Why does my dog have trouble walking up stairs?
22 Jul, 2020
Dogs may have trouble walking up and down stairs for a range of health related reasons including ageing, degenerative joint disease, hip dysplasia, neurological disorder or musculoskeletal injury. This article offers some tips for assisting a dog to safely negotiate stairs.
Why do dogs have trouble with stairs?
Walking up and down stairs changes the motion of a dog’s joints and muscle effort compared to walking on a flat surface. Negotiating stairs requires the dog to shift their centre of gravity to ensure they can control their descent and propel them up a set of stairs.
Additionally, when walking up and down stairs, dogs are unable to “naturally” adjust their stride length to achieve the necessary control and propulsion. Their stride length is dictated by the height of the stair riser and the width of the tread.
Descending stairs is more demanding for a dog from a control perspective than ascending. When descending stairs, the braking forces on the forelimbs increases. On a flat surface dogs bear approximately 60% of their weight on their forelimbs. This load increases significantly when walking down stairs. For dogs with shoulder, elbow and carpal injury or disease, descending stairs may be painful or frightening if the dog has insufficient strength in the forelimbs to adequately control their descent.
When ascending stairs, the dogs back legs are engaged to propel the dog’s body forward and upward. On ascent, the dogs’ joints move through a greater range of motion and engage the surrounding muscles more than walking on a flat surface. Dogs with joint conditions like hip dysplasia or arthritis may find the greater range of motion required to ascend stairs painful. They may also lack the muscle strength to propel their body upward.
How can you help your dog when they have trouble on stairs?
Remove or avoid stairs
While the use of stairs are beneficial from a rehabilitation perspective (See https://www.fullstride.com.au/blog/how-to-rehabilitate-a-dog-after-injury-is-stair-climbing-the-best-exercise-for-dogs ), for older dogs or dogs with degenerative conditions, where possible, remove the need for them to have to walk up or down stairs.
If the dog can enter the house through an entry without stairs, then modify your household traffic flow to accommodate that.
For short sets of stairs, you may be able to install a ramp with a shallower incline than the stairs. Studies indicate that while the range of motion in dogs using ramps is significant (compared to walking on the flat), the dog is able to naturally adjust their stride length to compensate. If installing a ramp, ensure the surface is non-slip and install side “bumpers” to give your dog a good tactile indicator of the ramp edges.
For small dogs, carry them up and down the stairs.
For larger breed dogs or those who are not comfortable being carried, consider re-organising your household so you spend more time downstairs with the dog. You might set up a “remote” office or a reading nook downstairs. This way your dog does not feel isolated from the family just because they can no longer get up the stairs.
There are great products that can assist owners help their dogs up and down stairs. Harnesses such as the “Help em up” harness allows owners to support their dogs and prevent slips and falls on stairs.
Make stairs dog friendly
Ensure that stairs are “dog friendly” by considering the following:
- Tread surface – Ensure the surface of the stairs is not slippery. If you have polished timber or tiled stairs consider adding a carpet runner so the dog has good friction and grip on the stair tread.
- Stair backs or rises – Some dogs are uncomfortable with stair cases where there is no solid riser on the stair. Consider adding a runner to cover the treads and provide a riser. Alternatively, consider enclosing the stairs with solid timber risers.
- Lighting – Provide good lighting on the stairs so dogs, particularly older dogs with deteriorated eye sight can physically see where they are going.
- Space at the top and bottom of the stair case – Keep the top and bottom of the stair case, free of furniture, planters and clutter. Plenty of space enables the dog to move comfortably and naturally away from the stairs without having to adjust their gait while still negotiating the stairs.
Also keep landings in the middle of stair cases free of clutter, so the dog has plenty of space to stand with four feet on the landing before taking the next flight of stairs.
Train dogs to walk slowly and methodically up and down stairs. Reward your dog for taking one step at a time. Specifically, reward dogs for walking to the bottom of the stairway and stepping down carefully. Many dogs jump from the third or fourth step which leave them prone to shoulder and forelimb injury.
Start stair training early with your dog but be careful not to overload a young puppy’s growing skeletal structure with too many repetitions.
For multi-dog households, train dogs to take the stairs individually, to avoid slips and falls with dogs jostling one another on the stairs.
For households with children, consider making a house rule that there is only one “person” (child or dog) on the stairs at one time. This helps prevent dogs bumping young children and children darting in front a dog on the stairs.
Maintain dogs’ feet so they have plenty of traction on the stair tread. Keep dogs’ toenails short and for long haired dogs ensure their pads are free of hair around the foot pads.
Maintain musculoskeletal health
As stairs require greater joint motion and muscle effort to negotiate, maintaining dogs’ musculoskeletal health will enable them to walk up and down stairs well into their senior years. Specifically maintaining muscle strength and co-ordination will condition dogs for stair walking.
Muscle strength can be maintained from regular daily exercise and a nutritious diet rich in high quality source of protein. (See nutrition articles for more information) Good exercise for muscle strength includes free running, hill walking (see http://www.fullstride.com.au/blog/exercise-to-build-your-dog-muscles) and swimming.
Co-ordination exercises such as walking over obstacles help maintain the dog’s perception of the position of their limbs in relation to their body. Maintaining good limb awareness is crucial for dogs to adjust their stride length so they can comfortably walk on stairs.
Manual therapy (including massage, passive range of motion, remedial exercise and stretching) to relieve muscle tension and keep joints lubricated and flexible is also beneficial for maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system and enabling the dog to comfortably walk up and down stairs. Addressing muscle tension earlier, prevents the dog developing gait abnormalities which can affect their ability to safely walk up and down stairs.
Here is some general advice for helping dogs who have trouble with stairs. How do you keep your dog safe on stairs? Leave me a comment of follow Full Stride on Facebook to join the conversation.
Until next time, enjoy your dogs.