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Keys to a senior dog's happy life

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6D

Regular, gentle exercise is key to health and happiness for senior dogs.

Don't let your older dog sit around. As your dog ages, build him up to regular, moderate exertion and wean him off the intense leaping games of fetch or the pavement-pounding miles of running you may have enjoyed together in his younger days.

Break it up: Instead of taking one long walk a day, take two shorter ones. And look for the opportunity to add low-key "brain games" using food puzzles or nose-work that functions as hide-and-seek for your pet.

Be sure the lowered intensity and duration of activity doesn't turn into weight gain. Extra weight puts more pressure on your dog's joints and clogs up the efficient engine of his internal systems. If anything, keep your dog on the lean side of normal.

More tips for senior dogs include:

Stop slipping and sliding: A common problem among senior dogs is increasing unsteadiness on their feet. There are lots of possible contributing factors, including arthritis, hip dysplasia, nonspecific aches and pains, and the association of one unfortunate slip with more to come. If the problem is one small slippery area, such as a tiled entryway, firmly attach a throw rug with double-sided tape. If a whole room or a hallway is an issue, head to the toy store for interlocking foam play mats. These mats, designed for toddlers, can be configured in any shape or direction you need, and they'll provide a soft, non-slippery surface for your elderly dog's paws. You can rearrange them or take them up at any time.

It's all about the bed: Many senior dogs sleep 16 hours a day or more. With all that time spent snoozing, it's not surprising that the most important place to many dogs is the bed.

Choose beds that are well-padded and warm. If your dog has arthritis, double up the beds up or add egg crate or memory foam padding for extra cushioning. And add more beds: Offering a variety of beds throughout your home will give your dog ways to catch his naps while staying close to you.

Finally, mix up the fabrics: You may find your dog's favorite kind of bed covering changes depending on the weather and his mood.

Flavorful food: If your senior dog is healthy and trim but seems to be losing his appetite, try a little extra flavoring for his food. A few little jars of strained-meat baby food (look for no- or low-salt varieties, and skip labels with onion and garlic) in the pantry will give you lots of healthy options to kick it up for your pup. A small spoonful of baby food will add new flavor and texture to your dog's old food.

To really amp it up, try putting the dog food in the microwave oven for a few seconds. Warming dog food releases its aromas and makes it more pungent. For a dog with sensory loss, the smell of his food warming in the microwave can be just the ticket to increase his appetite and his enjoyment of the meal. You can also make chicken or beef broth without salt, garlic or onions, and add warm to meals.

Ramp it up or give him a lift: Many companies make stairs and ramps to help dogs get to their usual favorite places, including in the car or on the couch. These are often lightweight, well-designed and collapsible, or attractive enough (in the case of stair steps) to leave as a permanent part of the decor. And while it's certainly possible to use old towels as slings to help old dogs up and down stairs, you'll find a wide variety of slings with easy-grip handles that make the lifting easier for you – since after a dog's lifetime, you may be no spring chicken, either.

It doesn't take much to make your older dog's life more comfortable, and knowing that you have will make you happier as well.

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