Obesity is a well-documented health risk in humans and is now being recognised as a health risk in our animal companions. The latest statistics from the USA state that 53% of dogs and 58% of cats are overweight. Stats from the UK are similar and some are even available for pet rabbits and cage birds! South Africa usually follows overseas trends.

All small animal veterinarians are well-versed in methods of body condition scoring, and more recently muscle condition scoring. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association www.wsava.org has much information and downloads in this regard. Appropriate nutrition cannot be underestimated. We all understand that excess calories create obesity. This excess is as a result of ingestion of too many calories, or insufficient exercise needed to burn the extra calories. The focus of this newsletter is on how to safely and consistently exercise a dog so as to manage excess weight.

Walking is almost always advised by veterinarians. The value of a brisk walk cannot be underestimated however, few dogs walk fast enough to generate the elevated heart rates needed for sustained aerobic activity. The equipment can hamper the dog’s ability to exercise. Collars and choke chains can place pressure on the trachea and are not the restraint of choice. Head collars/haltis can improve control of the dog without impinging on the windpipe. Harnesses can be used but recent studies have shown that any type of harness affects the way in which a dog moves or carries himself. Be aware that the design of some harnesses can restrict shoulder range of motion. Always ensure that your client understands the correct fit of the chosen harness.

The harness should allow for free movement of the scapula against the rib cage which is critical for optimal movement. Leashes should be shorter as opposed to longer, for improved control. After 30  minutes of brisk walking allow the dog meander and sniff. In overweight dogs that have no underlying medical condition aim for 30 minutes of walking 5 times a week. In the first two weeks this could comprise of 10 minutes at a brisk pace followed by 20 minutes much slower. Week 3 and 4 split the walk into 15 minutes brisk and 15 minutes casual, and so on. Once the dog (and client) can walk briskly for 30 minutes they may choose to increase the time spent on this exercise. Time goals can play an important role in the sustainability of the program.

For those whose business or employment preclude walking in daylight hours, a treadmill can make a useful ally. The idea is to maintain the dog at a walking pace as  most human treadmills will be too short to allow for dogs to move at a faster pace. The dog should not be left unsupervised during the session. With patience and treats most dogs soon learn how to negotiate a moving track. It is important to allow for conditioning of muscles and development of fitness. In the beginning a session may be as short as 5 minutes with a few breaks in between to allow for mental adjustment and learning. Advantages of the treadmill include managing the pace at which the dog walks, as well as being able to exercise on an incline.

Our climate lends itself to swimming our canine companions. Swimming is an intense cardiovascular exercise and can form an integral part of any exercise and weight loss program. Aim for 30 minutes of swimming with appropriate rests between lengths. It may be easier to count the number of lengths as opposed to timing a session. Again, as with walking, it is important to gradually increase the amount of exercise. There may also be an introductory period where the dog needs to mentally adjust to the pool. It is advisable to have a step or platform available on which the dog can rest as jumping in and out of the water can create extra stress on joints. So-called float coats (or life jackets) are available for those breeds that are not inherently strong swimmers. Chasing balls or toys in the water can replace chasing in the garden and as such, also limit the risk of injury especially to cranial cruciate ligaments.

Physical exercise should be thought of as ‘fun with a purpose’. Introducing such a program may be what is required to motivate the client and shift the dog’s extra weight.