By Diana Bocco
Much like their human counterparts, senior dogs don’t always recognize their limitations, says Dr. Travis Atkins, DVM, an emergency veterinarian and co-founder of SquarePet Nutrition. “For example, my wife’s and my first ‘child’ was a Boston Terrier named Harley, who as a pup could launch herself from the ground to the middle of the bed and back down again without hesitation,” says Dr. Atkins. “However, as a decade or so passed, there were scenes reminiscent of daredevils crashing into walls as she failed to clear the height of the bed.”
If your older dog continues to jump like when he did when he was a puppy, it can lead to pain and even injury. “Ramps, stairs or ad hoc furniture placement is extremely important for any compromised dogs,” Dr. Atkins says.
If this sounds familiar, it might be time to look into dog ramps and pet stairs. Here’s an overview of dog ramps and how to choose the right one.
When Are Dog Ramps or Pet Stairs Necessary?
If your pet has difficulty jumping onto things like he used to, or if he appears uncomfortable (panting, yelping or restless) once a jump is complete, a dog ramp might be a good option, according to Dr. Atkins. The same is true “if your pet hesitates or ‘lines up’ excessively before jumping, or if he has been injured or has a disability where jumping will predispose him/her to serious injury—or more importantly, re-injury,” adds Dr. Atkins.
Dog ramps are also recommended for large breed dogs, such as Great Danes and Bernese Mountain Dogs, as well as Labs, Goldens, and other breeds that have an increased risk of joint problems, according to Colleen Demling, dog behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer at Dogtopia.
Neurologist Dr. Jay McDonnell, DACVIM, agrees and recommends dog ramps for pups with neurological issues and problems that can limit their mobility, including arthritis. “Many of these dogs do not have the strength in their back legs to jump up into the back of a car or truck,” says Dr. McDonnell, who regularly treats pets with neurological and mobility issues.
Dogs with a leg amputation or chronic joint problems should also use pet ramps or pet stairs. “Ramps not only make it easier for the pet to access the car or the back door; they also protect them from injury that could occur when/if the dog attempts to jump up into a vehicle or climb stairs and they fall backward,” explains Dr. McDonnell. “Jumping out of the vehicle or leaping off the back stairs also can jar and injure the spinal cord.”
If you have a big dog that you can’t physically lift into a car, teaching him or her how to use a pet ramp is also a great idea. A set of freestanding, foldable pet stairs for large dogs can be folded up and stored in the vehicle so they are available wherever you go.
“You may not need to use the ramp on a daily basis, but if your dog suddenly gets injured or is unable to jump in or out of the car, you want to make sure you can still transport him in an emergency or take him to the vet,” says Demling.
Dog Ramps vs. Pet Stairs
If you can’t seem to decide between ramps and stairs, Demling points out that it depends on preference, but also why your dog needs help in the first place.
If you’re just using them to help your small dog get on and off the couch or bed, both ramps and stairs will do the trick. “Stairs also need less room than ramps, so they work great in small areas, such as next to a bed or couch,” says Demling. “High-quality stairs also tend to be less expensive than high-quality ramps, so they are a great option for pet parents on a budget.”
Foldable pet stairs can be brought out when needed but then folded up and slid under the bed when not in use so they don’t clutter the room. Foldable pet stairs are also great for sofas and chairs, because they can be moved to whichever chair you want your pet to have access to.
While dog ramps may take up extra space, they are often a better choice for larger dogs. When choosing a dog ramp for your pet, it is important to make sure that you can lift and use it without a problem. “If the ramp is perfect for your dog, but you can’t lift it into the car, then it won’t be useful,” Demling says. “It’s also important to consider the length and width of the ramp, as your dog will need to be comfortable walking up and down the ramp. If you have a large dog, but the ramp is only a foot wide and has a huge incline, then your dog is less likely to use it. The ideal incline for a ramp is about 18-20 degrees.”
Choosing the Right Option for Your Pet
Once you start searching for a dog ramp, you’ll soon realize that there are countless options out there—from different materials and thickness to quality and features offered. Whatever material you choose, Demling says you should make sure it supports the weight of your dog but is light enough that you can still move it and carry it around easily.
Dr. Atkins also points out that you should consider its purpose (e.g., getting into a car, getting onto a bed or getting on or off an elevated surface) and the size, age and capabilities of both your pet and yourself. “Consider the situation, the need for portability, your ability to manipulate and your preferences for style, and make the best match possible,” says Dr. Atkins.
One important feature to look for is a top surface being labeled as non-slip. “Or at least there should be horizontal slats across the dog ramp that the dog can use to help stabilize himself when he is walking up the ramp,” says Demling. “Also, make sure the ramp will lock in place and has non-skid feet; we don’t want the ramp moving or collapsing when your dog is using it.”
A Few Words of Caution
When choosing the location for your indoor pet stairs, make sure your dog can safely find them and use them, even in the dark. “Evaluate the mental capacity and night vision of your pet. As pets age, they can become confused at night, causing them to forget the location or to not be able to see the ramp,” says Dr. Atkins. “Ensure that even with the assistance of a ramp that they have the capability to safely climb and descend on their own.”
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