Exercise in Puppies-Are there rules?

There are many dogmatic opinions available from veterinarians, pet owners, breeders and others concerning a common question owners of new puppies have, How much exercise is ok for puppies? This is an especially pertinent question for owners of large breed puppies, since these breeds have a higher incidence than others of developmental orthopedic disorders such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and cartilage abnormalities known as osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD). As is all too often the case, however, these opinions generally lack solid scientific evidence to support them. Very little is known about the precise risks and benefits of different types and intensities of exercise in growing animals.

One case control observational study [1] surveyed dog owners and found playing with other dogs to be a risk factor for OCD. Another, similar study [2] found chasing balls and sticks was a risk factor for development of hip dysplasia and elbow abnormalities. However, these studies cannot answer the overall question, which is how much and what kinds of exercise pose how great a risk and provide how great a benefit. One study [3] found exercise to be part of the treatment of carpal laxity, another joint abnormality seen in large breed puppies, and there is no question that exercise has many benefits, including reducing the risk of obesity and simply being part of a normal, enjoyable life for a puppy.

There are many more studies on the effects of exercise in children than in puppies, and though it is always risky to extrapolate from one species to another, some useful information can be gained by using one organism as a model for another, as long as conclusions drawn in this way are cautious and tentative pending better data. In general, while some intense and repetitive exercise can pose a risk of damage to growth plates in children, exercise is overall seen as beneficial in improving bone density and reducing the risk of obesity and related health problems.

The research evidence, then, really does not provide anything like a definitive answer to questions about the effects of exercise in growing puppies. Common sense suggests that forcing a dog to exercise heavily when it does not wish to is not a good idea. Likewise, puppies sometimes have more enthusiasm than sense and can exercise to the point of heat exhaustion, blistered footpads, and other damage that may be less obvious. Therefore, a general principle of avoiding forced or voluntary extreme exercise is reasonable, but specific and absolute statements about what kind of exercise is allowed, what surfaces puppies should or should not exercise on, and so forth is merely opinion not supported by objective data. Such opinions may very well be informed by personal experience, and they may be reliable, but any opinion not founded on objective data must always be taken with a grain of salt and accepted provisionally until such data is available.

1. Slater MR, Scarlett JM, Donoghue S, Kaderly RE, Bonnett BN, Cockshutt J, et al. Diet and exercise as potential risk factors for osteochondritis dissecans in dogs. Am J Vet Res. 1992 Nov;53(11):2119-24.

2. Sallander MH, Hedhammar A, Trogen ME. Diet, exercise, and weight as risk factors in hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers. J Nutr. 2006 Jul;136(7 Suppl):2050S-2052S.

3. Cetinkaya MA, Yardimci C, Sa?lam M. Carpal laxity syndrome in forty-three puppies.Vet Comp Orthop Traumatol. 2007;20(2):126-30.

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27 Responses to Exercise in Puppies-Are there rules?

  1. Bartimaeus says:

    I had a client that was carrying her german shepherd puppy up and down the stairs (3 steps from the house to the yard) because the breeder said that the puppy would get hip dysplasia if the owner let him use the stairs at all for the first year. We decided that those three steps were not likely to cause a problem, and the dog is doing well now 5 years later. I have a few other similar stories but relating vaccines to allergies, etc.

    I suspect that some breeders are using these things as a way to divert responsibility from themselves to owners and veterinarians.

  2. Rita says:

    Excellent point, Bartimaeus – Europe is taking some sort of action against the many ills of breeding for “breeds” – at long last. Imagine ending up with puppies who have to be watched over to make sure they don’t overdo the play!

    A very happy New Year to all concerned with SkeptVet, btw!

  3. skeptvet says:

    Yes, breeders may be honest as a rule but they do not like to accept any responsibility for medical problems in the dogs they sell. The blame for clearly congenital defects is often laid on the owner or veterinarian for not adhering to some arbitrary and irrational rule or practice recommended by the breeder.

    Happy New Year to y’all as well! 🙂

  4. Ceridwen says:

    Thanks for doing this writeup! I too have seen breeders write some absurd things into contracts to ultimately place blame on the owner if anything goes wrong with the puppy. Some of them limit exercise (as in the example Bartimaeus gives) and others require crazy supplements or that the owner only give one specific brand of food.

    It is interesting to me that playing fetch is associated with higher rates of hip dysplasia, since most people consider that to be unforced exercise and perfectly fine to do with puppies for as long as they will participate. The same people will freak at the suggestion of taking a puppy on a short walk or run on cement, even if that is the only exercise readily available. This is seen as forced exercise because you are (theoretically at least) preventing the puppy from opting out. Of course almost every puppy or dog I’ve known will give plenty of signals that they would like to opt out of exercise of this type when they get tired. And plenty of others won’t give any signs they are tired or hurt even when doing things like fetch.

    In training classes, my boss recommends that owners make up a weekly schedule that prevents them from working on the same few things every single day. So work on sit one day, down the next, stay the following day, etc. It seems to me that if you did something along these lines for exercise as well you could avoid doing anything in too repetitive a fashion. Even if some of it could be interpreted as “forced” exercise.

    Of course the other issue is, which is more dangerous for the dog: to be underexercised and therefore bored, destructive, and difficult to work with, or to be exercised (potentially even overexercised) and run a higher risk of joint injury? I have a feeling for a lot of dogs the first condition may be more dangerous.

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  9. Brenda Redford says:

    I have been trying to find if any recent studies have been done on the ‘How much exercise is too much for pups question’ and at our classes we always advise that too much can be a problem as it can make the brain more active but tire the body. So bits if training to help tire the body and brain is best. Comments would be useful.

  10. skeptvet says:

    There is very little in the way of controlled research on this subject. A couple of papers have addressed exercise as one of many risk factors for developmental orthopedic disease, but in general we don’t have many studies on the subject.

    Slater MR, Scarlett JM, Donoghue S, Kaderly RE, Bonnett BN, Cockshutt J, Erb HN. Diet and exercise as potential risk factors for osteochondritis dissecans in dogs. Am J Vet Res. 1992;53(11):2119-24.

    Sallander MH, Hedhammar A, Trogen ME. Diet, exercise, and weight as risk factors in hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers. J Nutr. 2006;136(7 Suppl):2050S-2052S.

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  16. Joy Stephenson says:

    I found your article interesting as in the UK at present it seems to be a golden rule that puppies should have only 5 minutes exercise per month of life, and I have been searching for evidence to support this. I haven’t found any! My puppy (Chesapeake cross Lab) is 4 months old and I take her out 3 times a day for about 30 minutes each time (so 1 1/2 hours total), mostly in a car to off-lead areas, though about 10 minutes a day lead walking. She seems in great health, loves our trips, has good recall and I think would drive me insane if I had to keep her at home! We are about to start training classes and again the advice from the trainer was that too much exercise can cause joint problems.

    The only evidence I’ve found seems to contradict this opinion:

    Great site, thank you.

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  18. Katherine Kpabitey says:

    We’ve always had border collies from working lines, and never given a moment’s thought to limiting exercise – until today when some overbearing individual told me a puppy shouldn’t be exercised for longer than “a minuter per week of its age, until 4 months old.” I’d heard about exercise issues in giant breed puppies, but that this idea has rolled out to ALL puppies was a surprise.
    I think that if a puppy is not fit to walk, run and play with other puppies until it’s tired out and wants to rest, then it is genetically inadequate. How about studying the exercise and development of wild dogs or wolves? It would be reasonable to expect healthy domestic puppies to be able to tolerate similar activity.

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  26. EB says:

    Thanks for very interesting article!

  27. Geraint Ellis says:

    There is no evidence that “wrapping a pup in cotton wool” and avoiding exercise is harmful. Indeed as pointed out exercise for young children even load-bearing excercis for children before puberty can prove beneficial to joints and bone density. It’s about using common sense. Regards playing constantly games such as fetch, specialization in a single sport in young children has been linked to increased injuries that have long-term effects. It is due to constant repetition, which should be avoided. Children that play a wide range of sports and are active do not have this problem. What your dog does when on a lead is not physically challenging and what he does off it is totally varied. I would avoid constant repetition until fairly mature.

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