By David Wohlstadter, DVM, CCRT
As the temperature grows warmer and the sunshine lingers longer, many of us feel the urge to get outside and increase our level of activity. What better way of doing this than with our canine companions?
Exercising with your pet is a great way to bond and has health benefits, both physical and psychological, for both of you. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 54% of America’s pets are overweight or obese. Starting an exercise routine with your pet is an important step toward maintaining a healthy weight. This has the potential to increase both the length and the quality of your pet’s life.
Exercise can also help your dog burn off the excess energy that can lead to behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, destructive chewing or digging, attention-getting behavior such as barking or whining, and jumping up on people.
The additional activity is good for people, too. Did you know that studies have shown pet owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week, whereas non-pet owners only clock about 168 minutes? That translates into a greater number of calories burned and improved cardiovascular fitness as well as better mental and emotional well-being.
Before you launch into an exercise routine, here are some important things to consider to safely get your dog moving.
Warm up/Cool down
Just like humans, there are some warm-up and cool-down routines that may benefit your dog. Launching immediately into strenuous exercise increases your pet’s risk of spraining or pulling a muscle or developing cramps. And by doing a cool down, you allow your dog to catch his breath. Your dog’s heart rate will return to normal, and the likelihood of post-exercise soreness decreases as lactic acid is removed from your pet’s system.
The length of your warm up or cool down depends on you and your dog’s own requirements, but 5-10 minutes should be enough for your dog’s body to adjust. It can be as simple as taking a light jog or a brisk walk with your dog before and after engaging in any intense exercise.
Routines suitable and safe for your dog will depend on aspects such as age and pre-existing orthopedic conditions, so it is essential to consult with your family veterinarian prior to starting a warm-up or cool-down/stretching routine.
Are you or your pet new to exercise? The first step is to consult your family veterinarian to make sure your pet doesn’t have any heart or respiratory problems that should be addressed.
Once your pet has a clean bill of health, get started by introducing a 10-minute walk around the block into your daily routine. Gradually build the length and intensity of your sessions as you and your pet adjust to the increased activity. Be sure to vary your route occasionally to give your pet new places to smell and explore. Here are a few other important points to keep in mind:
- Dogs aren’t well suited for jogging or running long distances. They are built for short, intense bursts of speed. If you decide to run with your dog, be careful not to overextend her. If she seems sore or exhausted after a jog, cut back next time.
- Be sure to check your dog’s paws after a run. Dogs are susceptible to blisters, just like humans. Hot pavement can also be damaging to a dog’s paws. Consider running or cycling on soft surfaces that won’t be as harmful, such as dirt or grass trails. You can also purchase booties to protect your dog’s pads.
- Sustained running or jogging isn’t recommended for young dogs whose bones are still growing. If you have a young dog, be sure to check with your family veterinarian before taking her on a run.
If your dog is 7-years-old or older or has certain health problems such as heart disease or arthritis, also consult with your family veterinarian prior to beginning any exercise routine. Your vet can recommend activities that are safe for your dog.
Getting Used to the Heat
A good way to head off heat-related problems is to ensure your pet has adjusted to the warmer summer weather. Heat acclimatization is the body’s gradual physiological adaptation to heat stress. It is what makes exercise a month into the summer less taxing than that same exercise in the first few hot days. Heat stress on the body is generated by the environment (a hot day), normal metabolism and exercise.
Acclimatization includes changes such as salt conservation, changes in blood volume and, in humans, the amount we sweat. Heat acclimatization in humans takes around two weeks, so keep this in mind as you begin to take your dog out in the heat.
Also, consider exercising your pet early in the morning or later in the evening when the heat isn’t as intense.
Just Do It
Exercise can be fun and beneficial for both you and your dog. Whatever activity you choose, be sure it is one that is safe and that you both enjoy. Also, remember to use your common sense and consult your family veterinarian if you have any questions.
Dr. David Wohlstadter is a senior emergency clinician with BluePearl Veterinary Partners. He is also certified in canine rehabilitation therapy.