Is your dog out of shape from inactivity during the winter months?
Listen as Dr. Karen Becker explains how to get your canine companion back in prime physical condition as spring approaches.
For those of us who live where winters are harsh, the promise of warmer weather just around the corner is inspiring.
I’m sure you’re as eager as I am to get outdoors in the fresh spring air to move around, get the kinks out, and soak up all the health benefits of warm, natural sunlight.
Most of you will take your dogs along with you to exercise and soak up the sun’s healthy rays.
But if your pup has been primarily indoors and at rest since October or November when the temperature started to drop, you’ll need to start slow and help your dog rebuild muscle tone before he engages in strenuous outdoor activities again.
Your Dog’s Muscles Need Toning Just Like Yours Do
If your pet has been idle during the winter months because the weather is cold, wet and not conducive to getting outdoors for exercise, the muscles of her body have lost tone and atrophied to some extent. That’s just what happens to muscles -- yours and your dog’s -- when they’re underutilized.
Studies show that after just a matter of days, well-conditioned muscles begin to lose their tone and strength.
After four or five months of rest during cold weather, your dog’s muscles will weaken. This can set him up for an injury if his activity level suddenly jumps significantly during the first days of spring.
Two Common Injuries in Dogs
I live and practice in the Chicago area where the harsh winters are often spent indoors.
Each spring and summer I see the same two exercise-related injuries to dogs over and over: knee and soft tissue damage, and cervical disc/neck problems.
Injury #1: Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries
The ACL is a ligament in your dog’s knee joint. Strains and ruptures of this ligament are common among out-of-condition and overweight dogs.
ACL damage will cause your dog intense pain and instability of the affected knee. Symptoms include sudden lameness and stiffness. You may also notice your dog sitting or lying in an unusual manner, with the injured leg in an awkward position.
The only effective treatment for a complete ACL tear is surgery, as these ligaments will not reattach on their own. That’s why prevention is always the goal.
You can help prevent soft tissue injury in your dog, including ACL damage, by making sure he starts out slow after a period of inactivity. It’s the same principle you apply when you begin a workout program and don’t want to injure yourself.
If your dog is healthy, his instinct will be to go from “zero to eighty” as soon as you throw open the front door and the two of you step out into the warm spring sunshine.
How to Protect Your Dog from Soft Tissue and Knee Injuries
It’s your job to remember that just because your pup -- after being cooped up for a few months -- wants to take off like a shot and run two or three miles, doesn’t mean he should right away.
Going from very little activity right to an intense burst of physical exertion is a recipe for injury. So start out slow and work your pet back up to his pre-winter level of fitness before you let him go full out.
And this applies to dogs who are “weekend warriors,” too. I see many recurring injuries in dogs that exercise and play at high intensity with their owners all weekend, but only on weekends. Monday through Friday many of these dogs get little to no exercise beyond walking out to the backyard to relieve themselves.
Getting your dog warmed up before he exerts himself is also very important. Walk him and encourage him to stretch his limbs before you engage in more intense exercise.
Consistency is important. Ideally your dog should get some exercise every day so he remains in good physical condition and the muscles and ligaments around his knees stay healthy and strong. This will keep him fit and better able to avoid strains and sprains and other injuries. The minimal amount of exercise needed to maintain muscle tone is a minimum of 20 minutes 3 times weekly. This is the bare minimum, not the optimum.
Injury #2: Cervical Disk and Neck Problems
The second type of injury I often see when the weather warms up are cervical disk and neck problems resulting from collar strain.
Hopefully you’ve trained (or are training) your dog to walk beside you and heel on her leash.
But even the most well-trained dog will have her moments when she jumps suddenly forward, causing her collar to pull tightly against her neck. It might be a bunny that hops across her path. Or the sight of another dog she’s friendly with, or a person she’s excited to greet.
As your dog lunges in the direction of the excitement, she pulls all the slack out of the leash and applies a great deal of pressure via her collar to her neck and cervical area.
This pressure can result in an injury to your dog’s cervical disk or other problems with her neck. Symptoms can include a hesitance to move or lower her neck to eat or drink, and painful crying out when her head or neck area is touched. Occasionally there can be lameness in a front leg with this type of injury.
If your dog hasn’t been outside for a good walk due to the colder weather, she’s apt to pull quite a bit on her leash the first few times you take her out this spring.
This will create the type of stress on her neck you want to avoid, so start with a bit of retraining of good leash behavior before you take your pup too far from her home base.
How to Eliminate the Risk of Crippling Neck Injuries
Reinforce basic heal commands inside before the exciting walk begins. Insist that your dog walk close to you and at a pace that ensures there’s always slack in the leash. Leash slack is crucial to preserving the health of your dog’s neck and cervical disc throughout her life. Repetitive yanking on the leash is not a viable form of training and only leads to additional neck trauma (caused by you).
You also want to make sure you’re using the right collar for your dog. If your pet habitually pulls on the leash, especially if she’s a large breed, she can end up with damage to her trachea, including collapsing trachea syndrome, or vertebral damage.
For example, a 90-pound dog with a choke collar who habitually strains at the leash is putting 90 pounds of pressure onto one inch of metal. That’s a tremendous amount of stress to the dog’s neck, and over time, injury is almost assured.
If your dog is a habitual puller and you’re not able to improve her behavior on leash -- or while you work to improve her leash habits -- I recommend you switch to a harness, Gentle Leader type head collar, or another type of restraint suggested by your wellness trainer.
These alternate devices distribute your dog’s body weight evenly across the restraint and alleviate all pressure on her neck.
You’ll need to help your dog build up her tolerance for a new type of restraint. You can do this with slow but consistent exposure through regular walks. I recommend a minimum of three walks a week for at least 20 minutes each. Practice using your new harness at home and inside, before the walk begins.
More frequent walks for longer periods will only help your dog get used to her new restraint and improve her overall physical condition, so if you have or can make the time, take your dog for a good walk every day of the week if you can manage it.
The Importance of Regular Exercise to Your Dog’s Health
Unfortunately, your dog can’t get the good aerobic exercise he needs by running around the house or even playing in the backyard.
In fact, if your pup’s leg muscles aren’t toned, his tendons and ligaments aren’t stretched and strong, and his core muscles haven’t been worked and can’t do a good job holding his frame solidly in place, a sudden burst of activity in and around your home can create the type of injuries I see too often in my practice.
Your canine companion needs your help to maintain good skeletal health through daily, consistent, controlled aerobic exercise, including such activities as:
- Jogging with you
- Fetching a ball or catching a Frisbee
Depending on where you live, it’s much easier to keep your dog fit during spring and summer months, but your goal should be to keep him exercised year round.
If you live in the Midwest like I do, or in other areas where winters discourage outdoor activities, you’ll need to use some creativity to come up with ways to help your dog stay active.
Some ideas to consider:
- A hydrotherapy or warm water dog pool
- An indoor dog park (this is also a great idea for those of you who live in climates where the summers are too hot for strenuous outdoor exercise)
- Indoor agility or tracking training
- Cross-country skiing