Many of us start thinking about fitness around this time of year. And as pet owners, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that keeping active is just as important for our pets....
Keeping Pets Fit in the New Year
Many of us start thinking about fitness around this time of year. And as pet owners, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that keeping active is just as important for our pets.

“Fitness is important to all living beings, and dogs and cats are no exception,” says Kate Connell, an Orange County-based certified professional dog trainer.

“They can fall victim to pretty much any chronic disease that humans can, especially those that often stem from an unhealthy lifestyle. … Keeping your pets fit and healthy extends their lifespan, reduces boredom, reduces vet bills and increases their overall quality of life.”

But before you immediately get up to start running your dog on a treadmill, some things to keep in mind:

Keep ’em lean

There shouldn’t be any “ring” around the base of the tail or rolls around the pet’s haunches when he’s sitting, says Connell.

“There should be a visible ‘tuck’ behind the rib cage when standing, viewed from the side, and a slight narrowing of the waist should also be visible when the pet is standing, viewed from above,” she said. “The owner should be able to feel the rib cage with very little pressure.”

On the other hand, the spine and hip bones shouldn’t be visible, and you shouldn’t be able to feel spaces between the ribs.

Careful with puppies

Puppies under a year should only be exercised for about 1 minute per number of weeks they are old at a time — maxing out at about 30 minutes regardless of age — up to three times per day, says Connell. For example, a 10-week-old can be exercised for 10 minutes max in one session.

Careful with pets with mobility issues

“Pet owners should consult with their veterinarian and a certified animal physiotherapist in order to decide which activities are best, but some activities may include slow walks on a loose leash on uneven ground … walking slowly over parallel poles laid on the ground … and wading through shallow water or walking on wet sand or snow. All of these exercises need to be done under medical guidance, introduced one at a time, and only practiced for a very short amount of time in order to prevent fatigue or further injury.”

Avoid long-term repetitive motion

Choose a grassy, park and slightly uneven ground over walking on hard, straight, level sidewalks because the latter can place repetitive strain on your dog’s joints and muscles. Avoid running or jogging your pet more than two to three times a week and never with a dog under 1, says Connell.

Make exercise fun

You can incorporate food into exercise by letting your dog or cat hunt for it. “Hide food in small containers throughout the yard or house in order to stimulate the senses and the body,” said Connell, adding that this is particularly beneficial for indoor cats.

Also, make sure to give your pet a variety of sturdy toys he can play with for both mental and physical stimulation. Give your dog as many off-leash opportunities to run freely as possible, including the off-leash dog beach or a friend’s backyard if you don’t have one.

Slowly take fitness to the next level

There are many classes and courses available to gradually build a dog’s core and stabilizer muscles in order to encourage overall strength, fitness and health, says Connell. Once your dog has a good baseline of fitness, you can consider starting up dog sports such as agility, flyball and Urban Mushing to name a few.

Agility – An obstacle course-based dog sport practiced alongside the pet owner. Jump Start Dog Sports in Yorba Linda offers agility classes. jumpstartdogsports.com

Flyball – A relay race between dog/owner teams requiring retrieval of a ball. Surf City Flyball is a local flyball group that competes in flyball tournaments. surfcityflyball.com

Urban Mushing – Exercises involving transport powered by working dogs mostly in urban areas – think dog sledding with wheels on a city trail. The Southern California Working Snow Dogs group participates in a variety of mushing-type exercises with their dogs. urbanmushing.com

“The possibilities are nearly endless,” says Connell.