Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Exercising With Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of July 24, 2006

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Amanda Barth
Public Engagement Program Manager

Kimo Huffman keeps himself in shape with regular exercise, running five miles most days. The regular exercise is great for his body mass index, the health of his heart and his general attitude about life. In fact, if he misses a regular run he tends to be a little sluggish and cranky. The regular exercise is pretty good for his owner, Liz Huffman, of Denver, Colo., as well.

Dr. Marcella Ridgway, veterinary internal medicine specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says "I like activities that allow you and your pet to participate together. Sometimes we gain a little extra motivation to exercise out of a sense of responsibility to our pet." While the benefits of exercise for you and your dog are obvious, Dr. Ridgway says that there are certain things you should take into consideration before introducing your pet to a new exercise routine.

She cautions that large amounts of repetitive, physically-demanding exercise are not natural for dogs. Just as you would do for yourself, you'll need to gradually break your dog into an exercise regime. Start slow, gradually increasing the length of the activity and take breaks; constant, steady activity at an elevated pace could be harmful for an unconditioned pet. When left on their own, dogs will run for a short time, stopping frequently to sniff a tree or a flower before running for another short period. Dr. Ridgway also cautions that there are certain breeds, such as pugs and bulldogs, which often cannot withstand large amounts of physical activity because their respiratory systems are unable to handle too much activity, especially in warmer weather.

It is important to consider the age of your pet. Dr. Ridgway doesn't recommend long periods of repetitive motion exercise, such as running with young dogs, because they are still growing; Such types of exercise may cause injury to their growing bones and joints. She also doesn't recommend exercising with pets that are at a later stage in life because they simply don't have the physical stamina that they once did.

Medical conditions which your pet may have are also important considerations. Pets with respiratory, heart or joint disease may be harmed by too much physical exercise. Dr. Ridgway says, "Just as with any human, it is important to consult your veterinarian before introducing your pet to a demanding exercise regime."

The climate in which you and your pet will be exercising is another important issue to consider. During the summer months it is important to be cautious about overheating. Your pet doesn't have the ability to sweat efficiently to dissipate body heat as does a human; a hot and humid day provides the ideal conditions for your pet to overheat.

You'll need to be as equally alert to the climate during the winter months. Your pet's feet don't have much protection; you should be watchful for frostbite and observant of any icy patches that might cut your dog's foot pads. Salt or other deicers on roads and sidewalks may also harm their feet. You'll also want to be conscious of any icy patches that might slip you up as well.

Just as when you're exercising by yourself, you should be aware of your surroundings. Although Dr. Ridgway doesn't recommend running along a road because of traffic concerns, she says that trails provide a nice surface that is gentler on the joints, for both dogs and humans. Trails also provide a safe place for a break, should one be necessary. Dr. Ridgway also recommends being attentive to other animals around you, including wild ones. Your dog will likely respond to any activity of another animal, and you'll need to be able to act accordingly. You can also make yourself and your pet more visible to others by wearing a vest or a collar equipped with reflectors.

Dr. Ridgway says that it's equally important to be a good neighbor. Have a bag to pick up your pet's waste and make sure your dog controlled so it's not intrusive to others around you. Not only is a leash the law in most urban areas, it is a must to provide proper control of your pet. Dr. Ridgway suggests a couple of options to a traditional leash. A commercially-available leash offers joggers the option of attaching the leash around their waist. However, Dr. Ridgway cautions that this type of leash can be harmful to your own health if your pet is large enough to pull you down. She also recommends a harness, which will prevent tugging at your dog's neck, and a retractable leash. This option provides your pet the opportunity to run a little further ahead or behind while still under your control.

The most important thing you should do is to be alert to what your dog is experiencing. Be prepared to take a break if it's lagging behind, limping or working too hard to breathe. These are all physical signs that your pet has had enough exercise and you should stop.

For more information about exercising with your pet, consult your local veterinarian.