By Paula Fitzsimmons
Exercise provides your dog with a myriad of physical and mental benefits. “It keeps joints limber and promotes good range of motion, maintains muscle mass, which can help prevent injury, and helps to maintain cardiovascular health, decrease obesity, or maintain appropriate weight,” says Dr. Wanda Gordon-Evans, an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul.
If that’s not enough to coax your canine companion off the sofa, consider this. Daily exercise can strengthen your relationship and reinforce your dog’s need for routine, says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. “One of the reasons dogs and humans get along so well is that we both appreciate structure in our respective worlds. Regular exercise provides a day-to-day predictability that dogs truly appreciate, simply because it is their nature.”
However, this isn’t an invitation to overwork your dog. “One misconception I sometimes encounter is that if a dog is overweight or obese, then the owner must suddenly erupt into a rigorous exercise plan for the dog,” Downing says. “Should that happen, there is real risk for joint injury, back injury, respiratory distress, or cardiovascular problem. Heat stroke is a huge problem (and an often fatal one) for obese dogs who are exercised too rigorously.”
Moderation is key. “Much of the time it is not the length of time performing the task, it is the intensity and impact of the activity that matters,” Gordon-Evans explains. “Walking is much less likely to trigger distress in a dog with heart disease compared with running, jumping, or hard play.”
If you’d like to start your dog on an exercise regimen or just want to make sure your current one is sensible, read on to learn about some signs of overexertion. Experts stress the importance of working with your dog’s vet to create an individualized exercise plan—especially if your dog has health conditions, is old or young, or is a breed that doesn’t tolerate intense exercise very well.
Wear-and-Tear on Paw Pads
For some dogs, playing is more important than painful feet, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian with Truesdell Animal Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “Some dogs will run until the pads on their feet tear and will then run some more.”
Pad injuries can be extremely painful, says Downing, who is board-certified in veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation and pain management. It’s “like walking on a ruptured blister on the bottom of your foot.” Dogs can’t get off their feet as easily as we can, “which makes any and all walking torturous.”
Look at the bottom of your dog’s paws. Overworked pads may have tears with visible flaps of skin present, may appear red, worn away, or thinner than normal. If infected, you may see swelling or pus. “Think of concrete as being like sandpaper. It can damage the pads of a running, spinning, jumping dog,” says Jeffrey, whose professional interests include preventative care.
Sudden stops can also create paw pad injuries “if the sliding stop is performed often enough to wear off the tough outer layer of the pad,” says Gordon-Evans, who is board-certified in veterinary surgery and veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation.
Muscular pain and stiffness is another sign your dog may be getting too much exercise, Downing says. “This typically shows up after the dog rests following excessive exercise. When the dog is ready to get up, the owner may notice a struggle. The dog may refuse to walk up or down stairs, may refuse the next meal because it hurts to reach down to the floor to the food dish. She may even cry out when first moving about.”
In the worst case, Downing says a dog may develop exertional rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the muscle tissue breaks down. “As the muscle dies, it causes excruciating and generalized pain. The breakdown products can in turn lead to kidney damage or failure.”
You can help reduce soreness and stiffness (and other injuries) by unsubscribing to weekend warrior syndrome, says Jen Pascucci, a rehab therapist at Haven Lake Animal Hospital in Milford, Delaware. “Many owners work all week and try to fit in a week's worth of exercise into two days off. This is not good for the dog because they are usually not properly conditioned but will push through warning muscle and joint pain and fatigue for play time and owner time.”
Some dogs have such a strong drive to work and play that they’ll push through severe fatigue and potential injury, says Pascucci, who is also a licensed veterinary technician. “That is the real danger. It is up to the owner to set boundaries and limit the high-drive dog to avoid over-exercise-related injury and exhaustion.”
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are especially a concern during warmer months when dogs can overheat, Jeffrey says. “If the body temperature increases to above 106 degrees, it can be life-threatening. Aside from causing potentially life-threatening hyperthermia, dogs can also become dehydrated or have difficulties breathing.”
Brachycephalic breeds—which include short-nosed dogs like Bulldogs, Pugs, Pekingese, Boxers, and Shih Tzus—are at even greater risk because they can’t cool off as efficiently as others, says Dr. David Wohlstadter, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Queens, New York. “I wouldn’t ever take a French Bulldog or a Bulldog on a run, I think that’s a terrible idea.” But he’s seen it. “Just because your dog really, really wants to doesn’t mean it’s safe for them,” he adds.
Your dog’s age is also a factor, Jeffrey says. “Very young and old dogs have difficulty regulating their body temperatures, so too much exercise can cause them to overheat as well.”
The impact associated with extreme exercise can cause strain and sprain in various dog joints. Toe joints are particularly susceptible, but the wrist and elbow are also at-risk, Downing says. “Dogs carry about 60 percent of their weight on their front limbs, which puts quite a bit of stress on those joints. In dogs with very straight rear legs, excessive exercise can lead to problems in the stifle (knee) joints, including strain, sprain, meniscal tears, and tears in the cranial cruciate ligament.”
Some dogs are at greater risk of developing joint injuries. Breeds who are long and low to the ground—like Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and Pekingese—have unusually shaped joints, she adds, “which puts their limbs at risk for easy injury in the face of excessive exercise.” Back problems are also common in these breeds.
If an older dog has osteoarthritis, she says over-exertion can cause immediate pain and actually accelerate the ongoing degeneration of joint tissues.
Young puppies (especially large and giant breeds) need some exercise, “but not too much as it can result in joint problems later in life,” Jeffrey says.
A dog who has sustained a leg injury may limp or favor one leg over the other, says Wohlstadter, who is certified in canine rehabilitation. “Dogs will sometimes put their head down when walking on the good leg and raise their head up when they’re walking on the bad leg.”
Also be aware of behavioral changes. For example, “if your dog normally likes to run with you, but plops herself down on the pavement and refuses to go further, this is something you might want to investigate with your family veterinarian,” Wohlstadter says.
Inconsistent conditioning can contribute to this and to injuries, Pascucci says. “Playing off leash for one hour does not mean one hour of exercise. Most dogs will have bursts of activity and then rest when off leash and left to their own devices. Being free to run and play in the backyard five days a week and then expected to jog with an owner 10 miles one day is a recipe for injury.”
She says a good conditioning plan for active pet parents and their dogs is to alternate days of cardio exercise (consistent exercise for 20 minutes or more) and strengthening with one full day of rest, which is a free day with no planned activities.
Dogs need exercise to maintain peak physical and mental well-being, but the type they should get depends on their condition, health history, breed, and age. “Some dogs are built for heavy exercise while others are not,” Jeffrey says. “Hunting and working dogs have more endurance than the brachycephalic breeds. The hunting and working dogs can exercise for a much longer period of time before showing signs of being tired.”
It’s good to know the signs of over-working your dog, but it’s even better to prevent issues—and the best way to do this is by working with your vet to create a sensible exercise plan for your best pal.