When it comes to promoting the overall wellbeing of aging canines, muscle health tends to take a back burner. Here’s why we should be placing more of a focus on increasing muscle mass in our senior dogs.

40 million dogs in the United States are considered senior dogs (dogs over the age of seven), and with age often comes a decrease in muscle mass. This type of age-induced atrophy is referred to as sarcopenia and, unfortunately, it’s often overlooked. Slowly, however, its importance is coming to the forefront with the understanding that muscle health supports longevity. In order to prevent atrophy and all of its side effects, like pain, weakness, and loss of vitality, it’s important for dog caretakers to make muscle health a priority. This may mean focusing on preventative muscle maintenance or, if atrophy has already started to occur, focusing on muscle growth. What can dog parents do? First, get more familiar with the signs and risks of sarcopenia. Next, learn the best ways to address it.

Sarcopenia in dogs

Canine sarcopenia is a reduction of lean muscle mass due to aging. More dogs are experiencing it than ever before because more dogs are living longer than before (as a result of improved veterinary care and the expanding canine wellness industry!). This muscular atrophy has been proven to reduce quality of life and increase the risk of disability and mortality because, as mentioned above, muscle health supports many systems of the body. For instance, it can affect energy, metabolism, movement, balance, and bone health.

Dogs can also become susceptible to cachexia. Similar to sarcopenia, cachexia is defined by a weakness or wasting of the body due to a chronic illness or disease. Cancer, autoimmune disease, heart issues, and kidney issues could all lead to its development. Cachexia becomes increasingly common as dogs age, since the longer dogs live, the more prone they are to disease. Sarcopenia and cachexia can occur at the same time.

What can you do?

Signs and symptoms to look for with both sarcopenia and cachexia include lack of energy, lameness, limping, resistance to walking, playing, and exercising, and difficulty going up and down stairs. Dog parents can monitor their dogs’ muscle health by continually checking muscle density and by committing to annual veterinary visits. If muscle loss has been confirmed, it can be addressed with exercise, nutrition, and supplementation. Together, they’ll help rebuild healthy muscle for better stability and mobility.

Exercise

Exercise helps dogs maintain healthy muscle just like it does for humans. Low-impact activities like walking or swimming can build the muscle without causing any additional strain. Not only is exercise important for muscle growth, it’s also needed to prevent or counteract weight gain. When muscle loss becomes an issue, a dog may opt for a more sedentary lifestyle, leading to weight issues like obesity. Because additional weight puts pressure on the joints, causing pain, inflammation, and further resistance to activity, pet parents should do what they can to combat it in their dogs, starting with a regular exercise regimen. It can be challenging for dogs struggling with muscle loss to be active, but as long as the exercise is not overly strenuous, it will help them in the long run. A veterinarian can help you determine which type and how much of it is just right.

Nutrition

For nutrition, it’s best to implement a well-balanced diet chosen for your dog’s specific weight requirements, which you can also work with a veterinarian to determine. In order to prevent weight gain and the stress that it puts on the body, a goal-specific diet should be set up. And, as protein is proven to help maintain existing muscle mass, ensuring that it is protein-rich is key (unless otherwise advised by a vet).

To reduce inflammation, you can also incorporate natural supplements such as fish oil and turmeric.

Recovery products and therapies

Lastly, there are great recovery products and therapies that can support your dog’s muscle health. Orthopedic dog beds reduce pressure and stress on the joints, minimizing the risk of health conditions that could lead to atrophy. Sleeves and braces offer extra support and relief. Hydrotherapy and dog pools are fantastic low-impact exercise options to help keep your dog active and strong. Psychical therapy can also be beneficial, and has been shown to be a very effective form of treatment for muscle loss, offering targeted exercises that help the joints and muscles.

While age-related muscle loss is highly common, there are many preventative measures that can be taken and care protocols that can implemented to promote muscle health. I hope the suggestions listed above offer some guidance and act as helpful tools on the road to recovery.



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