If you have just adopted a puppy, you have probably done a lot of things to make your house safe for your new pooch. You have probably ensured that he won’t hurt himself by chewing on cords or other dangerous stuff like plants or sharp knives. You most likely guard him against bolting out the front door and running toward traffic in the street. But you may not have thought about the stairs in your house and how soon your puppy can safely begin to climb those stairs.
Depending upon who you talk to, a puppy should not go up and down stairs from the age of 3 months to a full year. For small dogs, carrying a puppy up and down the stairs may work for several months. But with larger dogs, it simply isn’t feasible. So, this can present a dilemma for owners of larger dogs.
Fortunately, most veterinarians agree that the majority of puppies can begin climbing stairs when they are 3 months old. However, puppies should be supervised for several weeks to ensure their safety. And some dogs who are prone to hip dysplasia should use the stairs as little as possible. They should not be allowed to jump or bound up and down stairs in a way that could be hard on their joints.
Let’s take a closer look at why some people’s opinions differ around the appropriate age for stair climbing and how to ensure your puppy’s safety.
Why Climbing Up and Down Stairs Can Be Hard on Young Puppies
Climbing stairs for a young pup can be very hazardous due to injury or physical developmental risks. Most young pups are usually a little frightened of stairs and rightly so! Just think about how daunting it would be for us to run down a flight of stairs head first!
Young pups are still developing muscles, bones, and cartilage until they are about a year old. However, this depends on size and breed. Larger dogs mature faster than smaller dogs. Additionally, puppies are still learning how to balance and coordinate their growing body and legs and can be a little clumsy in the beginning. So, stairs present a special challenge.
The most obvious danger when puppies try to navigate stairs for the first time is that they may fall. Hardwood stairs with no carpet or any type of traction can be very slippery and challenging for your pup to get a foothold. Even more dangerous are outside stairs that may be wider apart and made of stone, cement, or metal. Therefore, the risk of injury can be higher on outdoor stairs. Inclement weather such as rain, ice, or snow produces even greater challenges.
If your puppy or young dog does try the stairs on his own and falls, be sure to take him to a vet immediately if you think he has been injured. Dogs don’t always let us know when they have been hurt, but a fall could cause a broken limb or an internal injury we cannot see.
Puppies are still developing their muscles and bones and undue stress at an early age can cause some joint damage. This can turn into osteoarthritis as they age, which can lead to an unsteady gait, pain, weakness, and limping. Be sure to see my post about how chiropractic care can help prevent some of this damage.
This is why trainers discourage agility training for dogs under a year old, to give them time to fully develop strong muscle tone and bones. Any activity that includes intensive jumping or rigorous running or stair climbing is usually discouraged for puppies until they reach full maturation.
Hip dysplasia is a problem with a dog’s hip bone and joint not fitting together properly. When this happens it wears away the cartilage and eventually causes bone-on-bone rubbing and friction. This leads to pain, weakness, gait problems, and lameness.
VCA Hospitals describes hip dysplasia this way:
“Hip dysplasia is a deformity of the hip that occurs during growth. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint. During growth, both the ball (the head of the femur, or thighbone) and the socket in the pelvis (acetabulum) must grow at equal rates.
In hip dysplasia, this uniform growth during puppyhood does not occur. The result is laxity (looseness) of the joint, followed by degenerative joint disease (DJD) or osteoarthritis (OA), which is the body’s attempt to stabilize the loose hip joint.“
Although hip dysplasia is largely caused due to genetics, it can also be triggered by rigorous exercise such as running up and down stairs or heavy-duty jumping when a puppy is very young–usually under 3 months. Additionally, it can be caused by too little exercise that does not allow for muscle development, being overweight, and sometimes hormonal changes and neutering are thought to be possible causes.
Dogs who are raised in cages at puppy mills with little to no exercise can be just as susceptible to hip dysplasia. This is true for dogs who are allowed or trained to jump and run too much before they are 3 or 4 months old.
Breeds that are most susceptible to hip dysplasia include:
- Golden and Labrador Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Old English Sheepdogs
- St. Bernards
- Great Danes, Mastiffs, and other really large dogs
- Some smaller dogs such as French Bulldogs, Pugs, and Basset Hounds
What Vets and Researchers Recommend
In 2012 the National Library of Medicine published a study done in Norway on 501 dogs. The researchers found that puppies who were allowed to use stairs prior to 3 months old were more at risk of developing hip dysplasia. Additionally, they discovered that puppies who did not have adequate amounts of moderate exercise during the first few months were also at risk of developing hip dysplasia and joint problems.
Because hip dysplasia and joint problems are often genetic, they cannot always be prevented. However, moderating your puppy’s exercise and usage of stairs can help to lower the risk of serious problems as your dog ages. Most vets seem to be in agreement that after 3 or 4 months most puppies can begin to use stairs in moderation with supervision.
Interestingly, some breeders and trainers have more stringent beliefs that a puppy, especially one prone to hip dysplasia such as a Golden Retriever, should not use stairs at all for a full year. This seems a little extreme. they argue, however, that until a dog reaches adulthood, his muscular/skeletal development is not complete and vulnerable to injury.
Some breeders even go so far as to make it a contractual requirement for adopted purebred puppies. Owners must agree to keep their new pups off of stairs for one full year.
How to Ensure Your Puppy’s Safety on Stairs
When Your Dog is Ready to Use Stairs
After 3 to 4 months your puppy should be ready to try the stairs. If it is a small dog, waiting until 4 months or so is important to make sure his legs are long enough. Take him to the stairs and gently nudge and hold him as he starts to hop up each step. If he seems too frightened, don’t force it. Try again another day or when he is a bit older. Eventually, his curiosity will motivate him to give it a try.
Make the stairs safe
Make sure the steps are not too slippery. Add carpet runners or traction pads to each step if they are bare. Be very cautious if you have open stairs. Don’t let him slip through and try to hold onto him as he gets used to it.
Down is harder than up
Going down the stairs is more challenging than going up. The momentum of gravity can speed up his descent, so again hold onto him and teach him to go slowly. Running downstairs is also harder on the joints than going up due to the impact of the dog’s weight on his legs and joints.
Baby Gates and Medical Workups
Use a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs to keep him away until he is old enough. Don’t allow your puppy to do any roughhousing or running with other dogs on the stairs. Be sure to have a full medical exam of your puppy prior to three months to rule out hip dysplasia or other joint problems. If your dog does fall when using the stairs, have him checked by your vet to ensure he has not been injured.
Most puppies can safely navigate stairs after 3 months. Just don’t be premature with stair use and keep it in moderation. Unless a breeder or trainer requires it, there is probably no reason to wait 12 months for your dog to use the stairs. In some households, it simply may not be possible to avoid stairs. And, carrying a very large dog up and down the stairs is often not a feasible option. But also be sure to get the advice of your vet and bear in mind that some breeds may need additional precautions.