Written by Holly Pollard-Wright DVM, CCRP

“Old age is not a disease,” and multiple factors such as genetics, environment, and nutrition play a role in the veterinary patient’s aging process, including metabolic and physical effects. When animals age, changes in muscle include a decrease in muscle mass, fiber size, and fiber number.1 Through these changes and increased intramuscular fat and connective tissue, the geriatric veterinary patient has less ability to generate muscle force. This force refers to the process in which skeletal muscle converts metabolic energy into an active force in response to neural stimuli.2 In one study, a group of older dogs (10 to 14 years) showed significantly reduced exercise capacity and maximum oxygen consumption compared with a group of younger dogs (2 to 3 years) during treadmill exercise. People have shown that resistance training can attenuate age-related changes in functional mobility, including improvements in gait speed, static and dynamic balance, and fall risk reduction.4  A well-designed veterinary rehabilitation program may produce similar benefits for geriatric veterinary patients. Although aging triggers changes in a wide range of tissues, the lifespan of the veterinarian patient is increasing because of medical and surgical advances. In veterinary medicine geriatric and arthritic patients are often candidates for rehabilitation. There are typical ages at which various sized dogs may be considered geriatric:5

  • Small dogs weighing 0-20 pounds are geriatric at 11.48 years (+/- 1.86 years)
  • Medium dogs weighing 21-50 pounds are geriatric at 10.19 years (+/- 1.56 years)
  • Large dogs weighing 51-90 pounds are geriatric at 8.85 years (+/- 1.38 years)
  • Giant dogs weighting >90 pounds are geriatric at 7.46 years (+/- 1.27 years)

3 Ways to Help Maintain the Quality of Life for the Veterinary Geriatric Patient

  1. Pain management in geriatric veterinary patients is essential, but they may be more sensitive to side effects. For example, in geriatric dogs, when compared with younger dogs, there may be more gastrointestinal side effects of anti-inflammatory medication than occurs in younger animals. For this reason, the management of geriatric veterinary patients should rely on therapeutic options with minimal physiologic impact.1  A well-designed veterinary geriatric rehabilitation program includes low-impact therapeutic exercises to reduce body weight, increase joint mobility, and reduce joint pain through low-impact exercises designed to straighten supporting muscles.1  This program may include but is not limited to therapeutic laser, massage, therapeutic heat, and cold.1 
  2. Nutritional considerations with weight management as a goal is fundamental because obesity is one of the most common conditions in geriatric patients. Lipids are potent signaling molecules that regulate many cellular responses, including cell growth and death, and inflammation/infection, via receptor-mediated pathways.6  In humans studies, associations were found between increased body fat and widespread and single-site joint pain in the low-back, knee, and foot. This suggests that elevated body fat may infer an increased risk of incident and worsening joint pain, which likely applies to geriatric veterinary patients.1, 7
  3. Environmental modifications include moving animals from cold, damp environments (i.e., outdoors) to a warm, dry environment indoors. Provide the geriatric veterinary patient with a soft padded bed.1  Cover the slippery floor with runners to prevent slipping and falling. Minimize stair climbing through ramps and gates may be helpful to keep pets on the ground floors. 


  1. Millis, D. L., & Levine, D. (2014). Canine rehabilitation and physical therapy (2nd ed.). Saunders, Cop.
  2. Tsianos, G. A., & Loeb, G. E. (2015). Physiology and Computational Principles of Muscle Force Generation. Encyclopedia of Computational Neuroscience, 2379–2395. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6675-8_246
  3. Haidet, G. C. (1989). Dynamic exercise in senescent beagles: oxygen consumption and hemodynamic responses. American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology257(5), H1428–H1437. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpheart.1989.257.5.h1428 
  4. Papa, E. V., Dong, X., & Hassan, M. (2017). Resistance training for activity limitations in older adults with skeletal muscle function deficits: a systematic review. Clinical Interventions in AgingVolume 12, 955–961. https://doi.org/10.2147/cia.s104674
  5. Goldston RT: Geriatrics and gerontology, Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 19:1-202, 1989.
  6. Lipid Mediators in Inflammation. (2016). Microbiology Spectrum4(6). https://doi.org/10.1128/microbiolspec.mchd-0035-2016
  7. Walsh, T. P., Arnold, J. B., Evans, A. M., Yaxley, A., Damarell, R. A., & Shanahan, E. M. (2018). The association between body fat and musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-018-2137-0