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Keeping our elderly canines balanced: physical and mental well-being for senior dogs

I see senior dogs every day at my work – their bodies not coping with the usual exercise anymore. Some dogs are on crate rest or restrictions after surgery or due to acute injury. So many are too overweight to move much or suffer from arthritis. But what can we do to keep them “fit”?

Our dogs’ mental capacity is still in full swing and we need to foster this. The brain makes up 2% of the body but uses 20% of the energy – yes, that’s calories included. Just think of a moment when you got tired or “worn out” by thinking e.g. during an exam. No physical activity at all but a high energy point. What if mental activity could be paired with physical exercise and help your dog live longer? Just like humans, our canine buddies want to be engaged in physical as well as mental activities. Only when body and mind are “exercised” together, can we truly ensure that we do everything for our dogs. I do not say this just to proof they want to have fun and be emotionally happy.

But speaking from a medical point of view, we know that emotional happiness, calmness, confidence, intelligence, problem solving, mental balance and the feeling of “being well” influence and are influenced by hormone production and nervous system functions. These are linked to every function in the body. Hormones due to stress emotionally (e.g. boredom) or physically (e.g. hunger, pain) can be detrimental when it comes to our dog’s physical abilities as the healing is hindered by higher levels of adrenalin and cortisol.

When we involve our dogs in beneficial mental activities, we can create happy hormones such as Dopamine and Serotonin that in return overpower feelings of pain or stress. This can create better body awareness due to “feeling healthier” and the dog is more likely to move better, therefore increase circulation and exercise tolerance.

So, how do you do it? Letting dogs sniff is my number one trick here (not just when they are old or on limited exercise). Sniffing is pure mental exercise for our canines who “read” and understand the world through their noses. This is information input just like we watch the news, read a book, study, engage with other people around us.

The main goal to exercise our golden oldies or dogs on restricted activities is to ensure we keep sessions short but do them 2-3 times a day.

During two 10-15-minute walks a dog can switch on their brains, metabolic function, cardiovascular circulation, digestion etc. twice a day without tiring and getting exhausted. This will be beneficial for their longevity as all these functions work interrelatedly to create balance and promote healing in the body. A 30-minute walk however, is most likely to damage our “limited” pooch as fatigue and pain take over, creating stress hormones that limit or halt the cell reproduction (healing) in the body.

A couple of short enrichment sessions per day get the dog up from an otherwise all-day long slumber. “Thinking” as we now know is hard work and burns some extra calories, gets the dog moving a bit, maybe even a toilet stop and best of all adds to the bonding experience with their owners. I am not suggesting one of those “enrichment toys” that you fill up with treats and then let the dog have a go at it. A lot of people are aiming for “long lasting” or “difficult” or “very intelligent” toys. The truth is, while you may think your pooch is busy for a long time, they get frustrated really quickly which in return adds to stress again. Please, do your dog the favour and sit with them. Again, two short one-minute games that are meaningful and enhancing are worth more than one long lasting toy that frustrates your dog and therefore counteracts happiness and well-being.

So once our dogs are getting more “immobile” whether it is due to an injury or old age we may think that there is not much we can do. We understand that a gentle walk is still beneficial so we plot around the block with them and think that this is all we can do at that stage. We may see them struggle a bit and feel that we should cut down the exercise regime as to not overdo it. And while we all understand the struggles of physical exercise, we need to learn to exercise our dogs mentally just the same. It is our responsibility to keep them mentally fit and provide them with meaningful brain games if we want them to live longer and in less pain.

P.S. If you would like to know what brain games I suggest and how to play them, please flick me a message.

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