Howard County pets: When stairs become a challenge

Q: My older large-breed dog is having trouble climbing and descending stairs. He has good days and bad days. What’s causing this?

A: Any time there’s a major change in a dog’s willingness to do a previously routine activity like going up or down steps, we’d want to check for physical changes. Your dog could be in some pain, or may feel insecure on stairs. Many older dogs develop arthritis. And some breeds (like Labs and golden retrievers) are particularly susceptible to other joint conditions, such as hip dysplasia. In addition, vision changes could be making it tough for your dog to see the steps. That would certainly cause hesitation in a pet that used to bound happily up and down stairs.

The first step, so to speak, is to have your veterinarian do a complete geriatric exam to see what’s going on. Vets usually try a combination of moderate exercise, weight control and anti-inflammatory medication, as well as acupuncture, and in some cases laser therapy, chiropractic manipulation and swim therapy to manage arthritis and other joint conditions. Nutritional therapy is also advocated, namely adding omega 3 fatty acids and glucosamine to the diet. Too little exercise can cause an arthritic animal to become stiff and sore, but too much can worsen pain. And dogs won’t always tell you they’re hurting; sometimes an arthritic dog will still run after that favorite tennis ball, even though strenuous exercise may no longer be the best thing for him. It’s up to us humans to figure out what our older dogs can still do safely and modify routines accordingly.

Weight control is important -- excess weight places extra stress on those creaky old joints, accelerating any degeneration. If your dog is overweight, your vet can help you implement a suitable weight loss program, including specific guidance on exercise and diet.

If exercise and weight control aren’t enough, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication until the acute inflammation has subsided, usually in a few days. Physical therapy, swim therapy and acupuncture might also be helpful in pain management.

Vision changes are a whole other issue, since they usually develop with age and there’s really no treatment. Depending on the level of vision loss, behavioral training may help. Our colleague Howard Weinstein at Day-One Dog Training ( says clicker training can be useful in some cases.

“The idea is to approach going up or down steps as a game. Clicker training enables you to break a complex multi-step activity -- going up or down a whole flight of stairs -- into something you do literally one step at a time,” Howard explains. “If possible, start on a short staircase, and going up is probably less scary for a vision-impaired dog than going down. Use irresistible treats, and try coaxing your dog into putting one paw up or down to the first step. As soon as he does, give him a click and a treat reward. If your dog’s interest in getting the click and the treat overrides his nervousness about that single step, you may be able to build from there. But be patient, and don’t ever force your dog to do something he refuses to do. If he falls, he may get hurt and he’ll end up even more terrified of stairs.”

And ask yourself if your steps are slippery to a dog’s feet. That would include wood, vinyl or tile stairs indoors and almost any deck steps outdoors. If lack of traction is part of the problem, you can look into adding a nonskid surface to those steps, or use a different, more secure set of stairs, if possible.

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