What's the Deal With . . . Older Pets Who Have Trouble Walking?

Upclose of dog legs

Does your older kitty have a little less spring in his step?

Does it take a tad longer these days for your senior pup to lumber down the street on his nightly stroll?

Common Causes Behind Reduced Mobility in Older Pets

According to Dr. Tamara Walker, DVM, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at Animal Critical Care and Emergency Services in Seattle, arthritis is the most common reason why cats and dogs don't get around as well as they used to in their younger years.

“Just like in humans, animal joints experience a lot of wear and tear," says Dr. Walker. "Over a lifetime of use, they can get inflamed and develop arthritis.”

But orthopedic concerns aren’t the only culprit.

“Neurological issues, like chronic disc disease in the spinal cord or degeneration of the spinal cord, can also cause slower movement in older animals,” she says, adding that if the cause is neurological, not only is there a lack of mobility but the animal is more likely to be wobbly, walk as if he were tipsy or drag his back feet.

Dr. Walker also points out that orthopedic and neurological issues tend to be more common in larger dog breeds — and often show up at younger ages. Other health issues, like diabetes and vision issues, can also exacerbate problems with agility as an animal ages.

What You Can Do for Your Mobility-Challenged Senior Pet

Fortunately, there are ways to help your pet age gracefully — and better cope with joint pain.

“The most important thing is to keep them active,” says Dr. Walker, adding that you should talk to your veterinarian about a daily exercise routine that takes your pet's individual medical issues into account.

Another option for critters in their golden years: physical therapy. “Really old dogs can benefit from nonimpact activities, like using an underwater treadmill once or twice a week,” says Dr. Walker.

You can also talk to your vet about anti-inflammatories for an arthritic animal, as well as adding glucosamine to your pet's diet. “Glucosamine is better as a preventive that's introduced when they’re younger, especially for larger breeds,” she says.

Surgery has also been proven to treat certain orthopedic and neurological conditions really well — even in old dogs, says Dr. Walker. But it’s not right for every pet.

“It’s best for sudden injuries. For example, one day your dog is walking around just fine, and the next day he can hardly get up off the floor,” she says. “But if it’s a degenerative problem, and your pet is slowly getting worse, it’s rare that surgery can help. It’s better to manage the condition with physical activity and possibly medication.”

For answers to other curious questions about animals, check out our other "What's the Deal With . . ." stories.

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