We all want to keep our dogs as fit and healthy as possible throughout their lives and well into their golden years. There are certain activities that, especially if indulged in repeatedly, do unnecessary damage to your dog. More and more we are recognising that repetition strain injuries, rather than one major event, are the underlying cause of many mobility problems. Many dogs like to do the same activity over and over and the type of injury varies with the activity. Knowing common activities that can cause damage and limiting how often your dog can do them is a sure way of reducing the incidence and severity of injury.
In the last blog we covered over-eating, under-exercising, overexercising as a puppy, jumping down from rest and slippery floors. Here are the remaining 10 everyday activities that can damage your dog:
Stairs can be difficult to climb for dogs with back leg and back issues but it is the going down, not the coming up, that is more likely to cause injury especially to the shoulders. This is exacerbated if the surface is slippery and even worse if there is a turn at the bottom. The commonest injury is to the medial support structure of the shoulder joint, rather similar to a rotor cuff injury in the human shoulder. It occurs when they put weight on the leg in extension and then it slips forward and out from underneath them. If they are going fast and turning on a slippery step the risks are increased even further.
If you do have stairs that your dog has to negotiate regularly then make sure there is a non-slip mat at the bottom. Also consider steps to control the speed they travel down the stairs. This could mean having them on lead or even having a child gate at the top or bottom of the stairs (or both) to slow them down.
2. Fence running
This is another favourite of the territorial dog, especially if their yard borders a walkway or backs onto a reserve where other dogs and people walk. Some dogs will do it by running from one side of the house to the other to get a view of people and dogs walking along the street and some will do it up and down the fence with the neighbour’s dog. Whilst the occasional sharp stop and turn is not especially stressful, doing it repeatedly can cause front paw and carpal (wrist) injuries, especially in susceptible dogs such as border collies.
Flyball is another activity that can cause similar injuries. As the carpus becomes restricted with scar tissue it loses the ability to absorb concussive force and not only becomes more damaged itself but also puts more stress on other front leg joints like the elbow and shoulder. In other dogs the force of braking repeatedly from speed results in damage to the flexor tendons of the lower limb.
Finally, in skidding to a stop on uneven ground many dogs injure their toes, especially the inside and outside toes at the proximal (metacarpophalangeal) joint. Repeated low level sprains often result in arthritis developing in the joints.
As discussed in dogs who jump down from rest it is better to reduce the distance that they can run. This limits the speed and therefore the force on the joints. Blocking one view point so they cannot run from one side of the house to the other, putting in a second barrier so they cannot get to the fence and are not so excited and confining them to a portion of the yard where there is no fence to run are all options worth considering.
3. Chasing balls/ball chuckers/Frisbees
Balls and Frisbees are so much fun! They move fast and are unpredictable – just like prey. It is no wonder that so many dogs find them addictive. They love it so much it is hard to deny them the joy of the chase – and it makes them so easy to exercise!
Unfortunately, dog’s bodies just aren’t designed for such high levels of intense, high impact activity and the dogs are so motivated that they just won’t listen to their bodies and slow down. Ball chuckers, whilst a seemingly easy fix for exercising high energy dogs, are the worst offenders in this regard. Even in dogs in peak condition they are very stressful on the body. In dogs with pre-existing problems the repetitive strain combined with the unpredictable bounce can be disasterous.
At the most ball games and frisbee should make up only 20% of your dog’s exercise and they should have plenty of breaks between runs rather than throw, return, throw, return over and over. Bigger balls don’t require the dog to bend so much to pick up the ball and are usually more predicable in their bounce so are better especially for bigger dogs. Balls with less bounce are also more predictable. Even throwing toys other than balls, ones that will stop sooner and bounce less, is a better option. If the ball or toy has holes in it so they can breathe through it this is also helpful.
Other strategies include having the dog wait until the ball stops before going to retrieve it, hiding the ball and sending the dog to search for it, throwing it out of sight so the dog has to slow down to look for it, throwing the ball into water so they have to swim for it (even better, have the dog in shoulder deep water before you throw so their acceleration is cushioned by the water and they can’t slip and slide) and throwing the ball to the dog rather than having the dog chase it.
4. Playing at the dog park
The main source of injury is running too hard for too long, the force that occurs when bodies collide and the injuries from slips and falls – often triggered by bodies colliding! The problem is much worse for young dogs, especially if they are overexercising, as their tissues are more flexible and thus more easily over stretched. On the other end of the scale many older dogs can have conditions such as arthritis exacerbated when bumps from other dogs suddenly stress the affected joints.
Dog parks are great in moderation but the key is control. We want the dogs to socialise, especially the puppies. We want them to enjoy the benefits of free running. A group of dogs mooching around the dog park, sharing scents, is perfect. A pack of dogs racing around is not. Call them back, offer treats and toys, let them have a break then let them run again when they are calmer. If they are puppies or have pre-existing conditions then keep them on lead so you can control their interactions. Alternatively, only go to the dog park when there are fewer dogs present, not at peak times. Avoid situations where all the owners stand together chatting and all the dogs race unobserved and uncontrolled.
5. Exercising in hot conditions
Finally, it is important to remember that dogs cannot sweat, they can only cool themselves by panting and radiating heat from their bodies. This is very inefficient if the weather is hot and humid. If they are panting hard and their tongues are long and wide with a curl at the end, or if they are panting so hard they cannot pause to swallow and froth is building up around their mouths – STOP! If at all possible get them under running water, particularly over their bellies so that it has direct contact to the skin and can carry away more heat. Continue until their breathing returns to normal.
So there we have it - 10 activities to avoid so that your dog will stay healthy and mobile into their old age.
Go out and have fun!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is general in nature and not intended to provide specific veterinary advice. If your dog has specific health issues a thorough physical examination by a trained veterinary professional is recommended. Veterinary clearance before instituting any new activity program is also recommended.
Author: Dr Sandra Hassett BVSc, MBA, MIVCA, CCRT