Ramps and Walkers.. Oh My!

Senior pets may need help to get around.

Owners of elderly pets could take some tips from my 92-year-old Mum on ways to maintain mobility in the senior years. Between hip replacements and spinal fusion surgeries, Mum has faced huge challenges in her life, but by manipulating her environment, she keeps right on going pretty much wherever she wants, behind the wheel or on foot. So, what’s that got to do with your geriatric German Shepherd or senior Siamese?

The basic concept of using environmental modifications to ease mobility is the same for pets and people. Without ramps, Mum wouldn’t get around nearly as well and now our dogs have one too.

Our two poodles travel in a vehicle that’s quite high off the ground and we recently noticed the biggest of the pair hesitating a bit to jump in or out. There must be a lot of hesitant hounds out there because it took days to sort through the many options for ramps, stairs and stepstools for dogs. We settled on a ramp favoured by the Animal Rehabilitation Centre (ARC) in Toronto. It is stable, has a wide surface and is rubberized for good traction, a feature not found on a lot of ramps.

Man helping a poodle on a ramp

For dogs that just need a bit of a boost, there’s a large platform called a Twistep that attaches to the truck hitch and folds away under the bumper. It gets great reviews and I wish they had something similar to help get Mum into my high vehicle. She wouldn’t like riding in the back, so she uses a step stool at the passenger door. Steps for pets are available in all sizes and materials, from telescoping stairs to fixed, fancy carpeted sets to help Fluffy onto the bed.

Whatever aids you choose, it’s important they are sturdy, safe and easy to use. For ramps or steps, there may be some training required. If the dog hurts himself on first use, it will make training more difficult, so go slowly and use treats. We started by having the poodles walk the ramp while it was flat on the floor and I had staged plans for getting them to use it. It turned out to be a snap. The dog that needed the ramp is the least trainable and most fearful of the two. He took one look and walked right up.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on mobility modifications, even placing a small stool or chair below your old cat’s favourite windowsill can make a huge difference to her enjoyment of the day. Cutting down one side of her litterbox for ease of access is another easy and cheap project.

Mum depends heavily on a walker to take the strain off her hips. Animals have built-in walkers – their front legs. If your dog or cat has sore hips, he’ll probably have muscular shoulders from redistributing weight-bearing to his front end. Help keep those important front limbs in shape with regular exercise, joint-health supplements and foot-care. Sturdy mats on slippery surfaces or non-slip booties can be helpful also. The ARC sells foam toe grips for better traction, but I can’t convince Mum to try them, she prefers her cozy non-slip slippers.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Trenton/Quinte West, Ontario
March 2013