For many of us, the turning of the year brings new resolve to live better—to eat right, to reduce stress, to exercise. Such self-oriented efforts, at any time of year, can initiate real change in our own lives, but our companion animals can benefit from these resolutions as well.
Dogs, cats, and other companion animals certainly live different physical lives than we do in many ways. Cats living safely indoors can appear to sleep 90% of the time, splitting the rest between eating and antics. Dogs’ body types and appetites for vigorous exercise vary so widely that it’s difficult to generalize about their needs. But like us, all animals need some exercise, optimally a little bit every day.
The obvious benefit of increased vigorous exercise—for us and for them—is improved physical health, including the loss of excess body weight, improved endurance, and increased flexibility. Less apparent but perhaps just as valuable benefits—for us and for them—include improved mood, eradication of boredom, and a decreased likelihood to engage in aggressive or destructive behavior.
Walk the dog. So obvious that it’s easy to overlook, regular brisk walks with your dog build muscle strength and endurance for both of you. If it’s been a while, start slow, be patient, and set simple, attainable goals. If you’ve been walking together already but want to freshen things up, try a different route or different terrain, vary your pace (walk-jog-run), or mix up your own muscle groups by side- or lunge-stepping intermittently.
Play with the cat. Not all cats take to all cat toys, but the right toy for the right cat can prompt impressively aggressive bouts of jumping, batting, and general frolicking. (The near-silent sound of our feather-on-a-wire toy being lifted from the shelf will bring my two cats running.) Wild cats (and outdoor domestic cats) get ample exercise in the pursuit of prey. Indoor cats, when stimulated, will pursue whatever “prey-like” toy catches their attention—laser-pointer lights, rainbows cast by crystals spinning in the window, robot vacuums—but they’re probably happiest when their humans are directly involved. The best toys are often not store-bought—a paper grocery bag with a pinch of catnip at the bottom can be an entertaining workout.
Start where you (and your animal) are. If regular exercise hasn’t been a part of your animal’s routine, his endurance and flexibility may be quite limited—but will improve with patience and routine. Obviously, if you’re concerned about his ability to engage in regular exercise, consult a veterinarian. Beyond that, veterinarians generally advise starting with 5- or 10-minute walks for dogs and adding time as you see her stamina improve. As strength and endurance increase, you’ll be able to expand your route and vary your terrain. As you persist, you’ll start to see benefits beyond the ones you set out to find.