How Much Exercise Does My Dog or Cat Need?

We all know that exercise is an important aspect of an overall healthy lifestyle. The same rule applies when it comes to our four-legged friends. Unfortunately, many of our pets are much too sedentary these days, which can take a toll on both their physical and mental well-being. A well-rounded exercise regimen is necessary to keep your pet looking and feeling his or her best.

Similar to the feel-good benefits we reap from physical activity, a sufficiently exercised pet is generally happier, healthier and less stressed. As a pet owner myself, I know that my pups never seem more satisfied than after a nice long walk or a trip to the dog park. But beyond how it makes them feel, a lack of activity can contribute to pet obesity, behavioral problems and even certain medical conditions. But how much exercise does your pet truly need to stay happy and healthy?

How Much Exercise is Enough?
Most veterinarians would probably agree that, aside from pets with specific medical conditions, every dog or cat can benefit from some form of daily physical activity. However, the exact amount can vary greatly. For instance, a rambunctious Labrador retriever puppy is going to require considerably more exercise than an older, more sedentary dog or cat. Factors such as age, breed and health status can all contribute to the amount of exercise your pet requires.

Here are a couple of general guidelines you can use to help determine whether your pet is getting the proper amount of activity:

1. Perform a weight check.
Assessing your pet’s weight and body condition is the first step in determining if he or she is receiving enough exercise. Just as with people, obesity can have a negative effect on your pet’s overall health. Overweight pets can be more prone to allergies, joint problems and certain medical conditions, such as diabetes. Excess weight can also hinder your pet’s normal daily activities such as running, jumping and even grooming. (Some obese dogs and cats are simply not physically able to groom themselves.)

Ideally, your pet should have an hourglass shape when viewed from above. If your cat or dog’s body condition isn’t up to snuff, it’s probably time to take action. First, talk to your veterinarian to establish that you are feeding a proper amount. Then, once your pet’s dietary needs are met, you can evaluate his or her exercise regimen. For pets that already have a fairly active lifestyle, this could be as simple as adding on an extra 10-15 minutes of walking or play time per day. For more sedentary pets, you might be starting from scratch. (Please note that even if your pet is already in good body condition, he or she still requires daily physical activity to stay that way!)

2. Evaluate your pet for signs of stress or behavioral issues.
Excessive whining, barking, hyperactivity, chewing or other destructive behaviors can all result from too little activity. A properly exercised dog is not only much more likely to be obedient, but he or she will be less prone to destructive behaviors such as chewing and digging. This is especially true when it comes to puppies that seem to have an endless supply of energy. A sufficiently worn-out pup will be less likely have the energy to destroy your favorite pair of shoes. Cats who aren’t receiving adequate exercise may be more inclined to exhibit destructive behaviors as well. However, many unwelcome feline behavioral problems such as scratching, for example, are purely instinctual.

Frequently, I see pet owners who are quick to want their dog or cat placed on anti-anxiety medication for a behavioral issue when the true problem is a lack of physical and/or mental stimulation. Your regular veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist can help you determine if your pet’s undesirable behavior is worthy of medication or may simply be the result of a lack of exercise.

How to Encourage Your Pet to Become More Active
Most dogs will happily welcome additional walks and playtime if their owners initiate it. There are some dogs, however, who truly are couch potatoes and may require a little more prodding to get moving. Walking is ideal, but some dogs might respond better to chasing toys, playing fetch or even just wandering around the local dog park. Find an activity your dog seems to enjoy and stick with it—anything that gets him moving is a great start. Here are ideas to help your dog get active with you.

Promoting activity in cats can require a little more creativity. Indoor cats usually respond to a variety of toys and cat trees or perches for climbing in order to ensure proper physical and mental stimulation. A laser pointer or a feather on a stick can be a wonderful toy for an unmotivated cat. Additionally, hiding treats around the house for your cat to find may help increase activity and satisfy his or her prey drive. Keep in mind that cats can be rather particular, and not every cat is going to like every option. Experiment until you find what your cat enjoys best. (We like these activity ideas for indoor cats.)

How to Start an Exercise Regimen
Whenever implementing any new exercise regimen for your pet you should always increase activity gradually. For cats or dogs that are overweight or unaccustomed to activity, begin with short periods of gentle activity, such as walking or playing for five minutes daily. If, after a few days, your pet seems happy and eager to continue, then increase to 10 minutes, and so on.

Active or rambunctious dogs that simply haven’t been receiving the proper amount of exercise can probably start with longer periods of activity, but you still want to be careful not to push them too hard. Most dogs will show signs such as slowing down, tugging on their leash or panting heavily when they start to tire out, so be sure to pay attention to your pet’s cues. Cats that are bored or tired of playing will generally just walk away. If, at any time, your cat exhibits open-mouth breathing, stop the playtime or exercise.

Of course, you always want to avoid exercising your pet in extreme weather conditions or temperatures. If you are planning to take your dog out in rough terrain, such as a hiking trail, be sure to protect his or her paws if needed. If exercising your dog for prolonged periods outdoors, be sure he or she has plenty of access to fresh water and shade.

Illness and Other Special Considerations
Any pet with a known medical condition, especially a cardiovascular or respiratory disorder, should always receive clearance from a veterinarian before undertaking even mild forms of physical activity. If your dog or cat has recently had orthopedic surgery or suffers from a chronic orthopedic condition, your veterinarian may recommend strict rest for a period of time followed by a carefully detailed activity plan.

Never exercise your pet while he or she is ill. Certain brachycephalic (or short-nosed breeds) such as pugs, Boston terriers or bulldogs should avoid more rigorous forms of physical activity. Always check with your veterinarian before starting a new exercise regimen for your pet.

Exercise for Older Pets
Older pets, especially those with arthritis or other chronic orthopedic issues, still benefit from physical activity, but exercise should be modified. Most arthritic pets (like humans) require some form of exercise to help keep their joints limber, but there can be a fine line between giving your pet the proper amount of exercise and pushing too hard. You will want to pay extra attention to signs that your pet may be overdoing it. If any lameness appears or worsens during or following activity, cease their exercise for a few days and then scale back. For any newly diagnosed condition, it is best to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations.

Swimming can be an excellent form of physical activity for arthritic dogs since it provides them with a workout without putting stress on the joints. Of course, always be careful when introducing any pet—especially a geriatric pet—to swimming for the first time, and never leave your dog unsupervised around the pool.
Daily physical activity plays an integral role in your pet’s well-being. A regular exercise routine is not only important for weight management, but also makes for a happier, healthier pet overall. Take the appropriate steps to find the proper balance for your dog or cat—both you and your pet will be glad you did!