Exercise is great for dogs of all ages. But keep in mind that too much exercise can be just as dangerous as too little, depending on your dog’s age, development, condition and fitness level.
Mobility in puppies
Puppies definitely need exercise! It builds strong bones and joints, and also benefits the pup’s mind. It is important to remember, though, that puppies are not just miniature dogs. Exercise that isn’t appropriate for a puppy’s age or stage of development can do damage to developing bones and joints, resulting in future mobility issues.
Puppy bones – what you need to know
Puppy bones have “growth plates”. These areas of the bone have rapidly growing cells and are responsible for long bone growth. Once the puppy goes through puberty, the growth plates close and become a strong, stable part of the bone. While the puppy is growing, however, these areas are soft and can be injured by excess exercise or force on the bones. Puppy bones, in general, are softer than adult dog bones, which means puppies are more susceptible to fractures than grown dogs. As well, the outside layer of the bone is stronger than the elastic part of the inner bone, so exercises that cause bone twisting could result in fractures in your puppy.
The perfect puppy workout
Puppies do not have the endurance for long walks. They exercise in short bursts and then rest. Until they are mature, they do not have the ability to build up their cardiovascular systems and increase their aerobic capacity. “Appropriate exercise” is the key. Avoid long walks and hikes and vigorous exercise until your puppy is skeletally mature. This could be anywhere from 11 months to two years of age, depending on his size and breed. Until then, allow lots of free play, sniffing and exploring, and let your puppy do it on her own terms.
You can start agility with your puppy AFTER 12 months of age. Even then, only low jumping (no higher than the puppy’s wrist) is advised until 18 months, when she can graduate to elbow-high jumping.
Provide a soft landing for your puppy if she’s jumping off couches or beds — train her to jump onto a dog bed or discourage jumping completely until she is just a bit older. Large breed puppies should avoid climbing stairs until over three months of age because research shows it can increase the development of hip dysplasia. Off leash walking over low hills, on the other hand, helps decrease the incidence of hip dysplasia, so feel free to do lots of that.
Diet for puppy mobility
Pay close attention to your puppy’s nutrition. Overweight puppies and those who grow too quickly can have bone, ligament and tendon problems. If you have a large breed pup, use a large breed puppy food with adequate protein, proper levels of calcium (not too much or too little) and moderate calories. Too much nutrition at this age can set the puppy up for a lifetime of joint problems.
The adult dog’s needs
As your dog ages, exercise is crucial to avoid obesity, prevent osteoarthritis, and provide mental stimulation. Most dogs need a minimum of 20 minutes of sustained exercise three to four times a week to prevent arthritis. Daily exercise is best. Incorporating low impact exercises such as low hill walking and swimming is great for dogs who have a bit of arthritis. Since animals can suffer from “weekend warrior syndrome” as well, don’t overdo it!
The adult diet for mobility
What about when your puppy grows up? Healthy diets that are lower in carbohydrates and contain adequate protein stave off obesity and muscle loss, so look for a food that will deliver what your adult dog needs.
Enhance joint health by adding an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement in the form of fish oil, not flaxseed oil, at appropriate doses. Supplements containing un-denaturated collagen Type II or UC-II are great for aging pets. Hyaluronic acid, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), boswellia, devil’s claw, avacodo-soy unsaponifiables, and some glucosamine/chondroitin supplements are also good for this group of canines.
Keep senior dogs moving
Exercising geriatric dogs can prove both challenging and rewarding. For this group, “low”, “slow” and “frequent” are the buzz words. An ideal regimen consists of 20 to 30 minutes daily, with walks over sticks or logs to engage the core and challenge proprioception (lack of body perception that causes improper placement of limbs). Swimming is great for older dogs as it helps with joints and maintains cardiovascular fitness.
The supplements mentioned above, plus injections of polyglycosamimoglycansm can work well for seniors, while regular visits to the veterinary chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist or canine rehab practitioner can keep these pets tuned up and moving well. You can also consider laser therapy and stretching exercises.
Don’t forget about using boots, leg and hock wraps, braces or assistive harnesses if your pet needs a bit of help to get moving. Some of my favourite assistive devices have handles for the back and the front of the dog and allow good mobility for a pet that may have otherwise been down and unable to walk. Dogs with severe mobility challenges may require wheelchairs or carts. These should be properly fitted by a practitioner who knows how they operate and how a dog should move in this assistive device.
Note: Mobility devices can include leg and hock wraps, such as those offered by Back on Track (backontrackproducts.com) which helps alleviate pain in muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints by reflecting a dog’s own body-warmth.
Supplements are helpful to prevent and treat mobility-related problems. When issues arise, targeted formulas, including Recovery SA (purica.com), can help with chronic pain.
Dr. Janice Huntingford is a 1984 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, and a Board Certified Specialist (Diplomate) in Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine (DACVSMR), only one of three in Canada. She is certified in Animal Chiropractic, Animal Acupuncture, and Chinese Herbal Medicine, and is a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner. In 2007, Dr. Huntingford opened Ontario’s first salt water canine therapy pool and canine rehabilitation centre at her clinic, Essex Animal Hospital, in Essex, ON.