Canine Fitness

The Fitness Craze: Not Just for People Anymore

We seem to be surrounded with an overwhelming amount of health “aids” designed to assist us in finding a fitter and healthier existence. There are the watches that monitor our every move and calculate calorie consumption, gyms and fitness centers open 24 hours a day so that there are no more excuses to avoid that workout, nutritional supplements and programs to increase our metabolism and provide greater energy for more….stuff. It is not surprising that this fitness movement has spilled over into our pet’s lives as well. Our pets are battling the obesity epidemic just as we are. Pet weight loss has become a huge niche in the veterinary world: dog collars specially designed to monitor activity level and baseline resting info, the numerous specially formulated weight loss foods promising to be ” THE ONE” to help your pet shed those pesky pounds,  fitness centers providing gym services for the client who is unable or the dog who is unwilling to exercise enough at home. The list goes on and on as we all know, so is this all hype? Should we be concerned about our pet’s fitness level? The answer is….YES!

Why Fitness is Important for Our Pets as Well as Ourselves

Not all (or even most) of the pets that come through our hospital are athletic in any organized way. On one end of the athletic spectrum we have the sporting dogs such as agility, field trials, and dock dogs. The complete opposite end is the companion animal whose primary job is offering unconditional love and left-over food tasting. The majority of our pets fall somewhere in the middle: maybe a little overweight, plays some but doesn’t have enough structured exercise time, generally healthy but not very well conditioned. We have all heard about these studies looking at weight and activity and how they relate to the longevity of our animal companions (too boring to read but they are out there if you are interested). The bottom line is that pets living with a healthy weight have less medical issues such as metabolic diseases, mobility limitations, and respiratory dysfunction. Active pets that are exercised regularly and are better conditioned will recover faster and with less complications from injury such as cruciate tears or orthopedic issues. A dog that is engaged in exercise or consistent activity is working both their body and mind. Exercise can be a way to divert the trouble maker from undesirable activities (chewing up things) to healthier ones (ball playing or tug of war). Canine (and feline) fitness does not necessarily have to mean “athletic”, but rather healthy, active, and engaged. So now what?

Need a Place to Start? Visit Your Veterinarian and Discuss Your Plan

The first place to start (especially for the rounder pets and couch potatoes) is with a thorough exam by a veterinarian. If we are about to make some changes in our pet’s lives about what they are going to eat and increasing exercise, it is important to make sure that they are healthy enough for what you have planned. Sometimes dogs who appeared laid back or quiet are actually dealing with things that may not have become apparent yet such as orthopedic disease (hip dysplasia) or cardiac issues (some congenital defects can be revealed at just a few weeks old). Changing our pet’s diet (especially if you are considering serious calorie restrictions) should be done under a veterinarian’s supervision. Pet food labels can be confusing and often times we really don’t know how many calories they SHOULD BE getting or ARE getting each day. A veterinarian or animal nutritionist can help you to determine your pet’s food needs and make a healthy plan for weight loss or maintaining a good weight without sacrificing muscle. And finally, the last thing to consider is your pet’s life-stage. Younger dogs with open growth plates (usually under 2 years old) can sustain permanent orthopedic damage if exercised too hard too early. Sure they can run around and play, learn commands and begin groundwork for future athletic goals, or be engaged for mental stimulation and general self-control. What you need to avoid is consistent, organized activity such as daily jogs with their owner, sustained jump work, or any heavy conditioning exercise. The older athletic competitor may have used to work out for 45 minutes to an hour in their favorite event in the past but now really needs to have a toned down 20 minute session. It is up to us as their guardians to set appropriate boundries and keep our pet’s nutritional and physical activities in a safe zone.

Just Place One Foot in Front of the Other…

Well, both you and your pet are now cleared for some life-changing healthy get-up-and-go fitness. The best place to start is by putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is the cheapest form of activity (the cost is only a few calories burned) and can be varied in many ways to keep it fresh and interesting: add hills, turns, change neighborhoods or parks, make it a hike off road. Keep in mind that a lean, well muscled pet is not necessarily a well CONDITIONED pet. A dog that can pull a sled full of weight across the length of a yard may not be able to go on that 5 mile jog if they do not have the cardiovascular and muscle conditioning for that longer, high-energy task. There is a big difference between the physiology of a sled dog pulling over a long race and a dog competing in a fly ball event that lasts seconds but is very fast. Pick a starting point (5 minute walk , 20 minute jog, just around the block, one loop around the lake) and then add challenges in increments each week. Ideally, the best exercise program has some form of activity 3-5 days a week with some variety. For example a healthy adult dog could have a brisk walk for 30 minutes MWF with game play such as bumper/ball retrieval, frisbee catch, tug of war on T/TH ending with rest on Sat and Sun (meaning free dog time). If your pet is already participating in regular activities such as obedience/rally work or specific sport training skills during the week, then use the off days to work in a different kind of exercise activity. Consistent effort with allowed periods of rest days are key to any good fitness program. Remember to set realistic goals, evaluate your pet frequently to pick up any issues that may change your fitness program and avoid setbacks (for example needing to rest because of soft tissue pain instead of pushing on and suffering a more permanent injury), and celebrate each victory (learning a new command, losing that extra 3 ounces). Fitness is a process that is never finished, so let’s just settle in and enjoy the ride (where ever it may lead us!). If you do need a little help along the way, feel free to contact us at the Rehabilitation Center at Haven Lake Animal Hospital. We are prepared and ready to take this fitness journey with you.