As with humans, a consistent fitness program developed with your particular dog or cat's needs in mind is one of the best ways to ensure they live a long, happy, active life with you. A fit dog or cat is less likely to suffer from an almost endless list of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes and joint issues. Unfortunately, a quick glance at recent statistics makes it clear that pet fitness has clearly gone to the dogs. Approximately 50 percent of pets in America are overweight.
General health assessment
Before starting any fitness program, plan a visit to your veterinarian to discuss any potential health issues that might limit your pet's activity. Your veterinarian can help you devise a plan for a gradual increase in your pet's activity level, focusing on activities most appropriate for your pet in addition to potential diet modifications. Whatever your pet's condition, working with your veterinarian is the best way to ensure you help your pet achieve optimal health and longevity.
Both dogs and cats enjoy and benefit from interactive play, but dogs tend to be more comfortable with supervised outdoor play than most cats. So be sure to stock up on toys to be used indoors to engage your cat in what is surely one of its favorite pastimes — stalking and chasing objects. Toys with a handle for you to hold and something enticing at the end, small toys you can toss for your cat to chase and laser toys may all pique your cat’s interest and get it moving. Some great options are the Petmate Cat-A-Trail (www.Petco.com, $30), 36" Cat Tail (www.petnetdirect.com, $7), the GiddyCat Rattle Toy (www.Worldwise.com, $2.69), the PlayPark Expandable Playground Set (www.Worldwise.com, $25) and the BirdBoing (www.Petsmart.com, $10).
One of the most difficult parts of any fitness program is finding the necessary motivation. The responsibility for this lies with you, as your dog or cat may need you to lead the way toward a more active and fit lifestyle. Having a canine or feline fitness partner should make getting started and following through much easier, as you can have fun and bond while improving health for both of you. A routine of play-based activities scheduled for brief periods throughout the day is a great way to get started.
Hit the pavement
The prospect of getting out and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the world is sure to make your dog’s day. Some cats can learn to enjoy on-leash strolls as well. Plan brief daily walks and, when appropriate, mix in some intervals of faster-paced walking or jogging to help increase heart rate and burn calories for you both. As your dog’s fitness improves, you can plan walks to a local park where games such as fetch can be enjoyed in safely enclosed areas.
Fetch for fitness
Fetching a favorite toy is a simple, effective way to get your pet moving. Play this game in your home, yard or local park by tossing the toy at a gradually increasing distance. As your pet runs to fetch it, try a few lunges, sit-ups or push-ups yourself! Increase your pet’s enthusiasm for fetch toys by putting them away until it’s playtime.
Set up some obstacles
Create a fitness obstacle course for your pet. A stick placed over two low boxes can become a jump, a large box with both sides open can become a tunnel, and a set of Petmate pet steps can become a climbing obstacle (www.Petsmart.com, $40). You can also purchase a set of lightweight portable obstacles (www.ClickerTraining.com, $589). Encourage your pet to stay in motion for short bits of time as it navigates the course and uses many different muscle groups.
Hold a toy or a piece of your dog’s normal food in your hand at the tip of your dog’s nose. Move your hand slowly back toward your dog’s rear so he follows it into a sit. Now move your hand straight to the ground between your dog’s feet so he lies down, then back up for a sit. He just did a push-up, and you can give him the piece of food and repeat. Gradually work toward more puppy push-ups for each piece of his meal.
Climbing toward fitness
Climbing stairs is a terrific way to build leg muscles and improve overall condition for your pet. If your pet is reluctant, start by placing yourself just a few steps up and encourage him to follow you up. Then head back down with your pet. Try again, gradually increasing the climb. Add in a puppy push-up or two at the top or the bottom of the flight of stairs for your dog and a squat or lunge for yourself so you both work various muscle groups.
Most cats love to chase small, fast-moving things. Try a small beam of light such as Multipet’s Bada Beam Cat Toy (www.multipet.com, $12), the Miracle Beam (www.miraclebeam.com, $6) or the Critterbug Laser Light (www.dogtoys.com, $11). You can engage in just about any form of indoor fitness yourself as you move the beam across the floor so your cat uses his or her instincts to chase it. Just be sure you don’t point any beam in the eyes!
Hide and seek
Have someone gently hold your dog or cat while you head a distance away (but still in his line of sight). Encourage your pet to move quickly to find you with praise and a game with a toy once they get to you. Gradually increase the distance until you are able to hide in another room of the house.
Your pet can also engage in physically and mentally challenging activities even when you aren’t home. Instead of feeding your pet from a bowl, put its meals in a food-stuffable toy. Start with one or two toys placed right in front of your pet, then place them in different areas of the house so your pet has to hunt for its food. Some great food-stuffable toy options are: Dogzilla Fill n Freeze (www.DogToys.com, $5), Busy Buddy Twist ’n’ Treat (www.Premier.com, $9) and Molecuball (www.Dogtoys.com, $10).
Reap the benefits
In addition to improving your pet’s overall health, a well-planned pet fitness program means your dog or cat will lead a more social, mentally stimulated life — resulting in a pet who is less likely to experience behavior problems. Your bond will be improved and you will both enjoy a longer, happier life.
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