Working in hospice, palliative, and geriatric care, one of the most common challenges I see – and most emotionally traumatic – is that of pain and declining mobility in aging animals. This is especially common in large-breed dogs, though it can happen in almost all species and breeds, and it can be one of the most difficult problems for owners to face. When a beloved pet is still eating and alert and engaged with the family, but can no longer move around or handle getting into and out of the house, the possibility of having to euthanize an otherwise happy animal can be heartbreaking. Likewise, it is difficult beyond words to watch a creature we love experience pain and loss of mobility, and not know what we can do to help them.
Luckily, as our pets live longer, veterinary medicine also learns new ways to help these creatures in their golden years. There are a lot of new and emerging options to manage our elderly pets’ comfort and help them continue moving around and taking part in normal life activities, even as they face problems like arthritis, neurological disease, or muscle loss.
Pain management is always at the core of any such treatment plan, of course, and can take many forms. Anti-inflammatory medications, additional oral pain medication, nutritional supplements, massage, and laser therapy are all tools in our arsenal for combating pain and discomfort in pets. But sometimes even when an animal’s pain is well controlled, they still need help moving around. Stiff joints don’t bend as far, weak legs can’t jump as high, and aging nerves aren’t as good at reminding our pets where their feet are at all times.
One of the most helpful tools for dogs with mobility problems is a support harness. These are tools that allow a person to help the animal to stand up, add stability and support to their hind end, and assist with weight-bearing in difficult postures like climbing stairs or going to the bathroom. In a pinch, a folded blanket or towel can serve a similar purpose, but for long-term use a harness made specifically for this purpose is more comfortable for the pet, less likely to lead to back injuries for the person doing the lifting, and provides better support.
Most aging dogs have more trouble with their hind end, so I recommend harnesses that have a handle either near the mid-back or two handles, one in front and one closer to the hips. You may want to try on a few models to make sure you find one that fits and is comfortable for your pet. In particular, for male dogs, you may want to make sure that any chest piece rests close enough to the body that it doesn’t become soiled during urination.
Ramps can also make a big difference in quality of life. Whether it’s helping a small dog or cat get up to the sofa or a larger pet climb into a car or in and out of the house, ramps are easier to navigate than stairs. Many pet supply stores sell such ramps, and for larger pets, ramps made for human use can work as well.
Inside the house, many older animals still have trouble standing and rising, especially on slippery surfaces. For day-to-day situations where a harness may not be needed but some assistance would still be helpful, yoga mats are an excellent aid. They’re fairly inexpensive, easily cleaned, can be moved to wherever a pet wants to wander, and provide a non-slippery surface that gives weak or stiff legs extra traction and make rising and walking easier. Toe grips can also be very helpful – these are little plastic grips that you can slip over a dog’s toenails to help prevent skidding and slipping as they walk around.
Finally, for animals with extremely limited mobility or paralysis, there are carts that can be made to fit an individual pet to allow them to move around with the strength of their remaining functioning limbs. While this may seem extreme, many pets can adapt quite well to a cart, and can have an excellent quality of life with the help of such a device.
As always, talk to your veterinarian to help determine what techniques and assistance devices would be most helpful to your pet, to help keep them active and comfortable for as long as possible. With a little thought, TLC, and environmental modification, we can help keep your older pets active and mobile for a long time!