Arriving home after work, I was feeling tired after a long busy day. It was already dark and chilly outside, and I was looking forward to grabbing a beer from the fridge, polishing off the rest of last night’s chili, and settling onto the couch for the evening. But my wife was quick to remind me that the dogs hadn’t been out all day and were in need of a walk. Not really what I had in mind, but I dutifully put on my coat, hat and head lamp, grabbed the leashes and headed outside with the gang. The dogs were thrilled, of course, and after a few minutes I realized that this was what I really needed myself. Yes, it sometimes takes some prodding when the couch is calling, but the benefits of exercise – for you and your pets alike – are far-reaching and profound.
Studies show that exercise has important physical, mental and emotional benefits not only for humans, but also for the dogs, cats, birds, horses and other domesticated animals in our care. Obesity and musculoskeletal issues are rather obvious problems associated with inadequate exercise. But what about diabetes and senile dementia in dogs, and urinary tract disease and cardiomyopathy in cats? Laminitis and gastric ulcers in horses? Or feather picking and fatty liver disease in caged birds? The list goes on. The truth is – in order to have optimal health – all domesticated animals need a level of physical activity that mimics the behavior of their wild ancestors.
This is pretty easy to understand with domestic dogs. Going for walks and chasing objects mimics the activity of an Australian dingo in the Outback and an African dog in the savanna. But does your cat need to go for walks too? Well, our two cats actually do accompany us on walks with our dogs… ask our neighbors! But the most beneficial exercise for cats is the quick, intense bursts of activity that mimic the hunting behavior of a bobcat, cougar or other cat in the wild. And horses? They’re herd animals that stand and graze until they run off at full speed for short periods when spooked. Birds fly from tree to tree seeking food and avoiding predators, but even hummingbirds spend a significant time resting.
The overall pattern that emerges from observations of animals in nature is one of long periods of rest and low level activity interspersed with high intensity physicality (which matches up nicely with recent studies in human exercise physiology that suggests that short, repetitive intervals of intense exercise may actually be healthier for you than spending an hour on a treadmill).
This is actually good new for most of us who feel guilty for leaving our dogs at home all day when we’re at work, or when we see our cat snoozing in the same comfy spot for hours at a time. As long as we ensure that our animals engage in adequate amount of intense “play activity,” whether it be a dog chasing a ball, a cat running up a carpeted tower to attack a string, or a horse sprinting across a pasture, we can feel better about meeting the physical and physiological needs of our animal companions.
Certainly factors such as age and physical impairments need to be taken into consideration, and all exercise doesn’t have to be ultra intense to be beneficial. The bottom line here is that you don’t have to take your dog on a three-mile walk or your horse on a two-hour trail ride every day to have a healthy amount of exercise. You do have to make a concerted effort to ensure that your dog, cat, horse, bird (chickens too) or any other animal in your care, get up and move about on a regular basis. As the ad on TV says, “A body in motion stays in motion.” It’s a good rule of thumb to remember. And indeed, to “see Spot run” is a beautiful thing.