Regular physical activity is as important to the health of our pet companions as it is to us. Daily physical activity has many benefits, including strengthening muscles and bones, improving brain and heart health, helping with weight control, and reducing the risk of anxiety, stress, and disease. Many dogs and cats don’t get enough regular exercise, especially in the winter. Short days, snow, ice and cold do not provide the best opportunity for daily exercise.
It is normal to gain weight and lose muscle in winter. This can be problematic for some pets. For example, it is estimated that 54% of dogs and 60% of cats are overweight or obese. Obesity contributes to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and joint degeneration. Obesity is also known to shorten life span. Moderately overweight dogs were found to live about two years less than lean dogs. Some authorities believe that cats may experience the same decline in mortality as obese cats between 8 and 12 years of age, with a 2.8-fold increase in mortality.
Inactivity can cause rapid loss of muscle mass and lead to decreased strength and mobility. This muscle loss can be a significant problem in aging pets because with age molecular signals that promote muscle breakdown rather than muscle building. Not only does reduced muscle mass affect the ability to perform normal activities such as walking, managing stairs, and tackling slippery surfaces, muscle mass affects glucose and energy metabolism. Muscle is responsible for a large amount of glucose metabolism with up to 80% of postprandial glucose taken up by muscle.
Research in humans has shown that regular exercise improves mental health, which in turn improves the ability to think and remember. Exercise is thought to promote or improve brain cells in humans and pets. In dogs, exercise appears to reduce problems with cognitive dysfunction. Another important benefit of promoting exercise for our pets is that it encourages more activity for their human companions, especially during the winter months.
Since winter in Colorado poses some challenges for outdoor activities with our pets, it’s important to have a strategy. This strategy should include some indoor activities that benefit both dogs and cats. The amount and type of exercise activity varies by breed and species (dogs or cats). Most pets benefit from about 30 minutes of daily activity. Younger dogs may need more and older dogs may be limited by health issues such as osteoarthritis or heart disease. Also consider that some breeds with small faces may not breathe as easily as other breeds and may need more rest when exercising. High-energy breeds such as terriers or sporting dogs may need more than 30 minutes of exercise and may benefit from twice a day of activity. For cats, breaking up activity into several 10- or 15-minute sessions of moderate activity is considered beneficial.
Dog activity is often thought of as walking, but there are many other types of activity, such as playing with a ball, hiking, or swimming, depending on the pet’s health and the season of the year. Some dogs like to push around large balls. In winter, activities that can be done indoors can be beneficial. These include simple obstacle games using household items such as broom handles, cardboard boxes and sofa cushions. Consider dog yoga (Doga) as a healthy option. Some dogs enjoy scent work in finding a home for a specific object. Such activities can also increase mental stimulation. Cats benefit from chasing and wrestling with toys. Also, there are exercise wheels for cats that some cats find enjoyable.
Since there is often less activity in the winter, calorie intake needs to be reduced. It can help with weight management. Using food puzzles can be helpful to provide mental stimulation activities and an opportunity to reduce calorie intake without disturbing the pet.
Be careful of snow, slush and salty sidewalks when out with your pet. If you have questions about exercise and special health precautions for your pet, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Karsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use an integrative approach, lecturing widely to veterinarians, and treating clinical problems. pioneered the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage He is too gave Founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, she 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. Dr. Karsten is the recipient of the 2022 Colorado Veterinary Medical Association Distinguished Service Award.