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July 6, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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From the archives: Vet Q&A - How much exercise does my dog need, Part 1

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On a hot summer day, Dillon, left, and Sandy take to the dog beach in the off-leash area of Magnuson Park in Seattle for a cool mid-day romp. Photo by Dean Rutz

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Dr. Kobi Johnson, executive administrator of Puget Sound Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, answers this week's and next week's questions about exercising our dogs. This post was originally published last July.

Question: How do I determine how much exercise -- and what kind of exercise -- my dog really needs?

Answer: Certainly every dog is an individual, and sporting breeds tend to be more active and need more exercise to be happy and stay fit. The important question is how much is enough vs. how much is too much? Planning daily exercise for all dogs is important for maintaining general health and behavioral well being.

As a rule for dogs, I encourage owners to allow the dog to exercise to the degree it seems comfortable, that is, most dogs will give signals when they are fatigued or need rest.

Never force the dog to keep going. Adult dogs generally have matured enough to know when their bodies are hot, tired and need to rest. If the dog is dropping behind, slowing down, sitting down, panting heavily, then stop and rest.

Only start the exercise again when the dog indicates he wants to do more. Be sure to provide fresh water and a place for the dog to get out of direct sunlight, if it's a hot or humid day.

Not all dogs -- purebreds or mixed -- are built to win competitions, but just about any breed can engage in and enjoy activities such as fly ball, agility and more, especially with a passionate owner.

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Bella, a greyhound, gives chase in Jane Clark Park in Tacoma. Photo by Albert McMurry

Sight hounds, such as greyhounds and whippets are an extreme -- genetically programmed to be lean, have long muscular legs, and even make more red blood cells (to carry more oxygen to those big muscles) than other breeds.

But some breeds are not built for aggressive aerobic activity. Specifically, these would be the brachycephalic breeds, such as English and French bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, and others that have shortened nasal bones and compressed faces.

This group of conditions impairs airflow through the upper respiratory tract (nose, pharynx, and larynx) and make these breeds very susceptible to overheating and life-threatening heat stroke, if they are overexercised, even on mildly sunny or humid days. Even their spine, hips and legs that put them at serious risk with excessive exercise. Overexertion of any kind, especially on hot days, can be life threatening.

Structural anatomy aside, genetics, regular exercise and keeping your dog trim are three of the most significant factors that combine to enhance exercise tolerance and contribute to natural endurance.

Question: What are some of the immediate benefits of exercise that I'll see in my dog? Conversely, can it aggravate some knee/joint problems, heart ailments or breathing problems?

Answer: I think the most immediate benefits of exercise tend to be behavioral and are similar to how you or I feel after a good work out. A nice walk or romp in the yard makes for a relaxed dog that sleeps well that night. Repeat these comfortable workouts, without overdoing it, and your dog is likely to lose a few pounds, his muscles will firm up and his overall fitness will improve.

Of course, too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. Dogs with pre-existing musculoskeletal problems, such as hip or elbow arthritis, cruciate ligament rupture in the knee joints, spinal problems, should never be forced to exercise.

Allow these dogs limited exercise at their own pace. Keep their joints limber with massage and gentle flexing/extending of the joints, monitor their weight and reduce impact activities when possible. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise if available.

With large and/or deep chested breeds, such as Great Danes and boxers, there also is a concern about exercising with a full stomach. Although the evidence is not definitive, exercise with a full stomach may increase the risk of "bloat" or stomach torsion, called GDV, in some breeds.

The mechanics are not truly known, but in theory, a full stomach "bouncing around" in the abdomen during exercise may become displaced and twist. Bloat is a life-threatening emergency that frequently requires surgery and extensive hospital care.

If your dog is more than 5 or 6 years old, has a history of any illness or traumatic injuries, major surgeries or isn't used to frequent exercise, its best to have a checkup with your vet and discuss an exercise plan. Your veterinarian should examine the joints, heart, lungs and general body condition to assess risk factors.

Question: How do I determine which environment is best for exercising my dog? Rocky trails, paved roads, a pool or lake?

Answer: Dogs are natural "four-wheel-drive" vehicles, they can adapt, enjoy and perform on just about any type of terrain.

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Like your own feet, your dog's feet are extremely sensitive, full of nerve endings and have enormous blood supply. Treat his feet like your own, with consideration for hot, abrasive surfaces such as pavement and sidewalks on sunny days, or rocky, wooded, off-road terrain. Always work your dog up gradually to new surfaces. The thick, durable, protective pads on the bottom of their feet, shown above, are actually modified hair. With repeated activity on a harder surfaces, your dog's foot pads will thicken and toughen, making them more resilient.

Be careful though, because the opposite is also true: Reducing exercise or changing to softer terrain exclusively, such as grass vs. sidewalk, will gradually cause you dog's foot pads to soften.

Gradually conditioning your dog to a new or harsher surface requires limiting the duration of exercise and slowly increasing over a few weeks.

One of the most common foot injuries we see is in the spring, when owners take their dogs out for a long jog on the first sunny day. The dog has been indoors most of the winter, with limited outdoor exercise, and his foot pads are very soft. The dog is excited to go jogging with his owner, but his feet aren't condition for prolonged activity on hard ground or pavement, leading to large, painful blisters, often on all the pads of every foot.

Feet generally heal fast, but you can save your dog a lot of trouble by limiting exercise on hard surfaces and allowing the feet to toughen up for a few weeks.

Also be sure to inspect your dog's foot pads periodically for injuries, foreign objects or other damage.

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Maggie enjoys a salt-water soak at Double Bluff off-leash area on Whidbey Island. Photo: Alan Berner / The Seattle Times

Swimming offers the only no-impact "terrain" for your dog's exercise. In fresh water or saltwater, I recommend using a canine-specific flotation vest, even for experienced swimmers.

Hypothermia can occur with prolonged exposure in the Puget Sound, because the water is frequently in the 50-degree Fahrenheit range.

Gauge your dog's level of fatigue as you would for running or hiking, allow rests and don't encourage continued swimming if your dog is reluctant or shivering.

Question: My dog has hit midlife and his joints are starting to creak. How do I know if exercise would be a help or a hindrance?

Answer: Even in older dogs, limited or controlled exercise is important. For dogs with hip, knee, spinal-arthritis conditions or obesity concerns, minimal-impact exercise, such as swimming, is highly recommended.

If a place to swim isn't convenient, then walking --NOT running -- is generally low impact and safe. Just don't overdo it. Take short walks first, and gradually increase the distance.

Pay attention to when your dog seems tired, allow rests and don't force your dog to continue when he's had enough. After exercise, gentle massage of the back and legs, and gentle flexing and extending of the leg joints, will help.

If your dog is stiff or in pain the day after exercise, allow enough rest for him to return to normal and limit the duration next time out.

Dr. Kobi Johnson
Johnson co-owns the Puget Sound Veterinary Referral Center, a 24-7 multi-specialty and critical-care center in Tacoma. Johnson originally is from Maryland and graduated from the Atlantic Veterinary College of the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1995. In addition to his emergency-care practice, Johnson has a passion for advanced diagnostic imaging and MRI, as well as performance sled-dog medicine. He has many years of experience as a volunteer veterinarian for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, and most recently the Race to the Sky, in Montana. He enjoys boating and fishing with his two rescue dogs, Winnie and Doug.

Photo of paw pads by Joan Deutsch

Next week: Part 2 -- How much exercise is too much? What you need to know about heat stroke.

Read earlier Q&A columns here.

•   •   •

Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.


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