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Is Pet Fitness Really A Thing?

Friday August 25, 2017

Author: Karen Spinelli

We struggle to keep ourselves on an exercise schedule, right?   And you’re trying to tell me now I have to find time for my dog to get to the gym?  I know. I can hear your voice right now!  But keeping our dogs fit and flexible is actually important enough for me to talk to you about it even knowing that will be your first reaction.
So how about I give you a quick list and if you think it sounds worth learning more you can read about the details?  Deal?  Deal!
Why should we try to exercise our pets?

1)  A fit body has a higher threshold for injury

Think of it in human terms.  If you regularly do yoga for flexibility, walk to increase your stamina, and stretch to avoid muscle cramps, your body’s baseline becomes sturdy and therefore more resistant to something throwing it off balance.  It’s the same for your pet.  Off-balance equals quick to injure, while balanced equals resistant to injury.

2)  A fit body overcomes small injuries before they escalate

Again, think of it like your own body.  If you do all the things we mentioned above, and then tweaked something during a more-active-than-usual weekend, it might only take a day of rest or a good massage to get you right back into place.  On the other hand, someone who only goes from the couch to the bathroom all day long (like most of our dogs), who tweaks that same thing on the same high activity day, could end up with an injury that the rest of their body then tenses up to compensate for, which then snowballs into a multi-layered trauma that is more difficult to relieve.

3)  A fit body puts less pressure on aging and compromised joints

No one likes to talk about weight, me included.  However, the truth is that weight puts strain on joints.  Each of our unique bodies is built for its joints to withstand its inherent body size’s weight.   If our pet’s weight gets significantly higher than what their natural set point is, that means excess burden on their joints.  When a body is younger, stronger, and more flexible, its joints can better tolerate shifts in pressure on them.  But, just as in people, the older our pets get, the more sensitive their joints are to excess burden on them.  Keeping their weight suitable for their bone size will extend the life of their joints, and decrease injury to them.  That means less pain for them, and less chances for needing surgery to repair torn ligaments supporting those joints.

4)  Learning something new stimulates cognitive functioning in aging brains

If you did the same things day after day, your brain would get too comfortable, even a bit lazy.  Our brains need exercise too.  It takes stimulating our brains with new things to spark neurons into making new connections and working most efficiently.  So too does your pet’s brain benefit from experiencing and learning new things.    

5)  Doing something different together is a fun and bonding experience for both you and your pet.

We put effort into thinking of different things to do with a new human partner.  Why?  Because it’s fun and it bonds people to explore new things together.  So let’s put effort into finding new things to do with our pets too.  After all – love is love…..  and we want them to have fun too!


Believe me when I say I am writing this just as much as a reminder to myself as to educate you and help your pet.  Even when you know all of this and want to do it, I realize from first-hand experience that it can be challenging to turn “wanting” into “doing”.  But let’s all say it together – “challenge accepted!”  
Because when it comes down to it, we love our pets like children and best buddies.  It already feels unfair that their lifespans are way too short.  So let’s do whatever we can to lengthen those lives, and keep those years healthy.  (After all, we’re greedy – we don’t just want extra years for them, we want to maximize those into stress-free happy years, right?!)
So let’s keep these reminders in mind:

A)  It doesn’t have to be perfect. 

“All or nothing” thinking becomes too much pressure and results in putting things off.  Just jump in and see what happens!   If you’re not sure exactly how to do something, err on the side of less (versus more) to avoid doing too much too soon. 

B)  It doesn’t have to be every day.

Doing something is always better than doing nothing.  No one is keeping score.  Make yourself a chart to help you remember.  Pick 2 days a week that have the least other responsibilities to give yourself the best chance for having some free time.  It will feel reinforcing when you can check off that day on your chart once you’ve accomplished it.

C)  It doesn’t have to be for a long time.

Are you starting to see the pattern here?!  There is no “right” or “wrong”.  It’s all just trying your best, and if you’ve done that, then you’ve succeeded!  Pick one thing to try.  If that only lasted five minutes, that’s ok.  If it still feels good, add one more thing.   If you’ve had enough, aim for attempting two things on your next try.


Ok, so now you’re open to trying something, but what should you do?  Let me give you a beginners list to choose from.  When those start to feel too easy, feel free to come back to  and we can make a bigger, more challenging, list for you.  
Beginners Canine Fitness List

1)  Massage  (link to details)

2)  Gentle Range of Motion 

Your pet has three major joints on each of their four limbs.  Each front limb has their shoulder, elbow, and wrist (carpus), while each back limb has their hip, knee (stifle), and ankle (tarsus). Each limb also has the smaller digits of their front and back paws. Range of motion is the gentle movement of a joint through flexion (closing the joint angle) and extension (opening the angle) while the animal is not moving (preferably laying down comfortably).  

For example, after massaging (which warms up the joint for safer movement) lay your pet down with their  target side facing upward.  One at a time, gently hold above and below each joint, slowly opening the angle (hold a few seconds) and closing the angle (hold a few seconds).  You do not want movement in any other directions, and it should be done carefully, with focus on any indicators of discomfort.  If your pet shows any sign of discomfort, stop immediately, and ease back to the last place it seemed comfortable.  Keep in mind that over-doing joint movement can cause injury - so always do less if you have any doubt at all.

3)  Slow Walk

Walking slow enables all the limbs to go through their full range of motion.  Doing it over varied (grass, dirt, pavement) and uneven surfaces adds in extra sensory input of proprioception and the extra challenge of balance.  It doesn’t have to be long. 

Aim for 15 minutes for a small to medium pets,  and 30 minutes if they are large to extra-large in size.  (Modify this lower if they have any health issues.)

4)  Up and Down a small hill  (slowly)

A short, gradual hill in your yard or a nearby park, or a gently sloped street in your neighborhood would work well.  You could even make a ramp out of a 2 foot by 4 foot wood plank laid against a curb in front of your home.  Going upward will put extra pressure on your pet’s back limbs, while going downward puts the extra pressure on their front limbs. 

Aim for 10 total (up 5 times and down 5 times) for small to medium pets, and 20 total (up 10 and down 10) for large to extra-large.  (Modify according to your pet’s health.)

5)  Up and Down a curb (slowly)

Curbs are nice because they are only a few inches high, so minimize strain on your pets joints.  Walk along the street in front of your home leading them up the curb (onto the grass or sidewalk), down the curb (onto the street), and so on along the street. 

Aim for 10 total (up 5 times and down 5 times) for small to medium pets, and 20 total (up 10 times and down 10) for large to extra-large.  (Modify according to your pet’s health.)

Good Luck!  And don’t forget to HAVE FUN!!   


(*Check with your pet’s primary care veterinarian if there is ANY question about their health and tolerance to activities they are not used to doing.)

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