Updated: Oct 2, 2019
I noticed when my Boston terrier, Winston was about ten years old I started to see the grey in his muzzle. By the time he was 12 years old, he also started slowing down-way down.
Bostons are known for their high levels of energy, zoomies, and non-stop activity, so when he began lying around more and more and doing less and less, I took him to the vet for a check-up. Our vet said that he was fine, actually in quite good health but was just getting “older”. That dreaded word. Even we humans do not want to deal with that word.
Around this time, I saw his eyes were also getting cloudy. At first, this did not affect anything, but then it became obvious that he was having more difficulty navigating on our night time walks. Eventually, he started bumping into things like a new package we placed on the floor or a chair that was slid out of place.
These were just a few of the changes that impacted Winston as he became a senior dog. As my little guy’s “senior status” became more of an issue, we had to make some changes to accommodate his needs. These small things helped him move around easier, reduced his anxiety, and allowed to continue to interact with us and his environment more comfortably.
Keeping our pups comfortable and safe is our priority as dog owners to be sure, so here are some things that you can do to help out your senior dog.
Keep lights on in the places your pup frequents around the house. Near his/her bed, the water and food bowls, and places where you keep the favorite toys are key areas that should have higher light. As dogs age, the often begin to lose their sight, like people, spaces become darker and if those spaces are not well lit it can create increased difficulty and anxiety for your baby.
Placing ramps near the couch or bed (if these are places your dog frequents), steps in/out of the house, or to help them in/out the car for bigger breeds (such as Boxers or Mastiffs) can help reduce stress over arthritic joints in older dogs. It also decreases the amount of leg strength that is needed to push themselves up. This reduces their strain in trying to navigate the height difference of these surfaces.
Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney recommends that ramps have a width of 11 to 12 inches for smaller breeds and 22 to 24 inches for medium to larger breeds.
The incline angle should be between 18 and 25 degrees. So, if you need to reach a height of 14 to 16 inches, your ramp should be 3 feet in length to be at the right angle. For something higher (such as the car) with a height of 24 to 30 inches, the ramp should be 5-6 feet in length.
Finally, the ramp surface should have a non-skid material to help your dog maintain traction and reduce the chance of slipping.
3. Minimize Redecorating
Moving furniture or the changing the layout of your home can be very disorienting to a senior dog who is having a decline of his senses. This is particularly true if you are living in a home where your dog has grown up all or most of his life. Your dog navigates by his senses, however when hearing or sight begin to decline, familiarity will go a long way in helping your dog manage his environment.
In cases where it is unavoidable to keep things the same, such as in a necessary move or damage to the home that needs to be repaired, keep items with both you and your dog’s scent on it nearby. Dogs can lose their sight and/or hearing, but it is very rare for them to completely lose a sense of smell. Having familiar smelling toys, pillows, blankets, and other items can help them familiarize themselves with their new surroundings.
4. Raising Food and Water Bowls
Arthritis is not uncommon in senior pups and can be present anywhere along the spine. Dogs that have arthritis in their neck can have difficulty bending their head down to reach a food or water bowl that is on the floor.
Elevating the bowl either in a stand or simply placing the bowl up on an elevated surface (I bought a larger plastic dog bowl at the dollar store, put small adhesive rubber bumper pads on the edges and used it upside down as a stand for my pup’s food bowl) can help ease the degree of spinal flexion necessary to be done to reach the bowl.
Many owners of flat faced dogs may already be using elevated bowls given the common breathing/airway issues with some of these breeds.
5. Throw Rugs
If you have tile or wood floors in your home, placing strategically placed throw rugs in your pet’s high traffic areas can also be very helpful to them. This gives them more traction and promotes less slipping. Less slipping and sliding can help reduce pain over arthritic joints. Rugs can also help if your senior dog is experiencing any leg weakness, as the traction rugs provide will decrease the amount of work necessary in maintaining their stability on smooth surfaces.
In addition, if you pup does not feel secure on the surface that he has to walk on, he may reduce the amount of moving around he does due to fear of sliding. Also, your dog may avoid moving around if he feels if requires too much energy to maintain his traction on the tile or wood floor. This decreased motivation to move around can reduce not only your dog’s overall quality of life, but can contribute to a decline in strength, endurance, and overall health, as well.
Finally, throw rugs at the bottom of any ramps or stair/steps is also important to provide a safe “landing” zone as your dog negotiates these structures.
By keeping your senior dog motivated to move about even with his age related concerns, he will continue to engage in his favorite past time-being with you!
6. Adjusting Walk Times
As a younger pup, your dog may have enjoyed long walks with you in his favorite spot. As dogs age, like people, sustained walking can become more challenging. Winston used to love taking his sweet time smelling every bush and blade of grass, lollygagging along on his walks. As he got older, however, his walks became more functional. He got where he needed to go in order to do his business and then he wanted back inside to rest.
Although this can be disheartening for dog parents, it can be a fact of life as dogs get older. What can help is shorter, more frequent walks throughout the day. This allows your dog to continue to get some good smells in while not taxing him too much with each walk.
I used to even carry Winston to different parts of our neighborhood and then let him down to do his short saunter around, so that he was able to get experience different smells and places to investigate instead of having to explore the same spots that were close to the house.
Being in tune to your senior dog’s messages of having had enough walking is important to be able to honor his limits. If you see your dog beginning to slow down excessively, turning to look back towards home, sitting or lying down in place, or resisting your forward motion it is likely he is trying to tell you that he has had enough. Do not force this-rather note the time frame in which these behaviors occur and use this as a baseline to plan the length of your future strolls.
I will be honest and say that I have changed my tune when it comes to dog strollers. This definitely occurred when Winston started having more difficulty with his tolerance to walking. I initially felt strollers were some way of forcing dogs into human behaviors. After all, dogs do not uses wheels in the wild and dogs are generally happiest being-dogs.
However, I began to see how much joy Winston was losing out on by not being able to go outside and do his longer walks. It also meant he was cooped up in the house A LOT.
A friend was moving and asked to keep some things at our house. One of these was-yes indeed-a dog stroller. I decided that I was going to bite the bullet and take a long walk myself and put Winston in the stroller so that he could go along. I thought “oh no, I am becoming one of "those people”, but I went anyway.
We walked about a mile and Winston was very happy to sit in the stroller and feel the breeze on his face. He also got in some excellent smelling that day! He was able to be outside longer in the fresh air than he had in months and I was able to get my exercise in as well (since his overall reduction in walking meant a reduction in mine also).
It was a great option for my little man and I was very happy I decided to ignore my previous feelings about dog strollers. As an aside, that same day we found a 3 week old kitten under a parked car tire with no Mama or siblings. Needless to say, Winston acquired a sibling that day and Louie the kitten and Winston became-and remained-fast friends.
Finally, do some strengthening exercises with your dog can help with leg weakness they may be experiencing. Here are some simple exercises you can start doing at home.
Watching your beloved canine get older is certainly not easy. Living with the changes that senior dogs experience can also bring its own set of challenges, however a few tweaks here and there can go a long way in helping you and your senior pup keep on-keeping on!