Caring for a pet can be a huge responsibility, but there are equally huge payoffs. When we nurture the unique bond we share with our pets, we can improve our mental and physical health, as well as the animal’s. Through their companionship, pets may inspire a more active lifestyle that benefits the entire household.
The key to introducing physical activity is to start at a comfortable level that suits the needs of both pet and caretaker. It’s important to start small. To introduce walking, for example, try three to five minutes at a comfortable speed for you and your dog. Continue this consistently for one or two weeks, and then increase the length of walks by five minutes at the same pace every other week until you reach a comfortable goal for you both. This principle applies to any new physical activity: walking, jogging, running, or playing fetch with a ball or frisbee.
Get Out There with Your Pet
If you want to get more active with your cat, you could try a stroll using a harness and leash. If that’s not feasible for your cat, consider a cat-friendly enclosed and secure stroller that allows the cat to look at birds flying by and squirrels jumping about.
Just as a primary care physician can advise a person about appropriate activity and fitness plans, veterinarians can advise and answer these questions for pets. There are a few important considerations while engaging in any physical activity with pets. Monitor signs of over exertion in your pet carefully to avoid injury. Excessive panting or walking with stiff legs are signs to stop immediately and take a long break before returning home. Pale or blue gums, difficulty breathing, and/or collapse are signs of an emergency, and it is highly advised that emergency veterinary care is sought.
With any new physical activity, soreness or fatigue is normal in the beginning. However, if your dog appears uncomfortable while resting, fidgety, excessively sore, or excessively lethargic after physical activity, these may be signs that the physical activity should be cut back to a more comfortable length and pace. In the elements, pet caretakers should be in tune with their own bodies, as well. If the person is too cold, too hot, or uncomfortable, the pets most likely are, too.
A well-fitting collar or harness and leash is crucial to keeping pets safe from the dangers of the outdoors, including cars, bikes, or other dogs. I recommend skipping the extendable leashes; these do not allow as much control as a traditional four- or six-foot leash.
Agility classes or dog sports are great options for pets who already engage in regular activity and are fit for a new physical and mental challenge. Look for agility classes suitable for novices through competition-level training at the Richmond SPCA and other local venues.
Making Mental Health Connections
Beyond exercise, animals’ minds need to be engaged. Mental enrichment activities include pet-friendly puzzle toys, learning new tricks and commands, and even reading to your dog or cat. Physical contact counts as enrichment, too. Regular petting, cuddling, brushing, and gentle massage of their limbs and around their faces can enhance the bond with a pet. Always be watchful and observe the pet’s signals about the types of contact that are wanted and enjoyed.
Stress is believed to be a source of many physical and mental ailments that affect people and pets alike. Being physically active and engaging with animals has the potential to reduce stress due to the decrease in cortisol and increase in oxytocin. Oxytocin, as you might know, is the hormone that bonds mothers and babies, so it makes sense that some families consider pets their furry children. The American Heart Association notes that engaging in activity with a pet can also help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Relationships with pets have the ability to fill one with all of the warm and positive feelings that improve well-being and quality of life. Those who are without a pet have options to explore. Learn about foster care programs with local animal shelters or rescue groups. Neighbors and friends may also be open to an offer to walk their dogs or spend some time cat sitting.