By Dr. Becker
Most people who live where winters are cold and wet don't get outside as often as folks who live in milder climates. And that means their dogs don't get out much either during the colder months of the year. As the weather starts to warm up and spring fever hits, both humans and dogs who've been cooped up indoors are eager to get outside and make up for lost time.
There's just one problem with this plan: dogs who've spent most of their time indoors and at rest since October or November need to start slowly and rebuild muscle tone before they can safely ramp up their exercise level. As is the case with human muscles, your dog's muscles lose tone and atrophy as a result of extended periods of inactivity. In fact, after just a matter of days, well-conditioned muscles begin to lose 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 once the weather warms up.
Two of the Most Common Springtime Injuries in Dogs
Like clockwork, every spring and summer veterinarians see two specific exercise-related injuries in dogs: knee and soft tissue damage, and cervical disc and neck problems. The most common soft tissue injury we see involves the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL). The CCL is located in your dog's knee joint, and strains and ruptures of this ligament are common among out-of-condition and overweight dogs. CCL damage causes intense pain and instability of the affected knee.
Classic 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 CCL tear is surgery, as these ligaments will not reattach without medical intervention. That's why prevention is always the goal.
Preventing CCL Injuries in an Under-Exercised Dog
Going from very little activity to an intense burst of physical exertion is a recipe for injury. So start out slowly and work your pet back up to his pre-winter level of fitness before you let him go full out. This advice also applies to weekend warrior dogs. I see many recurring injuries in dogs that exercise and play at high intensity with their owners all weekend, but only on weekends. Weekdays, 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. And consistency is extremely important. 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. In my experience, nutrition also plays a role in many CCL injuries, specifically, dietary manganese deficiencies.
That's why I recommend feeding your dog a ligament-supportive, homemade, fresh food diet balanced for optimal nutrient intake, including 3.1 milligrams (mg) of manganese per 1,000 kilocalories (kcal). Supplement if necessary with whole foods or a supplement such as Standard Process E-Manganese.
Cervical Disc and Neck Injuries
The second most common types of warm-weather injuries we see in dogs are cervical disc and neck problems resulting from collar strain. Dogs being dogs, even the most well-trained pooch will occasionally jump forward suddenly, causing her collar to pull tightly against her neck.
She might chase after a mouse or another small critter scampering by. Or she might see a doggy friend in the distance, or a person she wants to greet. As your dog lunges in the direction of the excitement, she pulls the slack out of the leash and her collar applies a great deal of pressure to her neck and cervical area.
The pressure can result in an injury to the cervical disc or other problems with her neck. Symptoms can include a reluctance to move or lower her head 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 long walk due to the colder weather, she's likely to pull 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 some retraining of good leash behavior before you take her too far from her home base.
Tips for Making On-Leash Walks Safe (and Pleasant)
It's a very good idea to reinforce basic heal commands before you strike out on your first spring walk with your dog. Insist that he 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 his life.
Repetitive yanking on the leash is not a good training technique and only leads to additional neck trauma (caused by you). In addition, make sure you're using the right collar for your dog. If he habitually pulls on the leash, especially if he's a large breed, he can end up with damage to the trachea or vertebrae.
For example, a 70-pound dog that habitually strains at the leash is putting 90 pounds of pressure onto about 1 inch of leather or fabric. 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 still working to improve his behavior on leash, I recommend switching to a harness, Gentle Leader-type head collar or another similar restraint. These alternative devices distribute your dog's body weight evenly across the restraint and alleviate all pressure on the neck.
Help Your Dog Stay in Shape All Year Long
Contrary to what many pet parents believe, your dog can't get adequate exercise by running around the house or the backyard by herself. In fact, if her leg muscles aren't toned, her tendons and ligaments aren't stretched and strong and her core muscles can't do a good job holding her frame solidly in place, a sudden burst of activity in and around your home can create the types 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 walking, hiking, jogging next to you, swimming and playing fetch. 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 her exercised year round. If you live where winters prohibit much outdoor activity, you'll need to use some creativity to come up with ways to help your dog stay active.