One pound of excess weight in a dog is the equivalent of five pounds for us, so even if your dog “only” needs to lose about ten pounds, that is like you or I having to lose 50 pounds!!!

The call from Alex’s owner was typical. “My dog is somewhat overweight and needs to have surgery for a torn cruciate ligament, but the vet cannot do it until he loses some weight. Can you help us??” I replied that of course we could help and we set up an appointment. Alex turned out to be more than “somewhat” overweight. He was, in fact, absolutely enormous. For a golden retriever a good weight can be anywhere from 70-90 pounds give or take. Alex was 165. As soon as I saw him my heart sank, and I knew we had our work cut out for us.

Golden’s are right up there with Labrador Retrievers as the breeds most predisposed to weight gain and torn cruciate ligaments, which is a ligament keeping the knee in place. Being as they are usually completely adorable as well, it is often hard for their owners to resist over-feeding them. There are so, so many things we as canine rehabilitation therapists can do (we cannot use the term physical therapy as that term is protected for humans only), but one of the hardest things to manage in the world of canine rehabilitation is diet.

Most veterinarians will tell you that they never, ever, ever tell their clients that their dogs or cats need to lose weight, even if the animals are grossly obese. Why? Because the fear is that most clients will be so offended that they will not come back. I was astonished when I heard that until I set up my own practice and found out for myself. I am pretty outspoken when it comes to weight as it is one of the absolutely easiest things in the world you can manage to keep your animals healthy. One pound of excess weight in a dog is the equivalent of five pounds for us, so even if your dog “only” needs to lose about ten pounds, that is like you or I having to lose 50 pounds!!!

In addition to putting an overweight dog on a diet, one of the most helpful tools for keeping your dog fit is exercise as well. This is where we come in. Our goal in canine rehabilitation is to get your dog as active and healthy and pain free as we can, for the life of your dog. Even your very senior dog needs to get regular, fun exercise just as we do. If the owner is unable to provide that exercise there are worlds of tools at your disposal. Everything from a regular treadmill (you’d be surprised at how many dogs love to run on a treadmill!) to the swimming pool, to biking alongside them and everything in between. The caveat with senior dogs is that you need to make sure the exercise is appropriate to the dog’s age and general conditioning. A dog with cancer, for example, needs a lot more rest times worked into his exercise session.

What are some of the benefits of keeping your dog athletic and fit? Your dog will be more coordinated (less risk of falling and injuring himself) and you will reduce the risk of injury. If your dog does get injured, his recovery will be faster. If you are able to keep his weight down, he will be more able to withstand stress (and yes, dogs do feel your stress all the time!!) and they will have an enhanced sense of well being. The other bonus is that you get in a workout as well and have some wonderful bonding time with your dog!

What is an appropriate weight level for your pooch? You can either ask your vet (if they’ll tell you!) or feel their waistline. There is absolutely no benefit to a dog carrying around any extra weight, so you want to check their neck, ribs and rear end. Typically you want to see no excess skin/fat at any of these spots. You should be able to feel their ribs easily without having to press in too much. You also want to stand over your dog and see a visible waistline.

And as mentioned above, regular quality exercise is very important for the senior dog. Your dog should be able to comfortably do strength exercise for 15 minutes at a time at least 3 days a week. By strength exercise that can be anything from brisk walks to easy trotting if they are able, to swimming (with multiple breaks) to hiking, to even riding alongside you as you slowly ride your bike. Of course all of these activities should be worked up to slowly so that your dog builds endurance and doesn’t get injured.

Another important caveat to keeping your senior dog healthy is making sure to get regular veterinary care. All elderly dogs should have semi-annual urinalysis, as well as an annual blood test to check their thyroids, as well as a good dental check up. And what you can do is just as important. Brush your dog’s teeth on a regular basis. Be sure to do weekly body checks to look for lumps and report anything suspicious to your vet. Regular total body massage is important for both you and your senior pets and is especially beneficial in detecting any lumps or bumps.

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