors. Maintenance energy requirements in older dogs decline by approximately 20% compared to young adult dogs. Weakness and joint pain due to osteoarthritis will only be exacerbated by excessive weight. Diet is critical to weight loss and maintaining appropriate body weight.

In a clinical setting, modalities/treatments such as laser therapy, acupuncture, and hydrotherapy can create a well-rounded and balanced program for our senior patients.

– Laura Perez, DVM, CVA, CCRT