By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Before starting any exercise or weight loss plan it is best to have an examination and speak with your veterinarian so that any underlying health issues can be addressed and the safety of your dog or cat is never in questions. It is true that when you get started on this road to a new lifestyle for your pet, things may be slow to start. Be patient – with animals often it is better to look at the percentage of weight loss and not the number of pounds and to remember that any decrease in weight and increase in activity is a big deal! We can give our pets another 2 years with us by keeping them at a healthy weight and being active.
In the beginning, some dogs and cats may resist a new exercise plan because the extra weight they are carrying around can make them more sensitive to the heat and adds extra stress to the joints, but most come to cherish this time with you. Also, as the weight starts to decrease there will be less stress on all joints resulting in a decrease in joint pain, which allows your dog or cat to be able to handle more types of fun exercise activities. An overweight body almost fights against itself when an exercise program is started so be sure to keep in mind that increasing exercise time is a gradual part of the overall lifestyle change.
The main goal will be to find a level that is both effective and safe for your dog or cat. The level needs to increased based on what your pet can reasonably do – for some dogs that is a 5 minute walk and for others that is an hour long walk exploring trails through the mountains. No matter the distance, you still want to keep in mind that walking as little as a city block can be painful if done too quickly, so be sure to also consider the speed of exercise – at first in may take 20 minutes to walk that city block. If your cat tires after 10 minutes, stop for the moment and do another play session later in the day.
Other tips to avoid injury include walking on a flat level surfaces with some cushion, like grass or dirt, but not too much cushion like sand has. The most important thing with starting to exercise is consistency. Setting aside a designated time every single day helps exercise not only become part of the healthier lifestyle, but gives your dog and/or a special time to look forward to each day.
Activities can include daily walks with your pet, playing catch with size/breed specific toys, tossing and fetching toys appropriate size toys (most pets love playing with empty plastic bottles such as soda bottles or milk cartons), swimming, jogging or anything that keeps your pet moving.
For our cat owners out there that also need to get their cats moving, most cats will chance a laser for hours, most enjoy walking on a harness, and some even like to play fetch! Cats should have a dedicated 20 minutes of play time a day at minimum normally, so when we are talking about weight loss I recommend at least three 20 minutes sessions/day.
Like most pet owners you probably have a backyard or a place you let your dog out to run and this may be all he gets for daily exercise. Unfortunately most dogs won’t exercise when they are left outside by themselves. As an owner, you want what is best for your dog – freedom to play – but you don’t want to turn that play into work. Cats in the wild would spend the entire day hunting down food (the average day for a cat is spent finding and catching 10 mice to eat), but with food provided for them they have no motivation to get moving. It is our job as owners to keep them healthy and that means getting them moving and feeding the correct amount and type of food. Most people don’t equate exercise with fun, but once they get into an exercise pattern they come to look forward to it and feel better overall. Exercise is healthy for the body and mind, and will help strengthen the bond between you and your pet. Think of exercise as a reward for your pet; it is special time for you to spend more time with your faithful friend – a friend that is counting on you to do what is best for them.
Some additional tips:
• Partner with another pet owner or a friend! Taking your dog to a local dog park, on a walk, for a play date, etc. can be rewarding for both of you. Your dog can run with other pets while you have a chance to spend time catching up with a friend. You guys can share tips and keep each other motivated. **If the park does not provide water or it is warm outside, be sure to bring along some water and a collapsible bowl**
• If you aren’t feeling motivated, play fetch! Your cat or dog will stay entertained and active playing fetch and this can be done from the comfort of you couch 🙂 The excitement of a favorite toy and a safe area to run can lead to a very happy pet!
• Don’t use a stick or bones (no real bones are ever safe to give your pet) for your game of fetch; many pets are injured this way. Plus, cats usually respond better to a balled up piece of paper!
• Keep your throws low to the ground to avoid injury to your pet’s legs or back having to jump to catch objects.
• Hidden Rewards! Put aside some of your dog or cat’s normal diet, or choose another low calorie snack, and hide it inside a toy. You can also wrap a favorite toy or small treat inside a towel and let your pet try to unwrap it. These games provide a workout for both body and the mind – and a reward for persistence!
• Challenge your pet every day! An everyday walk can become an amusement park for your pet if you set up a small obstacle course. Cats love to go through tunnels, in boxes, under covers, etc. Let your dog jump across a fallen tree, weave around some flags, etc. Both will enjoy it if you hide a favorite toy along the way for them to find.
• Swimming – If your dog likes the water, swimming can be a great exercise. Water provides a soothing space for your dog to make full use of his/her joints. A short swim can provide the same amount of exercise as a hard run, without unnecessary stress to the body and joints. I have yet to find a cat that enjoys a swim 🙂
• Group classes! In cold or inclement weather, fun can also be found indoors through an agility or obedience class.