Integrated Pet Vet column: Exercise for dogs is important — especially in winter
It is widely recognized that regular exercise is valuable for maintaining good mental and physical health regardless of whether you are a human, dog, cat or any other species of animal. For dogs, exercise is especially important for maintaining heart health, mobility, muscle tone and strength, and controlling weight. Obesity is considered the No. 1 preventable disease in dogs in the U.S. It affects more than 25 percent of dogs. Interestingly, weight reduction in obese dogs is a critical component for managing osteoarthritis (OA). Osteoarthritis is a degenerative process that affects joints. It is considered to be the most common joint disease and the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs. Since obesity worsens OA and makes pain management for OA more difficult, the winter weight gain many dogs experience can be a bigger problem than many recognize. Many dogs gain weight in the winter because they are less active. Not only can increased activity in winter help with weight management, consistent exercise can have beneficial effects on reduction or elimination of behavior problems related to boredom, anxiety and destructive behaviors.
Winter in western Colorado creates a number of challenges for maintaining an effective exercise routine. The short days with darkness at the beginning and end of the workday, cold temperatures, snow and ice affecting safe footing and busy family schedules related to the holidays contribute to less opportunity for exercise. This often results in a pattern of winter weight gain that is not completely lost during the spring and summer.
Optimal amounts of exercise are dependent on the dog breed, age and health status. Daily walks provide needed physical activity while providing mental stimulus and opportunity to eliminate. Walking for 30 minutes each day can be sufficient for some dogs, but others may need much more. Some authorities recommend two hours or more of activity per day depending on the breed, age and overall health. That can be quite a challenge when the outside temperature is too cold and the footing too unsure because of ice.
Indoor exercise can range from simple activities that do not require purchasing equipment to the more elaborate that involves specialized equipment like treadmills designed for dogs. Simple activities include games of fetch, hide-n-seek, find the treat, scent work and practicing tricks and training commands. For all of these activities, make sure the activity is safe for the pet. Slipping and falling on slick floors or stairs can result in medical problems. More elaborate activities requiring equipment or rearranging the house involve an indoor agility course or conditioning equipment. Chairs, tables, broom handles and blankets can be used to create an agility course. Couch cushions can be used to create conditioning opportunities. Other activities to consider include play dates with other dogs, doggy day care and dog parks. All dogs should get along so that the interaction is positive while providing quality physical and mental stimulation.
Keep in mind that any activities you share with your dog should be safe, fun and stimulating for both of you. Involve the whole family whenever possible. However, it is important to consider your dog’s health status when deciding on the activity. For example, don’t expect a dog with a heart condition or one with OA and unmanaged pain to fully participate in an indoor agility course. The proper activity may simply be gentle passive range of motion exercise, three legged stands and standing on the couch cushion. It is also important to strive for optimal pain management or heart support. Be cautious of playing hard all weekend and being relatively inactive during the week. Warm up by walking before intense activity. Maintaining muscle tone with at least 20 minutes of activity three times per week may be beneficial for avoiding injuries like torn cranial cruciate ligaments (ACL).
If you have questions about what activities are appropriate for your dog, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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