Saturday 24 March 2018

Exercise your pets more to keep them healthy

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Many people start the New Year with plans to take more exercise. Gyms are busy, the streets are crowded with joggers, and commuting to work by bike is far more common than it used to be.

The good news is that dogs are often included in this annual fitness drive. Exercise is as important to pets as it is to humans, for two good reasons: physical and mental health.

Physical health is the most obvious benefit: exercise keeps the body lean and toned. Around 60% of pets are overweight, and as with humans, this is due to a fundamental mismatch between "energy in" (i.e. food) and "energy out" (i.e. activity). Far too many pets are given more food than their body can use, and this is stored as body fat. Exercise burns up energy, so that there's less left over to be stored as fat.

It's important to realise that if an animal is overweight or obese, the problem needs to be tackled from both sides of the equation. As well as exercising more, less food needs to be fed for animals to lose weight. As with humans, there's a common misconception that if an animal is exercising vigorously, they can be given as much food as they like.

In fact, animals (especially dogs) are highly efficient at exercising, burning up far fewer calories that you'd expect. And dog food contains far more calories than you probably realise.

As an example, half a cupful of a typical dried dog food contains around 200 calories. To burn that off, a medium sized dog (like a small collie) would have to exercise heavily (e.g. swimming, with all four legs working hard to keep going) for over 100 minutes. And if a dog is just on a regular walk (meandering along, stopping to sniff, running for a while than strolling for a while), it could take twice as long to burn up those calories. So if you think that exercising your dog at a decent level (e.g. half an hour, twice daily) is going to keep them slim, think again: you also need to take a critical look at how much energy you are giving them in their food bowl.

If you feed your dog an extra half cup of dog food (200g) every week (the equivalent of around a tablespoonful every day), this adds up over a long period, and after a year, if they do not burn up the energy (e.g. via an extra 100 minute swim or a 200 minute walk every week), they will put on around 10% of their body weight over a year. And it's like compound interest: 10% a year for three or four years transforms a dog from normal weight to being grossly obese.

When you see these figures, it's no wonder that there are so many podgy pooches around. The answer is simple: as well as exercising your pet every day, you need to get them weighed regularly, and you then need to adjust their food intake to take account of any changes.

Most vet clinics are happy to weigh pets on easy-to-use walk on electronic scales, and they'll then record the weight on the pet's medical record. This is the ideal way of monitoring changes over months and years. Go along to your vet once a month, get your pet weighed, and adjust their food accordingly.

And start to actually measure how much food you give. Don't give a quick pour of kibble from the bag, or a couple of handfuls chucked into their bowl. Instead, get a measuring cup (many vets stock these to hand out free of charge), and draw a line on the cup with a permanent marker. That way you can easily monitor how much food is going in, and then increase it or decrease it as needed.

By the way, these same rules apply to cats: obesity is common in lazy, lie-around cats, and to counter this, you need to use a combination of regular exercise (i.e. playing with your cat, using toys), as well as giving less food (again, give a measured amount twice a day rather than just estimating an approximate bowlful of kibble).

So yes, exercise is good for pets' physical health, as long as owners remember to pay equal attention to their pet's daily diet.

The benefits of exercise for mental health are equally important, but are less well recognised by owners. Just as regular exercise is the best anti-depressant for humans, it's also also the best way of dealing with behavioural problems in dogs and cats. If your dog is barking the neighbours into an irritated fury, chewing your home into shreds, or generally causing problems by being difficult to control, then a twice daily walk is an important part of the answer. And remember that this is far more than just a wander around the park: walking the dog should be a two way process, with you focusing on the animal, and the animal looking you in the eye from time to time. You cannot multi-task, walking the dog while checking your mobile phone.

Exercise with a dog is as much about engaging the brain of the animal as it is about moving the muscles. Ideally, you should introduce obedience-type training into your daily walk. If you are new to this concept, talk to a local dog trainer about the different ways of doing this. It's also good to have activities that you do with your dog, such as throwing a ball for them: this is great exercise as well as relationship building stuff.

May you and your pet have a wonderful 2018, with plenty of exercise for you both!