As our dogs get older it's not uncommon to see progressing atrophy and muscle weakness. The reality is muscle atrophy is a natural part of the aging process - but just because it's a natural part of growing old doesn't mean that we as owners can't do anything to help our dogs!
What is Muscle Atrophy?
Muscle atrophy, or muscle loss, is the wasting away of your dog’s muscles and can be the result of aging, illness, or reduced activity. Muscle atrophy can happen to any breed of dog and is often seen in the legs, particularly the rear legs, but can also occur in other parts of the body.
Atrophy in older dogs is common because they begin to become less active and their ability to process nutrients from their diet changes making it harder for older dogs to process proteins the same way they did when they were younger. I also see atrophy in dogs dealing with joint pain and arthritis - again this is due to reduce mobility. If you're joints are sore you're not going to want to run around in the back and keep up the condition of your muscles. This is why we as owners need to be able to recognize the signs of pain in our dogs and combat atrophy as it begins to set in.
The good new is that when dealing with atrophy that is the result of inactivity we can often reverse this wasting away through exercise and improved nutrition. Nutritional requirements can change with age and many disease common to older dogs can also be nutrient sensitive (Laflamme). Make sure to speak with your vet about the changes your dog is undergoing as they age and discuss with them any dietary changes you may need to make. Vet care and canine physio therapy is a collaborative process so speaking with professionals in a number of animal care fields can give you a variety of tools to help your aging dog.
What can cause Atrophy?
Signs and Symptoms of Atrophy
Atrophy can occur slowly over time for an aging dog or, in younger dogs, it could appear more quickly as a result of lowered activity from an injury. Don't be afraid to feel your dog's body and take note of changes. Also, dogs with longer hair will better hide progressing atrophy so feeling their body and monitoring the muscles is an important habit to develop!
Movement is Medicine!
If your dog has suffered a recent injury, and especially if they've been on crate rest, remember that atrophy can also set in. When rehabbing an injury, remember, that while rest is an important part of rehabbing it is not the only part!! Muscles still need activity to prevent atrophy and strict crate rest may lengthen recovery from an injury. Remember too that cold weather can really affect sore joints and arthritis so having indoor activities you can do with your dog is a great way to keep muscles moving year round. A regular conditioning program that's developed for your older dog can help keep muscles active even in cold weather! Regular exercise and movement is key in addressing progressing atrophy - Movement is MEDICINE!
Consider Dietary Needs and Supplements
Besides keeping older dogs active you should also reassess their nutritional needs. As dogs age they have a harder time processing nutrients. A good quality protein is vital for providing the right amino acids which is key for good muscle structure and replenishment! A 2015 study found that enhanced autophagy, the consumption of the body's own tissue as a metabolic process - often occurring in starvation or with certain diseases, might be one of the factors underlying muscle atrophy in dogs as they age (Pagano, Teresa B et al). Nutrition that is catered more to the aging canine with a higher protein can be a great benefit to your dog's body condition (Laflamme).
You can also look into provide supplements into their regular diet to help combat atrophy - a joint aid like 1TDC can really benefit your dog's aging muscles! 1TDC is a fantastic cellular lubricant with a high affinity to white blood cell meaning that when your dog has increased inflammation and more white blood cells are flooding the area of discomfort ITDC can really bind to those cells and increase lubrication of the muscle - giving our dogs some much need relief and allowing them to stay active!
How A Canine Physio Can Help
It's never easy to see our lifelong friends begin to slow down and show visible signs of aging. Not only is it upsetting but we as owners can often feel lost and confused on how we can help or dog transition into this next stage of life. This is where a canine physio can really help! Too often people forget that a canine physio is more than just what you see at a show or in the clinic. A canine physio can also help educate owners on how to build a progressive home exercise program, how to do it safely with your dog, and make recommendations for lifestyle changes that will benefit your dog.
In addition to lifestyle changes and exercise programs consider alternative modalities like acupuncture, PEMF therapy, or laser therapy to help reduce pain and inflammation in sore muscles without putting additional strain on your dog's joints. Modalities like PEMF therapy - which works by improving cellular function to enhance the body's ability to heal itself and create a natural anti-inflammatory process to relieve pain - not only help our dogs stay active longer but also feel great too! Laser therapy uses low intensity laser light to alleviate pain and stimulate the healing process. These modalities can be a great benefit to your dog and be part of a larger care regime between your veterinarian and canine physio specialist.
Progressive atrophy is not a sign that your dog has to stop being active - if anything its a sign that we as owners need to do more to help keep our dogs active! If you need help figuring out what's appropriate exercise for your aging or post-surgery dog send me a message!
Laflamme, Dorothy P. “Nutrition for Aging Cats and Dogs and the Importance of Body Condition.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 35.3 (2005): 713–42. Web.
Pagano, Teresa B et al. “Age Related Skeletal Muscle Atrophy and Upregulation of Autophagy in Dogs.” The Veterinary Journal 206.1 (2015): 54–60. Web.