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Tips for Exercising with Dogs and Cats

Reduce the incidence of common health problems related to obesity


In a 2010 study on canine obesity, only 35% of dogs were considered to be "normal" weight. Of the remainder, 5% were underweight and a full 60% were classified as overweight or obese. The numbers for cats and humans are similar.

Eating right - healthy appropriate diet and smaller frequent meals - is half of the solution. Exercise and being more active are equally important. Here are some tips to get your pets moving and exercising safely.

As always, please visit your veterinarian first to assess your pets weight, fitness level, and diet before embarking on a fitness routine.

1. 7 Ways To Tell if Your Pet Is Overweight

Fat tabby cat © Else esq. on Flickr
© Else esq. on Flickr

Pet obesity is currently one of the top health concerns for our pets, and a quick assessment of optimal body weight could be the start to lengthening your pet's life.

Working with your vet to rule out other medical problems is the first step. Your vet will help you devise a diet and exercise plan for your pet to get on the track to health and fitness.

2. Start Slow, Work Up To It

Walking the Dog by Nancy Wombat on Flickr
by Nancy Wombat on Flickr

Just like us, dogs and cats need to work up to being fit, especially if they are overweight. It is a common misconception, particulaly for dogs, that they are built to run. Not so. They suffer from joint and muscle aches, too. Carrying extra weight puts additional strain on joints, heart and respiratory systems.

It is best to start with a complete physical examination for your pet. Your veterinarian will assess body condition and overall health and will be able to advise a safe work out regimen for your and your pet. In some locations, you can find exercise trainers that are certified "pet fitness trainers" who work with pets and their people to attain physical fitness safely.

3. Running and Biking

Dog on a Bike Ride by Megan Ann on Flickr
by Megan Ann on Flickr

Running and biking with dogs always makes me nervous. Know your dog and their fitness level. Puppies and dogs under 2 years of age are still growing bones. I don't recommend running or biking with young dogs.

It is imperative to sure your dog is in top shape, not overheated (they can't sweat like we can), and that feet and joints are not getting hammered by hard, hot surfaces. Dogs, especially short-nosed varieties, are prone to heatstoke. It can happen suddenly and it can be fatal.

A 5 or 10 mile bike ride is easy for many people on flat surfaces. Could you run 5 or 10 miles? Could your dog? Dogs, loyal companions that they are, will do everything possible to keep up with you. Don't overexert - watch for lagging and panting. Stop and rest.

4. Get In The Swim of Things

Willow swimming lessons by garyt70 on Flickr
by garyt70 on Flickr

Some dogs love to swim, and play time in the water is great exercise. Playing fetch or swimming with the human family are great ways to stay in shape. The same pre-exercise cautions apply if your pet is out of shape or overweight - being tired out in water is dangerous. Ensure that your dog isn't too far out in the water and tired, this can be trouble.

On the other hand, some dogs don't like water. Some dogs can't swim. They may learn with time, but for dogs such as Greyhounds with low body fat, they can sink (and expend extra energy panicking and trying to swim) and are prone to hypothermia. Pet life vests are a good idea for these dogs.

5. Be Creative

Evelyn gets her bubble by dregsplod on Flickr
by dregsplod on Flickr

Sometimes the best things are simple things. Blowing bubbles, playing "tag" or hide-and-seek are fun ways to be active with your dog. Laser tag, catnip  toys and string toys (supervised!) are great for encouraging activity in cats.

For more of a challenge, look into community dog training or agility classes. Meeting with like-minded people and dogs creates new ideas and ways to be active with your dog.

6. Play Ball or Frisbee

Terriers playing fetch by Bala on Flickr
by Bala on Flickr

An oldie but a goodie. There are many new toys on the market now that make throwing and fetching more fun. Selecting appropriate toys and providing supervised play time are important.

What are your favorite dog toys for exercise, and why?

7. Will Dogs Stop Playing If They Are Too Hot?

San Francisco summer dog by rgourley on Flickr
© rgourley on Flickr

Dogs cannot sweat to cool down like people can. They can sweat a little through their paw pads, but the main way dogs cool down is by panting. Given cool shade and water to drink, will dogs "know" when to stop and take a rest while at the beach or dog park?

8. Protect Their Feet

Paws of an American Staffordshire by Sarah Basford on Flickr
© Sarah Basford on Flickr

Dangerously hot pavement and metal are hard to avoid in the heat of summer. Running on hard pavement is tough on feet, too. Unlike the obvious wounds such as lacerations, foot infections (fungal, bacterial or foreign bodies, such as cheat grass), burned pads may not be readily apparent to the eye.

Winter weather necessitates foot care too - lacerations, salt burns and ice build-ups between toes to name a few.

9. Dog Toy Reviews

Argos and his new stuffed toy by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM
by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and toys do too. What may be great for one dog may be dangerous for another. Always read the labels to make sure that the toy is appropriate for the size and age of your dog. The fun ends when surgery is required to retrieve a toy accidentally (or intentionally) consumed.

What are your favorite dog doys and why?

10. Cats Play, Too

June Catches her Toy by kakissel on Flickr
by kakissel on Flickr

Cats are known for sleeping and cat napping, but they play too. Engaging your cat might take a little more effort at first, but it is well worth it. Like dogs, overweight cats are more prone to joint and heart problems, diabetes, fatty liver, and more.

Something as simple as a crinkly piece of paper or laser toy can incite interest and activity for your cat. String "fishing poles" and other toys are fun too, but must be used with supervision. Cats love to eat string, rubber bands, ribbon, tinsel, and other string-like objects, which may be deadly.

11. Encourage Activity With Vertical Spaces

Barnie and Quincy exercising on the cat tree by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM
by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM

Cat climbing trees are one of my favorite ways to get my cats active, as seen in this photo. They run up at full speed, scratch on it, climb it, jump off of it, and chase each other around it.

This particular cat tree doesn't take up much space and was inexpensive to purchase. Well worth it.

Compare prices on scratching posts and climbing trees for cats.

12. Cat Toy Reviews

Quincy steals the dogs' toy by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM
by Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM

Cats are creative when it comes to toys - shoelaces, toilet paper, knitting projects, marbles and more have become my cat's "toys" over the years. This is despite my best efforts. Not always the safest choices for cat toys, especially string and yarn. Rubberbands are dangerous, too.

Thankfully there are a lot of toys to choose from these days to keep our cats safely occupied. All toys do require supervision, though. What are your cat's favorite toys and why?

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