A veterinarian shares her advice on returning a sluggish canine to his happy, carefree self.

Compared to puppies and their endless energy, senior dogs can appear downright lackadaisical. And though you may not be yearning for the constant playfulness and spunk of a pup—at best, thrilling, but at worst, exhausting—the slow pace of spending time with a languid older dog is far from fulfilling. Thankfully, there are many steps you can take to reignite Fido's spark. Start with a trip to the veterinarian for a check-up, says Lesa Staubus, rescue veterinarian for American Humane. Here, she shares the most common culprits behind your dog's lethargy, and how to put the spring back in his step.

elderly dog resting on couch
Credit: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Keep tabs on his health.

"When an animal feels well, their attitude is better, and you'll enjoy them as a pet as much as they'll enjoy being with you," Staubus says. On the flip side, underlying pain can cause a dog to resort to lazing around all day and acting grumpy. In aging dogs, that often stems from osteoarthritis. Treat yours to an extra-plush bed to relieve joint strain and consider starting him on a glucosamine or chondroitin-sulfate supplement.

Another sneaky yet all-too-common offender: periodontal disease. You may not notice it creeping up until it progresses quite significantly—and if left untreated, it can lead to serious pain, tooth loss, and health deterioration—so, be sure to ask your vet for a thorough dental exam on each visit and remember to brush your dog's teeth regularly.

Give his diet a boost.

In the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention's 2018 survey, over 55 percent of dogs were classified as clinically overweight. And in an older one, packing a few extra pounds can worsen joint stress, slowing him down even further. "Work with your vet to decrease the caloric content of your dog's food as he ages," says Staubus, who recommends considering fresh, refrigerated options. You may also need to make specific tweaks to Fluffy's diet based on the results of his bloodwork. In the case of Staubus' own chihuahua, for example, switching to a dermatologic diet rich in essential fatty acids helped restore his skin, minimize hair loss, and return his former vigor.

Adjust his physical activity.

While frequent play, walks, and time in the dog park are all great for an older dog's mental and physical health, toning down the types of games you engage him in can reduce the risk of an injury. "If an older dog has always been a big fan of fetch and you throw the ball super far, he'll put his whole heart into that game and could hurt himself doing what he loves," Staubus explains. Instead, throw it more gently or consider fewer rounds. Or, switch to a joint-friendly type of exercise like swimming, or hydrotherapy, during which the dog will walk on a treadmill under water, building muscle in a pain-free way.

Introduce a new form of entertainment.

That could be a new toy, a different walking route, or even a new trick (forget the old adage). Switching things up will provide mental stimulation and help keep his cognitive abilities intact. You could even think about bringing a new pet into the picture, suggests Staubus, so long as each dog still has access to his own space away from the other: "It can breathe life into an older pet, and the elder dog's mildness may even tame the rambunctious puppy." Win-win.

Show him some love.

Another way to boost his mood is to give him more of what he likes, whether that's visiting a particular park, riding in the car, or playing with a canine neighbor. And remember the simple power in time together—one benefit to being stuck at home these days. "Setting aside a few minutes to cuddle and pet your dog every day, particularly as he ages, is one of the best things you could do for him," says Staubus.


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