Just like humans, dogs derive health benefits from regular exercise. An important aspect of facilitating, enhancing, lengthening, and strengthening our relationships with our canine companions is to keep them strong and fit through physical activity.
Obesity is on the rise among dogs, and its negative consequences are frightening—an increased risk of developing diabetes, an increased risk for cancer, and a high probability for joint injury and subsequent osteoarthritis (OA).
What’s the best way for me to exercise my dog?
The best exercise for our dogs depends on the answers to several key questions, listed below. Before initiating any regular physical fitness plan for your dog, it is always best to consult your veterinarian. He or she can help guide your choice of activities as well as create a conditioning program personalized for your dog.
“Consult your veterinarian before initiating any regular physical fitness plan for your dog.”
Your veterinarian will likely ask you the following types of questions to help you determine the best way to exercise your dog.
What are your dog’s age, body condition, and state of health?
Your veterinarian can not only help you answer these questions but also determine what is appropriate exercise for your dog based on the answers. Some general rules and advice:
- Puppies with growing bones can suffer skeletal trauma from the repetitive concussion of long runs. They do better with short spurts of play during which they set the pace. Walks on a leash are usually fine for them, but be mindful of the timing so as not to overdo it.
- Short-snouted (brachycephalic) dogs like Chinese pugs need a different cardiovascular conditioning program than golden retrievers, for instance.
- Overweight and obese dogs are more prone to joint injuries that can lead to or worsen OA. The sudden starts and stops of chasing a ball may be a poor choice for them.
- Likewise, overweight and obese dogs have a hard time cooling off, so their activity plan should be modified from that for a young, normal-weight dog.
- Finally, you want to be sure that your dog’s heart and lungs are healthy and ready for increased activity.
What activities does your dog enjoy?
Some dogs were born to retrieve. For them, a game of fetch could go on forever, and they would be happy. Other dogs are not the least bit interested in bringing back the toys we insist on repeatedly throwing away.
Some dogs love to swim, but not all dogs are comfortable in the water. Never presume your dog likes water or knows how to swim. You don’t want to create water phobia, so introduce swimming gradually. If your dog doesn’t take to water, don’t worry. There are plenty of other excellent fitness activities.
“Basic obedience training sets the stage for successful walks and the inevitable interactions with other people and their dogs.”
Walking remains a cornerstone of canine fitness. It is easy, does not require much equipment, can be done nearly everywhere, and is good for people, too. There are many ways to make walking easier, better, and safer for both dog and human.
- Basic obedience training sets the stage for successful walks and the inevitable interactions with other people and their dogs.
- Whether you choose a regular collar, a woven nylon-strap harness, a vest-like fabric harness, or a head halter will depend on a combination of personal preference and what is most comfortable and effective for you and your dog. Harnesses are typically best for walking small dogs, very young puppies, and dogs with a short muzzle or an easily compressed trachea (windpipe).
What activities do you enjoy?
We do best and most consistently what we enjoy. So when you are developing an exercise plan for your dog, think carefully about what you like to do.
You need to create a canine exercise program that you will want to sustain, whether it is walking, jogging, hiking, or overseeing fetch or swimming. If it is fun for us and fun for our dog, we will find fewer excuses to stay on the couch.
If the exercise program is fun for us and fun for our dog, we will find fewer excuses to stay on the couch.
How long can your dog comfortably exercise at one time?
This is definitely a question that is best answered with the help of your veterinarian. He or she is well-equipped to evaluate your dog’s starting fitness level.
It is important to evaluate your dog for any underlying metabolic or musculoskeletal issues that could have an impact on physical activity. For instance, the presence of pain anywhere in the body will influence both the comfort and safety of a canine physical fitness plan. Deficient thyroid function (hypothyroidism) undermines energy and stamina. Undiagnosed underlying heart disease can prove dangerous.
Once I have some activities in mind, how do I create a workout plan?
Just like physical fitness programs for humans, steady, progressive conditioning is the best approach for dogs. Your veterinarian can play an important role in helping you choose appropriate targets for your canine fitness plan, including how long to exercise at one time and how to adapt specific activities to best fit your dog’s individual needs.
“Just like physical fitness programs for humans, steady, progressive conditioning is the best approach for dogs.”
When conditioning a dog to increase fitness, consistency is a key to success. It is far better to take a 20-minute walk every day than a 2-hour walk on Sunday. A slow, steady build of time and intensity helps avoid injury and is more comfortable for the dog. For dogs that require additional challenges, you can advance to more intense activities like field trialing, flyball or agility competition.
Whatever the ultimate fitness and exercise goals for your dog, allow common sense basics to guide you. Get your veterinarian involved to provide medical input, and then get going! Your dog will thank you.
I have read many things on the Internet suggesting that I should feed my dog raw food. I know my dog’s wild cousins hunt their food, so they eat their food raw. Is it OK for me to feed my dog raw food? Is that better than feeding prepared dry or canned food?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stand united in their position (based on very robust data) that feeding raw food to dogs is potentially dangerous to both the dog and to you. The most recent study, conducted from 2011 through 2012, screened commercially available raw dog foods for bacteria that can cause illness. The raw dog food products were made from ground meat or sausage and frozen in tube-like packages. Nearly 25% of the raw food samples tested positive for harmful bacteria, includingSalmonella ssp. and Listeria monocytogenes. These bacteria can pose a health risk for the dogs who eat the raw food, as well as for the dog owners who handle the food while preparing it.
What kind of illness does Salmonella cause?
The CDC estimates that 1.2 million or more cases of food-borne salmonellosis occur in humans in the US annually. Approximately 400 people die each year from the disease. There is some uncertainty as to the total number of cases because milder cases may not be diagnosed.
Symptoms of salmonellosis in humans generally start 12 to 72 hours after exposure and include:
- Diarrhea (often bloody)
- Stomach pain
Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals (patients on chemotherapy, with HIV, etc.) are at greater risk for more severe symptoms. Dogs can actually carry Salmonella in their intestines without showing signs of illness, thus serving as a reservoir for ongoing exposure to the humans in the household. In dogs, the symptoms of salmonellosis include:
- Diarrhea (often bloody)
- Inappetance (not eating, or not eating enough)
What about illness from Listeria food contamination?
Listeriosis is a less well known food-borne illness than salmonellosis. Listeria monocytogenes is actually a leading cause of hospitalization and death from food contamination. While it is rarer than salmonellosis, over 90% of people with listeriosis end up in the hospital. In the US annually, the CDC estimates about 1,600 cases with about 260 deaths. In the European Union, the numbers are similar. One of the problems withListeria is that the bacterium is quite hardy, surviving in salty, acidic, and cold environments.
Listeriosis particularly targets newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. The L. monocytogenes bacterium can invade many tissues including the brain, the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord, the gastrointestinal tract, and the bloodstream. Symptoms depend on which tissues are affected. The time between exposure and illness is about 3 weeks, making it difficult to pinpoint the precise exposure event. Pregnant women may only experience non-specific flu-like symptoms, but their babies may be born prematurely or even stillborn. Newborns fare the worst with listeriosis as up to one-third will die despite aggressive treatment.
Dogs can carry L monocytogenes without showing any signs, making them a potentially dangerous reservoir.
Is there any way to protect myself and my family should I occasionally choose to offer raw food to my dog?
The best protection against salmonellosis and listeriosis is to avoid the bugs altogether by not feeding raw food to your dog. Be aware that by feeding raw dog food you can infect yourself and the other people in the household. That said, here are some ways in which you can protect yourself if you handle raw dog food:
- Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw dog food.
- Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that come into contact with the raw food. For details about disinfection please see cdc.gov/flu/school/cleaning.htm.
- Keep raw food frozen until you are ready to use it, and then thaw it in the refrigerator or microwave (not in the sink or on the counter).
- Keep raw food separate from other food.
- Cover and refrigerate what your dog does not eat, or discard the leftovers safely.
- Do not kiss your dog on the face or allow him to lick your face, particularly right after he has eaten raw food.
- Wash your hands after petting or being licked by your dog.
Feeding a raw diet to your dog is a questionably sound idea from a nutritional perspective as well due to the difficulty in balancing the ration among macro- and micro-nutrients. Adding to that the fact that nearly a quarter of the commercially available raw dog food diets that were tested by the US FDA were contaminated by Salmonella or Listeria (or both), it is reasonable to conclude that a commercially prepared, conventional, complete and life-stage balanced dog food is a better choice. We can help you to choose the nutrient profile that best fits your dog.