Stretching Techniques for Dogs

Like us, dogs benefit from stretching: Our muscle cells work the same. This fact inspired the Foster sisters -- Sasha, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist, and Ashley, a certified pet dog trainer -- to apply 20 years of research on human stretching to the canine world. The result is their book, The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog.

Below, Sasha Foster weighs in on the do’s and don’ts of keeping your adult dog’s muscles supple.

Why You Should Stretch Your Dog

  1. It may help to improve overall fitness Foster says stretching your dog helps maintain joint function. One reason is because stretching produces a muscle signaling molecule called nitric oxide, according to studies on animals conducted by University of Michigan researchers Nicole Lockhart and Susan Brooks. When this molecule is present, blood flow tends to increase, inflammation is kept in better check, and force is decreased during certain muscle contractions, all of which can aid joints and support limb function.
  2. Stretching may prevent tendonitis Stretching can also prevent soft-tissue injuries like tendonitis, which Labradors and working dogs are particularly susceptible to sustaining.
  3. Stretching may reduce back pain Stretching can be used to manage back pain that occurs when muscles in the lower back become tight, Foster says.
  4. Stretching can alleviates arthritis Stretching can additionally decrease the achiness and stiffness often experienced by middle-aged to older dogs, and can even minimize the pain of arthritis. “Arthritis occurs when the bones are rubbing against each other in the joint,” explains Foster. “If the muscles are nice and long, the joint is less compressed.”

When to Stretch Your Dog
Stretch your dog two to three times per week for 10 to 15 minutes at a time -- but not until after your dog is at least 2 years old. “You do not want to stretch a puppy because its growth plates are still in flux,” explains Foster. For obvious reasons, you should also avoid stretching a dog with an acute injury.

Stretch your dog after it exercises. Research on human athletes has demonstrated that muscles need to warm up before being stretched. That principle is no different for dogs. “Stretching before the body is heated can cause injury. We want the muscles nice and warm -- after a walk or a swim -- before we stretch,” says Foster.

Where to Stretch Your Dog
Stretch your dog anywhere you would do yoga. “Your dog should be in a relaxing environment before you begin,” emphasizes Foster. She recommends that your pet lies down somewhere quiet and that you initially stroke or rock your furry friend before you begin, to encourage muscle relaxation.

How to Stretch Your Dog
Once your dog is lying down and relaxed, put your hand over the joint you will be manipulating. “If you’re stretching the shoulder, put your hand over the shoulder joint in order to relax the muscle. The nerves that turn the reflex off and on know your hand is there and keep the muscle from contracting,” explains Foster.

Next, lift the limb parallel to the floor and move it slowly in the direction of the stretch. For example, if you’re working with the shoulder, first move the limb toward the nose -- it should take three to five seconds to get there. Once you’re there and feel a slight resistance, hold for 30 seconds before moving the limb back to where it started and lowering it to the floor.

Shoulder and hip joints should ultimately be moved in four different directions: forward toward the nose, back toward the tail, up toward the ceiling, and down toward the floor. Elbow and knee joints can only be flexed and extended. “Joints should only be stretched within their range,” says Foster. “Your dog’s joints do what yours do, so use your common sense.”

Foster emphasizes that stretching your pet will not only benefit its physical condition but also its emotional state. “You know how you feel after a good yoga class? Dogs feel that way after stretching,” she says. “It calms them down and just feels good.”

Healthy Hiking With Your Dog

For years, Doug Gelbert, author of Doggin America: 100 Ideas for Great Outdoor Vacations to Take with Your Dog, and his border collie trekked over trails across the United States. Although his dog is now getting too old for strenuous adventures, the Delaware-based Gelbert still hits the trails with a neighbor dog. “Hiking is simply more pleasurable when there’s a dog by your side,” says Gelbert.

Hiking with dogs takes some planning and thought. The following checklist will help keep your hike from turning into a misadventure.

1. Understand your dog’s capabilities.
Your dog’s breed, size, medical condition and age all play a role in the distance and difficulty of a hike. A Labrador can go all day, whereas a smaller dog can go for an hour. Medium- to large-sized dogs should be able to hike at least a couple of hours in a moderate climate, adds Dr. Greg Martinez, a veterinarian who hikes and runs with dogs.

2. Recognize when your dog tires.

How will you know when your dog has had enough? “Almost all dogs want to be ahead of you, with you watching its tail wag,” says Gelbert. “If your dog isn’t eager to be ahead of you, it’s an indication that it’s time to rest.”

3. Carry plenty of water.
Dogs can overheat faster than we do, notes Martinez. It’s important to carry enough chilled water for your dog to drink -- and to even douse your dog with a splash on a hot day. Your dog can be trained to carry its own water since canines adjust easily to wearing travel packs. Before your journey, have your dog practice walking around the house with an empty pack, then add toilet paper rolls for weight. And never let your dog drink from a stream or lake. Even a fast-flowing mountain stream is going to have bacteria that can cause diarrhea.

4. Know environmental risks.

As you plan a hike, research potential threats to your dog. Make sure your dog is protected against potentially deadly parasites before you leave home. Mosquitoes are prevalent in some areas, and ticks are ubiquitous in others. As for heartworm, protect your dog against ticks but still inspect for ticks after your hike. It’s a good idea to pack a tick comb for that task. If you’re hiking in rattlesnake habitat, ask your veterinarian about a vaccine that protects against rattlesnake venom, advises Martinez.

5. Protect your dog’s paws.
Dogs are often left hiking over rough surfaces with tender paws. Notice the terrain and consider its effect on your dog’s paw pads. It’s easy for your dog to burn its pads on hot surfaces or develop sores in between its toes when hiking on a rocky trail.

If your dog suffers even a minor pad cut, it may bleed profusely. Wrapping it lightly with medical wrapping tape should help. A small tube of Krazy Glue can also be used to close minor wounds. Make sure you check your dog’s paws for mud, debris and even ice that might accumulate between pads.

6. Respect wildlife and other hikers.
Keeping your dog with you makes a hike better for you, your dog, wildlife and other hikers who might not be dog lovers. Letting your dog wander off trail poses risks to both your pal and the environment.

If you keep the above checklist in mind, chances are your dog will be waiting eagerly by the front door next time you pull out your backpack, boots and trail map.

The Future of Dog Spaying

Spaying is a procedure few of us question. This year alone, thousands of female dogs will undergo the hysterectomy operation, which removes the ovaries and uterus. Chances are your own pet has already undergone these removals.

A groundbreaking new study, however, may change the way we view this common surgery.

Longevity and Ovaries Linked
Women tend to live longer than men do, but did you know this life span edge holds true for female dogs too? “Like women, female dogs in our study had a distinct survival advantage over males,” according to project leader Dr. David Waters, Ph.D., a veterinarian, director of the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation and associate director of Purdue University’s Center on Aging and the Life Course.

Nevertheless, female dogs do not always reach the same age. That became obvious when Waters and his team studied information on the oldest living pet dogs in the United States. (Data on these canine seniors is tracked by the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies.) Waters had a nagging suspicion: “We think that ovaries are part of a system that impacts longevity and perhaps the rate of aging.”

To test out the theory, Waters, who is also a professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at Purdue, and his team analyzed 119 rottweiler “centenarians,” which were elderly dogs that survived to 13 years. That’s 30 percent longer than the life span of most breed members. “We found that female rottweilers that kept their ovaries for at least six years were four times more likely to reach exceptional longevity compared to females who had the shortest lifetime ovary exposure.”

Yet another study, on more than 29,000 women, came to a similar conclusion. Dr. William Parker of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., led that research. “For the last 35 years, most doctors have been routinely advising women undergoing hysterectomy to have their ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer,” he said. “We believe that such an automatic recommendation is no longer warranted.”

Important to Weigh the Pros and Cons
When it comes to longevity, Waters, Parker and their colleagues believe it’s worth it for a female to keep her ovaries. Women who retain their ovaries for at least 50 years often live longer than women who don’t, according to the new findings. For dogs, the comparable age for keeping the ovaries intact, at least for large breeds like rottweilers, is about 6 or 7 years.

Waters is quick to point out that all women and dog owners should weigh the pros and cons of keeping ovaries and should initiate an informed discussion on the upside and downside with their doctor and their pet’s veterinarian.

The Benefits of Spaying
Linda Lasky, a registered veterinary technician at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, Calif., said she is not aware of any veterinary hospital that performs a partial hysterectomy on dogs. Owners must therefore choose between three options:

1.    Do not have the dog spayed.

2.    Spay the dog after she is at least 6 years old.

3.    Spay the dog before she reaches puberty, which is the commonly accepted practice.

Lasky strongly recommends the third option, which she said helps prevent two potentially fatal health problems: mammary tumors and pyometra, a canine uterine infection. Spaying also prevents certain behavioral problems related to dogs going into heat. The most obvious benefit of spaying is that it curbs canine overpopulation.

Other Ways of Extending Your Dog’s Life
Through his Gerontology Training Program for DVMs, Waters works with veterinarians to address the findings about ovaries and other longevity matters. He says participants in the program also “emerge as effective educators of pet owners on issues pertaining to lifestyle choices that promote healthy longevity.”

Lasky agrees that lifestyle choices, such as what owners feed their dogs and how they care for them, can also make a huge difference in the quality and length of their pets’ lives. Over the years, she’s noticed that “companion animals are living longer and longer” due to improved medical help, quality nutrition, and love and care provided by owners. Therefore, while retention of ovaries remains a hotly debated issue, spayed dogs may still have a chance at earning a coveted spot in the oldest canines database at the Center for Exceptional Longevity Studies.

Dog Breeds at Risk for Swallowing Nonfood Items

Carl Greenhous’ English bull terrier, Toby, had a strange obsession with dental floss. With every chance he got, the canine rummaged through the bathroom trash bin and picked out only the used strands of floss.

“He would usually poop it out, but sometimes it wouldn’t pass all the way through,” recalls Greenhous.

New research is revealing that swallowing nonfood items may be more common among Toby’s breed than others. A study in the Journal of Small Animal Practice is the first to look at which dog breeds are more likely to come into a veterinary hospital with swallowed objects obstructing their gastrointestinal tract. It’s also helping to determine what factors might best predict successful treatment.

Terriers Top the List
Dr. Graham Hayes, a veterinary surgeon at the University of Cambridge Veterinary School in the U.K., reviewed every case over a four-year period of dogs coming into a local animal hospital for gastrointestinal obstructions. Five breeds were significantly more likely to have swallowed something they shouldn’t have: Staffordshire bull terriers (by far the most likely), English bull terriers, Jack Russell terriers, Border collies and Springer spaniels.

“I think rooting about, scavenging rubbish and chewing up plastic toys is in the nature of terrier-type breeds,” says Hayes.

Successfully Treating Obstructions
Aside from looking at breeds, Hayes analyzed each documented case to determine what factors most often lead to positive -- or negative -- outcomes.

One factor was the type of object swallowed, “discrete” or “linear.” Discrete objects are things like balls, toys or bones. A linear object is something long and thin, like a piece of string or fabric (think: Toby’s fave, dental floss). Hayes found that dogs are more likely to swallow discrete objects, but linear objects are more likely to be fatal.

“Part of the [linear object] gets stuck somewhere, such as around the base of the tongue or in the bottom of the stomach, and the rest gets moved down the intestine by contractions,” explains Hayes. “Eventually … the string digs into the side of the intestine, which ruptures the bowel in several places. A whole length of intestine can become severely damaged.”

Another reason linear objects are more dangerous is they often cause only a partial obstruction of the bowel, so food and water can continue to pass through, and owners may not notice anything is wrong for a while.

“Linear objects damage a greater amount of the bowel, may cause less obvious clinical signs in the patient and can be harder for the vet to diagnose by clinical examination and X-rays,” says Hayes.

Keeping Your Dog Safe
The most obvious thing to do is to keep potentially harmful objects away from your dog, especially young dogs. If your dog swallows an object, bring your pet to the veterinarian immediately for an exam, which should include an X-ray. Hayes found that quicker diagnosis leads to better outcomes.

Of course, not all owners catch their dog in the act, so how would you know if your dog swallowed an object? You should start to get suspicious if your pet refuses to eat for 24 hours or more, but the main warning sign is vomiting in the absence of bowel movements. Hayes urges caution, however, in using anti-vomiting medicine or medicine that promotes bowel movements.

“Vomiting is the major clinical sign associated with obstruction of the bowel, and masking this clinical sign with medication can make the animal appear much better but is not addressing the underlying cause,” says Hayes. Medication that promotes bowel movements may stimulate bowel contractions and hasten rupture of the bowel, which is frequently fatal.

And for those looking to add a dog to their family and want to know which types are least likely to get into this sort of trouble, Hayes recommends a mutt. “I like crossbreeds, as they tend to be much healthier than pedigree dogs due to more outbreeding and hybrid vigor,” he says.

Exercise With Your Dog to Prevent Obesity

According to the National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study conducted by 95 veterinary clinics nationwide, more than 44 percent of all dogs are overweight or downright obese. The fat stats for people in America are even higher, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that around 67 percent of adults are heavier than they should be. In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet, both you and your dog need exercise to stay as fit and trim as possible.

If you share your digs with one or more dogs, you have already made a health-boosting decision, reports the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI). Their members determined that:

  • Dogs lower their owner’s blood pressure.
  • Dogs improve our psychological health.
  • Dogs encourage us to exercise.

That last finding helps to explain the other two, but why is a dog-human team such a winner in terms of exercise?

Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound
A recent ReCHAI program paired senior citizens with either a human or a canine walking buddy. At the end of the project, researchers measured how much the seniors’ activity levels improved.

“The older people who walked their dogs improved their walking capabilities by 28 percent,” says Dr. Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI. “They had more confidence walking on the trail, and they increased their speed. The older people who walked with humans only had a 4 percent increase in their walking capabilities. The human walking buddies tended to discourage each other and used excuses such as the weather being too hot.”

Guidelines for Exercising With Your Dog
Before heading out on the trail with your dog, schedule a checkup for you and your furry friend. Dr. Susan Nelson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University also advises that you keep the following dozen guidelines in mind:

1.    In general, large, working dogs have higher energy needs than smaller/toy breeds, which require less exercise.

2.    Your dog should exercise anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes twice daily, depending on its size, breed, age and condition.

3.    Medium and large dogs typically make better long-distance running partners. Smaller dogs are better-suited for short-distance running or walking.

4.    Keep plastic disc throws low to avoid injuring your dog’s joints.

5.    Swimming is a fantastic non-joint-stressing exercise for both dogs and humans. Retrievers tend to be at the top of the swimming pack.

6.    Add mental stimulation, such as a hide-and-seek element, into your dog playtime. Border collies and other working breeds need such stimulation to stay happy.

7.    Avoid walking and running on sand and hot, hard surfaces. Soft lawn grass or smooth dirt paths are better.

8.    Dogs with short noses, such as bulldogs and Boston terriers, succumb to heat exhaustion more readily, since they cannot cool themselves down like other dogs can. If your dog starts acting woozy, gets a dark red-colored tongue or thick, ropy saliva, stop, move to a shaded area and offer water.

9.    Take frequent breaks.

10. Don’t go on long runs or walks with puppies, since their bones are still developing. Dogs can handle longer periods out at the age of 15 months or older.

11. Don’t feed your dog right before or after intense exercise, as this could cause stomach upset or dangerous bloating and/or stomach twisting.

12. Many dogs suffer foot damage after being exposed to cold surfaces during the winter months. Limit time outdoors and also take special care that your dog does not drink from puddles, as they could be contaminated with antifreeze. Small-breed dogs may require a jacket for outdoor activities.