How Diet, Exercise, and Mental Activity Contribute to Your Dog's Overall Health

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Written by Anne-Marie Hays | September 13th, 2019
Anne-Marie Hays is a Content Management Intern with Best Company. She enjoys comedy, hates crowds, and loves that you are reading this bio.

60.2 million.

That's the number of U.S. households that own a dog — and those aren't just single-dog households, because there are almost 90 million pet dogs included in the survey data. It's safe to say that dogs are a priority to many families.

But how many of those households are prioritizing their fur baby's health, both in body and mind?

Well, it turns out that we could be doing better.

"The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that over 50 percent of dogs are obese or overweight," says Erin Clifford, J.D., a certified holistic health coach, and pet writer. With that in mind, she emphasizes, "It is up to us, as the doggy parents, to keep our pups happy and healthy." 

If happy and healthy is the goal, we can do more.

We asked pet experts for advice on helping our pets to achieve this goal. Check out what they said.

Understanding healthy weight 

"One of the most important things you can do to keep your dog healthy is to keep its weight at a healthy level," says Jenny Smith, a dog owner and founder of the travel blog, MoveToNewZealand.

How do you know if your dog is at a healthy weight?

"Feel your pet's chest and do the rib check," suggests Dr. Antje Joslin, veterinarian, on behalf of Dogtopia. "If you have to search through fat layers, then your dog is overweight." On the flip side, Dr. Joslin says, "If your pet's ribs, spine, and hips are visible, that is a key indicator that your dog is underweight."

If you aren't sure, Dr. Joslin says to "Consult a veterinarian on what your dog’s ideal weight should be, and like any human on a strict diet, count the calories. Treats included."

Diet, exercise, and health

While your dog's exercise level and health share correlation, they are not the same thing; neither does adequate exercise mean that your dog is healthy. Fitness is multifaceted and includes activity, nutrition, and many other factors.

ZoomRoom CEO Mark Van Wye says, "The relationship between diet and exercise is just as important for pups as it is for people." Diet and exercise work together. They both are contributing factors to your pup's health.

Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pet Life Today, says, "Obesity is one of the most common health problems in dogs, and has been associated with a whole host of diseases including some types of cancer, congestive heart failure, Cushing’s disease, skin disorders, and musculoskeletal problems like osteoarthritis, cruciate ligament ruptures, and intervertebral disk disease."

If you want to make sure your dog's diet is adequate, where do we start?

"Feed your dog a high quality, nutritionally complete and balanced dog food that is life-stage appropriate," says Dr. Coates, "but don't feed too much."

"The first step to keeping a dog at a healthy weight is to feed it an appropriate amount for its size," says Smith. "The guidelines on the dog's food bag can help determine this, but it is important to keep in mind that individual dogs' caloric needs may vary. Some dogs are less active than others and need less food. Certain breeds may not need as much food as others.

Consult your veterinarian if you are unsure how much to feed your dog. 

For dogs with a larger appetite, some dog food brands have 'weight control' or 'weight management' varieties. These kinds of dog food allow the dog to eat more volume without consuming excess calories."

Activity recommendations

All dogs need exercise, says well-known celebrity dog trainer Joel Silverman

If All Dogs Go to Heaven, it's no wonder that they share even more universal truths. However, Silverman says that how much exercise a dogs need varies.  "The amount of exercise is dictated by the breed or breeds your dog has in him. A great example is if your dog is a St. Bernard, and your friend has a Border Collie, the amount of exercise that each of the dogs is going require can be very different." 

Veterinarian, Dr. Gary Richter, writing for Rover.com agrees. "When it comes to exercise," he says, "it very much depends on the breed, age, and health of the dog. Unless the dog has a medical condition, getting out for at least 30–45 minutes per day is recommended."

He shares another example of different breeds with different needs, "a dog like a Jack Russell Terrier might need to run for hours whereas a Shih Tzu may be content with 30 minutes. Barring medical issues, many dogs will let their owners know how much exercise they want/ need."

Along those lines, Dr. Coates advises, "Tailor your dog’s activities to their age, size, breed, health, and personality. A slow leash walk may be right for one individual while a trip to the dog park could be a better option for another, but never force your dog to do something that is too stressful (mentally or physically) or that they just don’t enjoy."

Exercise for behavior and health

Activity is beneficial for a dog's body and mind, observes Smith, "If you don't have a yard for your dog to run around in, you should take it on frequent walks and visit dog parks if you have them nearby."

"Frequent exercise is important, not only because it keeps dogs in good physical shape, but also because it provides mental stimulation," says Smith. "Dogs who do not get enough exercise can develop behavioral issues. For example, dogs that tend to destroy things around the house can often benefit from being played with more. They destroy things because they have a lot of energy, and not having an outlet for that energy makes them stressed."

Certified trainer and K9 of Mine contributor Kayla Fratt agrees. "As the saying goes, 'a tired dog is a well-behaved dog'," she says. "But exercise isn’t just important for ensuring your dog stays on his best behavior — it is also important for his long-term health. This means, minimally, going on several walks per day. In fact, there are a number of fun games you can play with your dog during walks." 

Along with games, toys can be helpful too. Smith suggests to pet owners: "Try to find toys that your dog likes to play with. Frisbees, tennis balls, and rope toys are common favorites among dogs everywhere."

Value mental activity

"While a daily walk is important," says ZoomRoom CEO Mark Van Wye, "dogs can also gain benefits from agility courses, a long game of tug, and mentally stimulating games, like puzzle toys."

"Never underestimate the importance of mental activities for your dog too," adds Clifford. "You can play hide and seek with your doggy, where you hide treats or his or her favorite toy. You can also buy interactive toys, such as the Nina Ottosson, where you place treats in compartments and your pup has to find them by moving one block after another in different circles. You may also increase the degree of difficulty by locking the blocks with bone-shaped pegs, which are placed in the hollows all around the up-side of the game. 

They also make plush hide-and-seek toys, like the Outward Hound Hide A Squirrel Puzzle. Here, you stuff the squeaky squirrels in the plush tree trunk and watch as your dog sniffs them out."

Overcoming complications

What if you aren't able to go outside or you don't have the time to tend to your dog's fitness? We have some suggestions for you: 

"In the winter, if you live in a frigid climate, find activities to do around your house, such as making a doggy obstacle course with couches, pillows, and blankets," suggests Clifford. "You can also run your dog up and down the stairs or hall, depending on his or her size. Playing fetch also works well in a basement or long hallway. Further, playing in the snow with your pup in the backyard can be great for exercise and a lot of fun too." 

She adds, "Above all, just make sure you’re keeping your dog active all year-round."

If you are too busy, especially during the workweek, there are options to make sure that your dog gets the exercise and stimulation that he craves. 

"For busy pet owners looking for ways to keep pets healthy and happy, securing professional pet-sitting or dog-walking services can offer a pet exercise solution," advises Meghann Evans from Pet Sitters International. "Many professional pet-sitting businesses offer daily dog-walking services, and some even offer other services to help keep dogs active such as hiking or swimming."

However, not just anyone will do. How do you entrust your best friend to the care of another?

"Before hiring a pet sitter," Evans cautions, "pet owners should do their due diligence to ensure they are hiring a true pet-care professional to care for their pets. Not everyone who lists their services online is a qualified pet-care provider. A professional pet sitter will have the training and credentials needed to provide your pet with the very best activities and care. PSI advises pet owners to schedule an initial consultation with a potential pet sitter prior to booking services and offers a free Pet Sitter Interview Checklist and pet sitter search on its website." 

Another alternative to a petsitter is taking your pupper to doggy daycare like Dogtopia, which even includes a spa facility or Zoom Room, a national indoor dog gym and training facility.

A warning: Don't over-exercise growing dogs

"One thing to be cautious of is over-exercising young dogs," says Dr. Richter. "Pet owners must use caution when exercising young, growing dogs. Over-exercising can lead to joint damage and long term problems such as early onset of arthritis.  

I would recommend dog owners refrain from going jogging with growing dogs or even taking long hikes with them.  

The dog will do their best to keep up but it may be at their expense. Taking them for walks or going to the dog park is fine. It's the long hikes or runs that can get them into trouble. This is good advice for dogs up to at least 1 year of age (Up to 1 1/2 years for giant breed dogs.). 

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