Double Header : Spring Fitness and Human Medications
I normally wouldn’t do a double-topic like this, but I need to get something off my chest. It’s very very rare that I yell with my white coat on. Today, though? Yes. I’ll be blunt and quick about it:
DO NOT GIVE HUMAN MEDICATION OF ANY KIND TO YOUR PET WITHOUT SPEAKING TO YOUR VETERINARIAN FIRST.
Lethal consequences can and do result. Major damage, hospitalization for treatment, and significant costs are also potential outcomes. I don’t know a single veterinarian that charges for phone calls, and at the very least you can be stopped from making a blunder that kills your own pet.
Alright. Deep breaths. With that out of the way, this week’s longer topic was suggested by one of my patients. (Thanks, Ellie!) Springtime is coming in tiny increments, so Ellie is looking forward to longer walks and better weather. She does have some joint trouble, so we talked about how much exercise is the right amount. In contrast to my yelling above, this answer has a lot more variability.
The tipping point between good exercise and bad has to do with the condition a given individual starts in. Young and healthy? Old and arthritic? Heart disease? Injury or surgical recovery? Out of shape or overweight?
Serious consequences can occur from overestimating what your pet can tolerate. Even for healthy dogs, going from zero exercise to a full day of hard activity can be a huge problem. When muscles aren’t used to the level of activity being asked of them, they can easily become overworked and damaged. Damaged muscle releases chemicals that can damage the kidneys. Pets enduring high temperatures can also have this sort of muscle damage, so even light exercise in hot weather can cause muscle damage.
Thankfully, the answers to a lot of these different cases are simple. We’ll tackle them one at a time.
Young healthy pets should take up a fitness program gradually. This means that if there were no walks at all, don’t make the first one hours long, and don’t make it a full-speed run. Somewhere in the neighborhood of activity 10-30 minutes long, in comfortable temperatures should be tolerated fairly well. Just as we would gradually increase the duration or intensity of the workout, you can do so with your pet. If at any point, your pet seems to be lagging behind, or has flat-out stopped, it’s time for a rest! Sometimes, pets are so excited to be playing or walking that they will push themselves far harder than they should. You have to make an assessment of a reasonable duration and intensity of the activity. Always err on the side of caution!
Pets with orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia, a torn ACL, arthritis, etc. should always stick with low-impact activity. Running or even walking on hard pavement can be enough to make them sore or limp. For dogs, swimming — actually swimming, not running on the beach — is a great way to exercise. Otherwise, slow walks of shorter durations are a good idea. I’d rather have an arthritis patient go for two 10-minute walks than one 20-minute walk if it’s at all possible. Keeping up muscle strength and mobility is critical for arthritis patients. We also have a duty to keep them from hurting. This may mean that some pain medication or an anti-inflammatory are part of the whole care plan. Owners with pets that have advanced arthritis or other bone/joint problems can also look into physical therapy. There are tons of options for PT for pets.
For pets that have more serious conditions such as heart disease or other organ dysfunction, each case has to be very carefully evaluated. It would be irresponsible of me to make any blanket statements or generalizations here beyond the advice that you should ask your vet about your pet specifically. A mistake here could push a heart patient into heart failure, for example. Obviously that’s not a good option.
One last caution for all of you who own pets with short muzzles — the brachycephalic breeds. Exercise can be particularly difficult for brachycephalics. It can also be dangerous. These pets have a heck of a time breathing as it is, and the massive turbulence created when they’re breathing hard can cause life-threatening complications such as welling in the larynx. I’ve seen many bulldogs that come in dying because their throats are swelling shut. It’s particularly dangerous in hot weather. Pugs, bulldogs, Persian cats, ShihTzus — go VERY gently and go in cool temperatures!
In closing, I’ll share two links to other spots on the web with information about exercising with your pets. Thanks again, Ellie! This was a great topic to cover.
ASPCA Exercise Guidelines for Dogs
Hill’s/Science Diet Exercise Tips for Dogs and Cats