Animals on the Move: Exercise
Animals in the wild have the benefit of full natural sunlight and moonlight, with no artificial lighting to interfere with their perception of what time of day or year it is. They also experience a full temperature range to toughen their system, life in an unpolluted, social environment, and the freedom to enjoy a full range of motion. The dog’s ancestor, the wolf, is a hunter by nature, who might cover 100 miles or more every night in search of its food. Domesticated animals have come far from their natural state, and many of the conditions they must adapt to are not especially healthful for their minds or bodies. Without exercise, animals tend to feel stressed, lethargic, depressed, and bored, just as humans do. And as with humans, boredom may lead to overeating, which then leads to even lower exercise levels in a debilitating vicious cycle. So getting into an exercise routine will keep both you and your pet physically, emotionally, and mentally fit, and should therefore be a top priority right alongside a good diet and grooming.
Animals need regular exercise to help their bodies work their best. The benefits are numerous: Exercise will stimulate the muscles, increase circulation, regulate blood pressure, oxygenate tissues to get rid of toxins and build up the system, improve digestion, help the joints work better by enhancing the production of synovial fluid, and improve bone density. Bowel function will improve as well. Exercise boosts the immune system and helps to shed dead skin. It keeps insects away because bugs don’t like healthy animals. Some research even shows that a small but consistent amount of exercise will aid in recuperation from injuries, such as wound healing. Plus there’s the vital consideration of weight control: Exercise will keep your animal trim, and help to slim down an obese pet, an all-too-common phenomenon today. Obesity leads to circulation problems and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Your usual exercise, or playing routine with your dog should be at least 15 minutes twice a day, and it can be as long as two hours, with certain breeds needing more exercise time than others. Dogs like to run, play with balls, chase sticks, play Frisbee, swim, and of course, just plain walk. But your daily walking routine with Rover needn’t be thought of as a chore, or as lost time. Many people use dog walks as mental relaxation time, when they can unwind, meditate while moving, or think creatively or in a problem-solving mode. If you want to become more social, dog-walking, especially in a park, is a good way to do it, because an animal on a leash, just like a baby in a stroller, is a magnet for others of like interests. And walking a dog day after day is going to help you, as well as the animal, stay in shape.
ENOUGH WITH THE CAT NAPS!
Don’t think that your cat can’t get in on the walking act as well. Some cats, Siamese and Abyssinian in particular, can be trained to walk on a leash if they’ve become accustomed to it from the time they were young. Many cats resist any type of confinement, and will not take to being walked. It may be worth a try, however, and with time and patience you may succeed. That could open up a whole new world for you and your cat. A cat harness that wraps around the chest is best because you don’t want to risk the cat getting hurt from a tug to the neck or the collar getting caught on some object. Nor do you want to risk the cat getting loose and slipping out of the collar. Note that while dogs are supposed to “heel,” with cats you let the animal take the lead, as long as it’s walking into safe territory, and you follow.
Indoor-only cats may look lazier than they actually are, the reason being that you don’t usually see them during their peak activity times. Being nocturnal creatures, cats tend to sleep during the day and exercise in the late evening or at night by stretching, running, jumping, and playing. Cats will do a certain amount of play hunting, where they’ll crouch down, creep around, and pounce on something. This play hunting is good for them. Kittens play most of the time, but older cats release their energy in short bursts of activity. You can help them to do this by encouraging them to play. There are many types of cat toys—catnip mice, toys that rattle and roll, cat bungee toys, racket socks, and cat “condos” and entertainment centers. You needn’t spend lots of money for cat toys; just dangling a pencil from a string or rolling a ping pong ball might be all it takes to get your cat going.
If your cat doesn’t play, it may be lonely or lethargic. One way to increase cats’ vigor is to brush them daily or massage them. Cats like to play with their owners, and they just might start a play-fight if you massage them and gently move their legs. Suddenly, the cat grabs your hand and flips over. This is a form of exercise, too. If there’s more than one cat, the duo will tend to get more exercise than would one cat alone. If your cat is lethargic, consider bringing a younger companion into the household. A kitten might be a little too much for an older cat, but a youthful feline, one a year or two old, could be lively enough to get an older cat (though not too old) moving.
ABOUT GETTING OUT
Don’t let cold winter weather discourage you from taking a healthy dog or cat outdoors to get some exercise. Animals have natural fur coats to protect them, and the fresh air and light will do them a world of good during those dark, gray months. Everybody longs for sun, including dogs and cats and most other animals, and being inside a gloomy apartment day after day can result in seasonal affective disorder, the SAD syndrome. Just like us, our pets can get the “winter blues” if they are deprived of natural sunlight, fresh air, and exercise. That’s because a sedentary, stagnant lifestyle can have a negative biochemical effect on the brain that creates boredom and a depressed immune system. Lack of sunlight can also cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies, particularly a deficiency of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, which is needed for good metabolism. Exercise, good air, and light will get your animal out of its rut by increasing the brain’s supply of endorphins, the natural “feel good” chemicals that elevate mood. Even indoor cats can benefit if you set up a play station near a sunny, partially opened window, or on a screened porch if you have one, and if you improve the air quality of your home or apartment with a good air purifier. So be sure to let your animal move about to dispel those dark clouds and renew spirit.
Naturally you will need to practice common sense and not expose your animals to dangerous wind chill factors or ice storms for any length of time. You will also want to keep your puppies, kittens, and sick or geriatric animals indoors on bad days. But the average dog or cat should easily withstand most winter weather.
Exercising outdoors in winter and every other season has an additional important benefit—it gives animals the chance to detoxify from the effects of indoor pollution. While your home should be a haven for you and your pets, most likely it is filled with many hidden toxins that are tucked away in carpets, bedding, curtains, furniture, and household cleaners, a situation made worse by poor ventilation. Because animals are close to the ground they breathe in chemicals readily and are therefore more prone to their harmful effects than are humans. While you will want to minimize the pollutants in your household as much as possible, you can also help your pet detoxify its system and breathe more freely by letting it play outdoors.
Common sense will tell you when to cut down on or eliminate exercise if your pet is weak, geriatric, or sick with a bad heart or certain other conditions. Even if your pet has been healthy and playful for many years, there may be a time when it needs to exercise less. So look for signs that indicate a change in health. If your dog is used to two-hour walks and now, all of a sudden, is reluctant to go out, it may be communicating that something is wrong. Also, you should not expect an out-of-shape or obese animal to have the same stamina as a fit one. You will want to go slowly, starting with short walks around the block, letting the animal cool down, and building up from there. Even a short and easy exercise program will begin to improve circulation so that more oxygen and nutrients reach organs and tissues.