Alternative Therapies For Older Dogs

Non-Invasive Treatments give Senior Dogs Options to Surgery

One of the hardest decisions to make as an owner of a senior dog is deciding on the best treatment for conditions they face as they grow older. For many ailments such as joint problems, heart or kidney disease, injuries etc. the options often presented include medicine and frequently surgery. Unfortunately, as our dogs get older the strain that surgical procedures place on our senior dogs becomes a serious cause for concern and a risk many are not willing to take. However, thanks to a variety of non-invasive treatment options such as dog acupuncture, canine massage, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and even Reiki, there are alternatives.

Dog Acupuncture:

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese veterinary medicinal practice using very specific points in the skin along the body’s “meridians” to stimulate a certain effect or change within the body. The process itself entails the insertion of small needles or small amounts of saline just under the skin to stimulate the nervous system and promote recovery.

While acupuncture is useful for dogs of all ages, you cannot help but see how particularly beneficial it can be for older dogs.

“Since acupuncture is so helpful for so many of the conditions suffered by older pets like weakness, arthritis, organ dysfunction, immune system support, cancer treatment, cognitive problems and bladder or fecal incontinence, it can drastically improve the outcome when added to other treatments. Often older dogs will have a number of disease processes going on at the same time, limiting their body’s ability to handle certain medications to help with one problem, potentially making another one worse. Acupuncture is of great benefit to these pets as it will maintain function in one area and supports the treatment of another disease by another means,” states Dr. Cara Gardner, a veterinarian with the Broad Ripple Animal Wellness Center in Indianapolis and a Certified Veterinarian Acupuncturist.

If you are wondering how the dogs feel about having tiny needles inserted under their skin, Dr. Gardner explains, “the process itself is very relaxing and many dogs end up sleeping right through the treatment.”

When asked what type of success she has had with dog acupuncture, Dr. Gardner shared a story about Frank, a dog suffering from a severe neck injury that had been on prednisone for almost a full year. When Frank was taken off this steroid his pain became so extreme that he would not eat, move or even wag his tail and while on the medication he was never truly himself. According to Dr. Gardner, after one session of acupuncture Frank began to play with his brothers. After 2 sessions, he was able to jump up and down and chase the ball. Then after 3 sessions of acupuncture and herbal therapy, the prednisone was discontinued.

Canine Massage:

Most people at some stage in their life has received a massage to either treat an injury, condition or many times simply as a form of relaxation, but have you ever considered the benefits it can have for your senior dog?

Canine massage, adapted from human techniques, is the practice of soft tissue manipulation with physical and mental benefits. As your dog gets older they often face stiffness and pain caused from arthritis, joint problems or even injuries incurred as a result of their age. Massage can not only help to loosen the muscles, but it can go a long way in relieving pain and promoting healing.

“Massage programs help maintain muscle tone, range of motion and flexibility while decreasing the atrophy of muscle tissue and relieving the pain and discomfort of aching muscles. Massage can also address a dog’s emotional adjustment to declining ability to perform normal dog activities,” describes Kate Titus, Canine Massage Therapist and owner of A Loyal Companion, out of Arizona.

As with many forms of treatment, canine massage requires a program consisting of ongoing therapeutic sessions. Each session involves an element of establishing trust with the dog prior to the hands-on work.

“A typical session often includes a brief gait analysis to look for obvious hitches in the get-along; an opening where I determine if the dog is open to the intense interaction we’re about to have; actual hands-on time where I’m exploring muscles and looking for and addressing tension and knots; periods of stretching after that particular muscle group is warm and supple; a closing where I signal through consistent hand movements that we’re done. I always ask the dog if she enjoyed the massage and thank them for opening up to me,” describes Titus.

According to Kate Titus, the frequency of the massage depends on how long each dog holds the effects of the treatment. She explains, “Some senior dogs can hold the effects about 4-6 days, others only 2-3 days. A good guideline is one time per week. The benefits of massage can be cumulative, but the work for senior dogs should be continuous and consistent. They’d never complain, but you’ll notice the subtle changes in posture, movement and disposition in a dog that misses her massages.”

Kate has found success with many dogs throughout her career, but one that stands out is Mercury, a 16 year-old Husky mix who participated in an 8-week program to see if he would tolerate the interaction and benefit from the work.

“During the first three sessions, Mercury was in constant motion and would not let me near his hips – his problem area. After some brainstorming and success with this same technique with another client, we tried to focusing Mercury with a bully stick. Wow, did that work. He finally lay down during our sessions and I was able to address the muscle tightness in his hips and the compensatory problems caused in his spine and back muscles. By the 8th week, Mercury was playing with the bully stick rather than chewing it and was encouraging us to join him in the back yard for a romp. His owner commented that he is doing things now that he hadn’t done for 5 years. He was exploring his surroundings, trotting and cantering, and had more energy throughout the day.”


For those senior dog owners that are open to treatments that are perhaps less mainstream, you may be interested in the growing popularity of Reiki, a form of therapy in which practitioners seek to transmit a universal energy from a distance or by placing their hands on or near the person or pet. Reiki seeks to restore order and balance to the body.

Don’t fool yourself, Reiki is far from being a new concept, in fact its roots can be traced back to the 1800’s where it is believed to have evolved from Japanese meditation techniques.

Leaming Chee-Brown (aka Ming), first and second degree Reiki practitioner with Reiki Fur Babies, explains this technique, “Reiki is a means of adding more energy to an animal’s life force battery to jump start the healing process. The healer acts as a conduit for the flow or energy and it is possible to transmit this energy given over distance. That is why we can send Reiki anywhere in the world.”

The benefits associated with Reiki range from reducing stress and anxiety to providing relief from respiratory, circulatory problems, even pain – many issues senior dogs face.

Reiki, however, is not without its sceptics, especially surrounding the concept of distance treatments, but if you ask many of the patients who have received help from Reiki Fur Babies, the results are real. For example, recent success was achieved with an older dog that continually dug deep holes due to anxiety. Her parents had tried everything without success, and as a result turned to Reiki Fur Babies for assistance. According to Ming, “After two Reiki sessions, this dog has not dug a single hole. She was digging due to anxiety and Reiki was able to relieve her anxiety. Her owner now says she is a happy dog and has stopped her digging.”


Physiotherapy is focused on improving movement and physical function as well as helping to relieve pain. As with many alternative methods of treatment, physiotherapy is primarily used for treating humans, but recently because of its effectiveness, these methods have been adapted to help improve the quality of life for animals. Since Physiotherapists have specialized university education, which focuses intensively in Anatomy, Physiology, Biomechanics, Histology, Orthopedics, Neurology, and Pathology, they are able to assess and treat joint, spine, muscular, and neurological dysfunctions.

Senior dogs suffering from mobility issues can benefit greatly from this type of therapy. Some conditions that canine physiotherapy has been known to treat include back, neck and pelvic pain, tendon, ligament and muscle strains or tears, joint pain as well as helping with rehabilitation after surgery.

According to Shelly Malcolm, a Licensed Physiotherapist and owner of Pawsitive Action based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, “Treatment by a physiotherapist will increase mobility, increase muscular strength, and decrease pain, allowing a senior dog to improve their function and live more comfortably, active, and mobile as they age. Physiotherapists can apply their skills and knowledge to treat arthritis, muscle weakness, pain, vestibular (dizziness) issues, weight management or advise on sport and activity modification.”

After a thorough assessment has been made, treatment typically begins with more frequent sessions focused on restoring the proper movement, regaining muscle mass and optimal tone, which is accompanied by a home program. As progress is made, the frequency is reduced and more emphasis is placed on continuing the therapy through the home program.

Shelly Malcolm recalls a recent experience with an eight year old collie named Ruby who had developed a weak leg as part of overcompensating from an injury. As a result of Ruby constantly favouring the injured leg, the muscle became very small and tight, while those on the uninjured leg became larger and stronger to compensate.

“Ruby’s treatment included a healing program with manual therapy, ultrasound, acupuncture and exercise. Ruby’s owners were taught how to properly exercise Ruby’s weak leg to build up the muscle and to put her on a weight management program to keep her weight down. In the beginning Ruby underwent a series of treatments which then tapered them off to once a month and then checkups to ensure she continued to improve. Thanks to her treatments, Ruby is spinning around, going for long walks, and has a much improved and pain free quality of life,” describes Malcolm.

Canine Hydrotherapy:

While the benefits of hydrotherapy in humans have been well-documented, canine hydrotherapy is still relatively in its infancy. Hydrotherapy, which involves moving and exercising in water, has been known to help with recovery for surgery, injury and to improve the overall health of its participants. Of particular importance is the fact that movement in water provides a safe way to regain or improve movement through low impact exercise.

The benefits of hydrotherapy thankfully are no longer just for humans. Canine hydrotherapy is fast becoming the therapy of choice for older dogs suffering from joint pain, hip dysplasia, spinal problems, knee injuries and the list goes on. As dogs get older and face mobility issues, canine hydrotherapy can becomes a valuable source of exercise leading to both physical and mental well-being.

As Tanya Morin-VanderHammen, Canine Hydrotherapist and owner of the Vancouver, BC facility WaterWorks Paw Spa explains, “A canine parent will seek canine hydrotherapy for reasons that include arthritis, paralysis and other mobility issues or to just help fitness and muscle tone in a safe environment. The benefits of swimming and movement in water on the physical body are well known and have been used with humans for centuries. It is as effective for senior canines. The buoyancy of water supports and lessens stress on the joints, encourages freer movement and provides a safe environment for exercise. Water increases relaxation which can help pain and spasms. When moving in water, the resistance is 15 – 20 times that of moving in air so the muscles are being used without the stresses of weight bearing creating a safe way for senior canines to exercise and build muscle and relieve aches and pains.”

Other benefits of warm water treatments include increased circulation helping to keep the skin and coat healthy, decreasing stress and detoxifying the body. Water can also decrease inflammation and improve the immune system.

Tanya shared one of her favourite success stories, a heart warming tale about a white German Shepherd named Keira who was recovering from physical and emotional abuse that led to a dislocated leg and muscle atrophy. Keira’s new mother had brought her to WaterWorks Paw Spa in hopes of building her confidence and muscle in a safe, nurturing environment.

According to Keira’s owner, after four sessions her improvement was dramatic. The warm water treatment encouraged blood flow and limb movement giving her the exercise and fun that she needed. As a result of her treatments, Keira was able to build muscle in her healing leg.

Overall, whether the treatment of your choice for your older dog is acupuncture, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, massage or even Reiki, the thing to keep in mind is that you have options. As the world of dog care continues to expand and evolve, senior dogs continue to be a direct beneficiary, giving dog owners alternatives to help create a better life for their four-legged family friends.

So do your research, talk to your vet and open your mind because there are new ways to help you and your dog enjoy a happy and healthy life together well into your dog’s golden years. Afterall, isn’t your dog worth it?