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Canine Trauma

How to Keep Fido Free of Winter Flab

Written by: Jorie Green, Staff Editor -

Is your pooch getting a paunch?

If you are like most animal owners living in cold-weather regions, you lost your enthusiasm for brisk, early-morning dog-walking right around the time when the temperatures began to drop. But without exercise, of course, animals as well as humans will gain weight, especially if calorie intake is not modified.

"It’s not good for animals to be active in the spring and summer months and then turn into physical slugs during the winter," said Dr. Robin Downing, DVM, hospital director of the Windsor Veterinary Clinic in wintery Windsor, Colorado, and a pet columnist for the Denver Post. "The ‘yo-yo’ effect is no healthier for pets than it is for us."

Dog trainer Sandy Myers, president of the Narnia Pet animal training company in Plainfield, Illinois, added that a lack of exercise affects a dog mentally as well as physically.

"I see dogs getting antsier in the winter because they don’t exercise, and then they get very reactive in the spring," she explained, adding that dogs should exercise daily for about 60 minutes, broken up in several intervals throughout the day.

In fact, most experts in animal healthcare recommend maintaining a consistent, carefully monitored exercise regime for dogs in the winter’whether it means bundling up and venturing outdoors or finding creative ways to transform the living room into a canine workout center.

If you and your dog refuse to be deterred by the chill, there are many fun ways to burn calories outside, according to Ms. Myers. Take Fido to a fenced environment such as a tennis court or baseball diamond and run around until you work up a sweat, she said.

Exercise during the cold weather is not always good for dogs, however, because of the risk of hypothermia. "Exercise artificially elevates the body temperature and the animal will experience a chill after it stops" that can lead to a dangerously low body temperature, Dr. Downing said.

"Just like you wouldn’t sit on a cold porch after you’ve exercised, make sure you take your dog indoors immediately after its workout," she explained. "If my dogs go for a vigorous walk and have worked hard, and then I leave them outside, I am putting them at a real risk."

Dr. Downing added that if you plan to walk your dog while there is snow on the ground, it is a good idea to keep the dog attached on a tether. "Dogs won’t keep a scent when there is snow and can easily get lost," she explained.

Dr. Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian at the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Hills, California who has treated race dogs at the prestigious Iditarod in Alaska, said that older dogs, especially those with arthritis, can "seize up" and experience intense joint pain when it is cold outside. These dogs should be kept warm and likely would benefit from a drug of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory class, such as carprofen, available through prescription as Rimadyl.

Additional risks from exercising outdoors include injury to the dog’s paws from ice or salt on the ground and ingestion of antifreeze, which attracts pets with its sweet taste but can cause irreversible kidney damage that can be life-threatening. As is the case with any exercise regime, over-exertion is always a concern.

"Even if it is [over-exerted], a dog will keep going if it is having a good time," Dr. Cruz said. Heavy breathing, panting, and a bluish appearance to the tongue are all signs of exercise intolerance.

Luckily, there are many innovative ways to keep your dog fit without ever venturing outdoors. Ms. Myers recommends "doggie push-ups," in which a family member commands the dog, "Sit down, sit up, sit down, sit up."

A good old-fashioned game of hide-and-go-seek will give a dog plenty of exercise. Another popular game is to throw a tennis ball down the steps and tell your pet to "go fetch," Ms. Myers added.

Rosa Chang, a dog owner in New York City, said she has found a way to make her pet, Kentaro, exercise without leaving the couch. "We point a laser pointer down the hall and into other rooms, and our dog loves chasing the pointer around," she said.

And according to Dr. Downing, laser devices that project the image of a mouse are a big hit with many animals.

As long as there is monitoring, swimming is another great indoor sport for dogs, Dr. Cruz said. She also recommended "remote control mice" and putting the animal on a treadmill at a very slow speed.

But for most dogs, having fun and keeping fit does not require any sophisticated technology.

"My dog’s favorite winter activities are running up and down the steps," Dr. Downing said.

Article republished here with permission from
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