For people and pets, it is incredibly important to start maintaining fitness early in the aging process. Lifelong endurance training in pets and people ensures improved oxidative capacity of skeletal muscle and metabolism in elderly individuals. First off – good nutrition is essential, and in order to maintain optimum health, senior pets need a highly digestible diet.  In order to build muscle, senior pets also have greater demands for vitamins, minerals and nutrients, which is why giving senior pets a wellness supplement in addition to their regular diet is critical to help maintain overall health. Our furry senior citizens need their vitamins too!


Overweight patients have a higher risk of arthritis and muscle loss. It has been shown that higher levels of hormones produced by fat are linked to increased severity of arthritis. Maintaining a proper weight in your pet is a huge priority, and if your pet is overweight, even a loss as little as 5% of the overall weight loss goal can have a positive impact on mobility. In fact, studies have shown that weight loss alone resulted in a significant improvement in hind limb lameness in overweight dogs with arthritis.  Your pet is at an ideal weight when you can feel ribs, but not see them. You can also ask your veterinarian for an ideal weight for your dog or cat.

Strength training can counteract the effects of aging and weakness in pets and people. But you shouldn’t wait until your pet experiences weakness or loss of mobility to get started, as strengthening works as prevention as well as therapy. Muscle can be built in even the most debilitated pet as long as they have at least some ability to use and control muscles and movements.  Aged or debilitated pets usually have problems with endurance, and conditions like heart disease, pain, or hormonal disorders can complicate matters.  Pain also needs to be well controlled before you start, so I always recommend working with a veterinarian trained in rehabilitation before started a debilitated pet on a strengthening program, as these pets really need to be monitored for fatigue and pain.


 Apart from walks and playing ball, there are some simple exercises you can do at home to help maintain strength and flexibility. The first is the sit stand – basically ask your dog to sit, and then by holding a small treat in front of her nose, entice her to stand.  When she does, immediately give her the treat, ask her to sit and repeat the technique again. Repeat ten times. By walking your pet slowly through the rungs of a ladder, you can hone foot placement abilities, which can wane in senior years. Another easy flexibility exercise are neck stretches. Place a small treat in front of your dog’s nose, and slowly move the treat back toward to each shoulder, up, and down in between her legs.

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Simple balance exercises – one leg lifted, two legs elevated – will start to strengthen the core and legs. I like to call these puppy Pilates. With your dog standing, pick upone front leg, if your dog balances well, then slowly pick up the opposite rear leg. Then repeat on the opposite side

All of these exercises work best if they are done twice daily with 10 repetitions, but exercise programs must be tailored to the individual. If you notice your pet is stiff, weak or getting tired, then stop, and please check first with your veterinarian before you attempt any of these exercises in debilitated or very aged pets.

More complex therapies to build strength in debilitated pets require specific training to implement. If your pet has weakness or pain, a rehabilitation veterinarian is your best option to help your aging companion animal get the best quality of life. Rehabilitation procedures can include underwater or land-based treadmill exercises, passive range of motion and stretching movements, therapeutic ultrasound, acupuncture, massage, swimming and more.

The field of canine rehabilitation is growing rapidly, and offers more options than ever to pet parents that just want the best for their companion animals.  Remember – start early to get the best results:  high quality nutrition plus lifelong endurance and strength training are key for successful aging.

By Dr. Claire — Staff Writer