The Role of Exercise in Pet Weight Loss

Studies in humans document the importance of exercise for weight loss and weight management. One study found that as little as 80 minutes of moderate exercise per week was adequate to prevent weight regain after dieting.

The role of exercise in pet weight loss and management is not so compelling. The conventional wisdom is that weight loss success is 60-70 percent diet and 30-40 percent exercise. There is absolutely no research to substantiate these claims. Yet intuitively, we all know that exercise is a good idea for calorie expenditure.

Man and Dog Wanderers

Recent anthropological research suggests that the dog has been man’s best friend for a lot longer than previously thought. In fact, it is speculated that the mutual benefit derived by close association of the two different species influenced the subsequent evolution of both species toward interdependence. One can easily see how the smell and speed of the dog could aid the wandering, hunting style of early man. In return for help with the kill or finding dead carcasses, dogs may have received a more generous share from human pack members than from their food frenzied dog brethren. This ample supply of food would certainly favor a reproductive advantage for dogs in close relationships with humans and vice versa.

Together man and dog wandered large areas to secure an adequate food supply. Anthropologists estimate that Neanderthal men and women burned as much as 5,000 calories daily in this quest. Clearly our metabolic adaptations require we work for our food rather than sit at the drive-thru waiting for it. But what about our faithful companions, wouldn’t the same be true?

Exercise and the Dog

Scientist say the four-legged gait of the dog (as well as cat, chimpanzee and gorilla) is much more efficient than our upright gait. Gravity is also more evenly distributed, so each limb works less against gravity and uses less energy. This means dogs and cats have never worked as hard for their meals as we have. Using exercise to lose weight requires much greater effort for our pets; how much is completely unknown.

What little research we have suggests that a dog must walk at a constant pace of nearly four miles per hour to achieve a significant benefit from exercise. However, few owners are physically capable of providing this level of exercise. Four miles an hour means owners must sweat and dogs must pant. Otherwise it is just a stroll that feels good but does little for either participant. Add the need for 30-60 minutes at this pace for meaningful energy expenditure and it is no wonder that experts put more reliance on diet than exercise.

Adding a weight vest or walking uphill or stairs increases gravitational forces and energy expenditure. This can reduce exercise intensity (speed) and duration. Running obstacle courses or chasing balls and Frisbees is even more intense and can reduce exercise duration.

Exercise and the Cat

Cats are incapable of extended exercise. Their feeding style is short, quick hunting activity, then food consumption, and no activity until the next hunt. They have little stamina. Chase a cat for more than 2-5 minutes and they quickly fatigue, stop, and open mouth breath. Have you ever tried to leash walk with your cat? Yes, some cats will leash train, but they are not breaking land speed or endurance exercise records. They are not athletes. This is why they are easy prey for coyotes and other predators. Prolonged exercise was never a developmental adaptation for the cat.

A Lifetime of Activity

So what is the role of exercise in pet weight loss? There is no question that increased expenditure of calories with restricted intake of calories will promote weight loss and weight maintenance. However, it requires regular commitment on the part of the owner. Walking, running, or Frisbee chasing with dogs requires at least 30-60 minutes a day for 5-7 days a week. Ideally this should be for the entire life of the dog. After all, that is the same recommendation for humans.

Cats need multiple (4-6) periods through the week where they chase a feather toy or laser pointer dot for 2-5 minutes daily. This should also be a lifetime endeavor.


How do you exercise your pets?

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Blazej Lyjak / via Shutterstock

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