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Pets and New Year's Fitness Goals: Making Your Pet Your Exercise Buddy

If improved health and fitness are part of your New Year’s resolutions, your pet can act as a powerful motivator for forming and maintaining new habits

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For many of us in South Florida, the new year brings both cooler temperatures, and a slew of New Year’s fitness goals. This year especially, many of us are feeling the added pressure to shed the so-called “quarantine fifteen”.

If improved health and fitness are part of your New Year’s resolutions, your pet can act as a powerful motivator for forming and maintaining new habits. Exercise is fun for pets and most of them need it badly. According to recent data, more than half of them are either overweight or obese. What’s more, many are victims of a so-called “fat gap” meaning their owners are not aware of the fact that they need to lose weight

Like their human companions, pets who are not overweight can also benefit from a regular exercise routine. Exercise is crucial for building muscle and improving cardiovascular fitness, as well as improving mental focus. Additionally, it can help mitigate the effects of depression and anxiety. This is especially important to bear in mind, as we prepare to return a state of normalcy that will likely involve spending more time away from our pets.

We can help our pets - and ourselves - adjust to these impending changes by starting our back to work routines now. A routine that involves daily exercise can go a long way towards breaking out of a work from home rut, and moving back into office life. Including pets can ensure we stick with it, and can help them adjust as well.

If you’re thinking of starting your day with a walk or a run, consider bringing your pet along. Workouts are always more fun with a buddy, and less likely to be skipped when Fido is eagerly waiting at the door near his leash. Dogs can often be trained to join their humans as they bike or skate. Consider hiring a Certified Professional Dog Trainer to help teach this habit safely, as accidents can occur at these higher speeds.

It’s also wise to consult your veterinarian before starting any new exercise routine with your dog to make sure he or she is orthopedically sound. Some breeds are naturally more exercise intolerant than others, especially brachycephalic or “smush faced” breeds. For these types of dogs, exercise can only happen during the cooler parts of the day. 

If you’re working out at home, now is the perfect time to teach your pet they cannot continue to spend the entire day at your side. Make sure to provide your furry friend with a space of their own such as a crate or pet bed. Fill the bed with plenty of interesting chew toys and food puzzles.

These will keep them entertained and teach them how to self soothe. When you leave the house, encourage your pet to go to their space, and give them something fun to do to create a positive association with both the space and your departure. Before my wife and I leave the house, our dogs are given Kong toys which have been stuffed with soft, healthy foods and placed in the freezer the night before. It takes them hours to empty the contents and turns our leaving into a positive experience, as opposed to a traumatic event. 

While cats may not be able to accompany us for outdoor activities (although a stroller is certainly an option), it’s still important to provide them with mental and physical enrichment to help them adjust to spending more time alone. Additionally, cats tend to suffer from a range of health problems stemming from obesity, as well as behavioral problems caused by anxiety and boredom.

Consider adding a cat tower or kitty condo to your cat’s space. Cats also appreciate interactive toys that stimulate their natural hunting instincts. I always recommend cat toys that are motion activated and/or equipped with timers which can be set to activate them at random intervals. This will keep her mind sharp, as well as encouraging her to burn calories. 

In addition to achieving fitness goals, an exercise routine can also help us to manage the stress we may be feeling as a result of spending time in isolation. In an recent Swedish study, researchers measured the stress levels of test subjects by measuring the amounts of cortisol found in their hair follicles.

They then measured the cortisol levels found in the hair follicles of the subjects’ pets. The cortisol levels in the pets were nearly identical to those observed in their owners. Cortisol is the hormone secreted by our bodies in response to stress. In other words, when we’re stressed, so are our pets.

So, if you’re struggling to justify a self-care routine to kick off 2021, consider the needs of your pet. Chances are, everyone will benefit. 

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.

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