Senior dog and toy

Your senior dog may not be as playful as he was when he was younger, but chances are he still relishes activities that stimulate his mind and body. Not only does he enjoy them, he needs them to keep mentally and physically fit. It’s often too easy to assume an older dog is satisfied with a day of leisure, but that’s not fair to your dog, who just may be waiting for you to entice him to play.

Know Your Dog’s Limits

Unfortunately, many senior dogs want to play far beyond their physical capabilities. The dog who is a Frisbee fiend may still want to leap and spin to catch a flying disc, but that sort of wild gymnastics is not a good idea for older dogs. Seniors are more likely to have arthritis and to take more time recovering from injuries.

Tug games, too, may be too hard on your older dog’s neck and teeth. If your once tug-crazy dog stops tugging as soon as he starts, it may be a sign of dental problems that you should have your veterinarian check.

Your dog doesn’t necessarily know why a certain activity hurts, so it’s up to you to make sure his teeth (and body) are up for a game of tug — or any other activity you think he’d enjoy. Many senior dogs simply can’t resist some of the games they played when younger, so it’s your job to not entice them with games that are potentially too strenuous.

Choose the Best Possible Toys

As for what toys are best, most dogs get a little less destructive with their toys as they age, but some dogs never learn to take care of their toys. So the same caveats apply with seniors as with younger dogs:

  • The toy should not have parts that can be pulled off and inhaled or swallowed.
  • The toy should not have any sharp parts and should not be able to be chewed into sharp parts.
  • Avoid linear soft objects such as strings, ribbons, pantyhose, socks and rubber bands that can be swallowed. Such toys, if ingested, tend to travel lengthwise along the intestines. They can cause the intestine to scrunch up accordion-style, even turning in on itself just like a sock. This is a life-threatening medical condition that usually requires surgery to correct.
  • Use rawhide or vegetable chewies with caution and only under supervision. If your dog can swallow a big hunk of it, it’s probably not really safe.
  • Avoid hard chewing items. Bones and hooves are responsible for many cracked teeth, particularly slab fractures of the large carnassial teeth (the very large premolars near the back of the mouth). In a slab fracture, a sheet of the tooth’s crown breaks off, sometimes exposing the pulp of the tooth and requiring veterinary attention.
  • The toy should not be small enough to be inhaled or swallowed. Overly small balls are especially dangerous, as they can lodge in the trachea and cannot even be dislodged by hand. Dogs have asphyxiated in front of their owners from lodged balls.
  • If your dog is obsessed with dissecting squeaky toys to get to the squeak, only let him have such toys when you can supervise him.
  • Avoid children’s toys — dogs are not children.
  • Avoid any toys stuffed with beads or beans.
  • Many modern toys that emit animal sounds or move on their own contain batteries. Never leave a dog alone with such toys, as the dog could chew the battery out of the toy and swallow it.
  • Never give your dog a container in which the dog’s head could become lodged. Dogs cannot pull these containers off and have suffocated when they became stuck.
  • If you give your dog a stick, be sure it doesn’t have sharp ends and that it is either too short or too long to be jabbed into the ground should the dog hold it by one end (as though he were drinking out of a straw). A running dog carrying a stick like this can ram the far end of the stick into the ground, impaling the end in his mouth up into his palate or throat.
  • Long ropelike or tug toys that could possibly be wrapped around a dog’s neck should not be left with multiple dogs that could possibly wrap each other up in play.
  • Toys thrown to dogs to catch should not be hard or heavy, as they can fracture the front teeth.
  • Do not use rocks as toys.
  • Tug toys are fine for most dogs but should be avoided with dogs who have neck or back problems, especially those with herniated disks.
  • Avoid playing games that encourage dogs to jump and twist simultaneously. Such maneuvers can cause leg and back injuries such as cranial cruciate ligament rupture or herniated vertebral disks.
  • If your dog always pulls the stuffing out of toys, especially if he eats it, gut the toy for him and let him play with the skin.
  • Do not get a rubber toy that has a small hole in only one end. Some dogs have gotten their tongues into the hole, creating a vacuum so that the tongue becomes stuck. If you have such a ball, drill a hole in the other end so a vacuum can’t form.
  • The ever-popular tennis ball can even be a bad choice, not only for dogs large enough for the ball to become lodged in their trachea, but because the fuzz on the ball’s surface is abrasive to teeth. Tennis ball addicts may develop worn teeth from catching and chewing on tennis balls; at normal levels of play, however, the balls should not be damaging.
Many older dogs would rather just interact with you than with a toy. Hidden object games, in which the dog seeks out a toy you’ve hidden in the house or yard by following your scent trail, are great games that stimulate the mind yet don’t ask much of the body. Depending on the dog, just spending time together on walks around the block, in the yard gardening or on rides in the car can satisfy much of the older dog’s need for stimulation.

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