You know it’s good for you. You know that exercise can give you energy, help you maintain a healthy weight, keep your muscles and joints flexible, help you live longer, and above all, make you feel better. For all the same reasons, your pets need to get up and get moving. Not only can exercise extend your furry friends’ lives; it may also expend some of their nervous energy and make them a little less likely to chew on the living room drapes.
The thing is, nobody’s filled pets in on all of these benefits of exercise. Without someone to lead the way, they’re not going to run laps or do leg lifts in their spare time. So as a wonderful pet parent, part of your job is ensuring your animal family members get safe, enjoyable exercise on a regular basis--whether they’re cats, dogs, turtles, or ferrets! All pets need some physical activity to live a happy, healthy life.
Different pets need different amounts of exercise, so you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian before starting your pet’s workout program. With your veterinarian’s approval, you can embark on an exercise program that won’t seem like work at all--to your pet, it’s play.
Dogs on the run
Dogs can be great fun to exercise, because they can get you out and moving yourself. You don’t want to hit the ground running with your pooch, though. Just as with any animal--or person--you’ll want a doctor’s okay before you start your dog’s fitness routine. "Begin with a visit to the veterinarian to discuss your plans and ensure your dog has a clean bill of health," says Dr. Jay Geasling, member and past president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "After your veterinarian gives you the go-ahead, start your dog on suitable exercise for beginners."
Just like people who aren’t used to exercise, dogs should start off slow. Moderately paced walking and swimming are a good way to start--they let canine athletes build their cardiovascular and muscle strength without putting undue stress on their joints. A daily ten- to 15-minute walking or swimming session is a good start; you can build to an hour a day if Rover seems up to it. If, after a few months, he’s doing well and can handle long, fast walks without fatigue, he can graduate to jogging with you. Once he’s adapted to the exercise, you and your dog can run and walk to your heart’s content, if you take a few precautions:
- Keep a close eye on your dog: watch for any unusual signs of fatigue or trouble breathing. If your pup wants to stop, let him. Dogs that overdo it can suffer strained tendons or ligaments or other orthopedic problems.
- Don’t expect your fuzzy buddy to be a weekend warrior, even if you only get exercise on the weekends yourself. After a long week without exercise, your dog may be ready to get out and burn off energy. But because of their enthusiasm, many of the popular breeds, such as Labrador and golden retrievers, will overdo it.
- Safety first--keep Rover on a leash when you run. Even the best-trained dogs can run into the path of a car or a territorial animal. And if you have to run when it’s dark out, put reflectors on your dog’s collar as well as on your clothes.
- Concrete and asphalt are tough on the paws, especially on hot days. Try to run on dirt paths or grass as much as possible. Gravel, cinders, and road salt can also irritate paws.
- Take it easy in extreme weather. If it’s freezing cold or hot and steamy out, either keep your run short or play a little indoor fetch instead.
- The more active your dog is, the more water he’ll need. Make sure he has plenty of fresh water before and after your run. If you’re going for a long run, take some water along for him.
If your dog is getting bored with running or walking, take heart: there are other ways to get him the exercise he needs. A 15-minute game of fetch makes for a good workout. Supervised play with other dogs is a good option too. Tug-of-war is not a good game because it can damage his teeth and may increase aggressive behavior. If you have the time and your dog has the inclination, you could even try running him through some agility obstacle courses, which incorporate a range of activities. If you’re interested, your veterinarian may know of a dog agility organization in your area.
Getting the cat off the couch.
Cats can make laziness into an art form: snoozing in the afternoon sun, stretching a little before they plop down on your lap for the night. But as immobile as they seem, they still need to get up and moving on a regular basis. Cats are a bit different than dogs, however--they’re designed for short, frequent periods of intense activity, rather than longer, slower-paced exercise sessions.
There are some wonderful toys you can buy to get your cat active, including kitty trees that will let her climb to the ceiling and mechanical animals she can chase around the room. There’s no reason to reach into your wallet for toys your cat may or may not like, however, when there is endless entertainment around the house. There are a few main ways you can entice your kitty into activity:
- Things she can bat. Anything light that moves easily across the floor can give your cat a chance to practice hitting and chasing. Balled up pantyhose and paper work well; for some reason the rings that come off of milk jug caps also seem to be irresistible. Just make sure that she’s not batting anything she could chew up or swallow.
- Things she can chase. The end of a moving string should bring out the predator in even the most sedentary cat. Again, just make sure she doesn’t swallow the string.
- Things she can explore. Empty boxes and paper bags may get your cat to climb in, out, and on top.
- Things she can scratch. Scratching stretches and tones the muscles in your cat’s shoulders and back. A scratching post--or even a piece of cardboard or carpet--can keep her active without shredding your sofa.
Whatever game you play with your cat, don’t use your hand or fingers as "bait" or as the object of teasing. This teaches him that it is all right to scratch and bite your hands--a lesson you will want your cat to unlearn in the future.
The key is to find out which kind of toy is the most tempting to your cat and to use it consistently. You may have to try a lot of different activities to before you find your kitty’s favorite. Some cats can even be trained to walk outside on a leash.
Yes, your pets in cages need exercise as well. Some small exotic pets, such as mice, geckos, turtles, or small birds, can get enough exercise simply moving around their cage. Larger animals, however, may lose muscle tone or become obese if they don’t get enough activity. There are a few ways to make sure your exotic gets moving:
- In the cage. Some pocket pets and birds can get plenty of activity with toys inside their cage. The well-known hamster wheel is an excellent way for hamsters, gerbils, and rats to burn off extra energy. Also, most pet stores carry sections of plastic pipe that you can attach to your pocket pet’s cage for extra running room. Climbing ladders and hanging mirrors and bells can help keep birds active and moving around their cage.
- Letting them out. If it can be done safely and you can watch him closely, letting your exotic pet out of the cage is an excellent way for him to stretch and move his muscles. If your pet is small enough, you can put him in a "hamster ball" and watch him roam. Some larger animals like rabbits, iguanas, and birds can safely explore your living room if you watch them carefully; be particularly watchful for rabbits, guinea pigs, and the like chewing on electrical cords.
- Getting fresh air. Building a small, securely covered outside pen may be a good idea if you have an exotic pet. Most larger exotic animals--including rabbits, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, snakes, iguanas, and turtles--will enjoy some time in the sun and the grass, provided they are protected from predators. You’ll just need to make sure they’re always supervised and that your lawn hasn’t been treated with any chemicals.
- Swimming. Believe it or not, swimming can be great exercise for reptiles. Many snakes and lizards are thrilled to slither or paddle around in a few inches of water. Because they carry salmonella, reptiles shouldn’t swim in a bathtub or swimming pool used by people. Instead, you can buy a children’s wading pool and keep it just for your pets’ use.
- Making them fly. If you have an overweight bird that refuses to fly, you’ll need to coax him to walk and to move his wings. One trick to get him to flap is to hold him on your arm and move that arm up and down; he’ll move his wings to keep his balance.
- Going for a stroll. With training, some rabbits and iguanas can actually learn to enjoy walking on a leash with a harness.
Whatever their species, animals’ need for exercise is just as vital to their health as their need for shelter, good food, and clean water. For help in designing an exercise plan for your pet, contact your veterinarian.