How Does Exercise Help Treat My Dog’s Pain?

I often get asked, “How much exercise does my dog need? And how much is too much?”  The answer to these questions is: it depends.

Dogs that are recovering from injury or surgery need to restrict their activity in order to recover. Older dogs with arthritis need to be careful not to overdo it.  However, both of these groups of dogs can benefit from controlled exercise as part of their pain management plan.

So, how does exercise help with pain management?

Gait Control Theory

The spinal cord is bombarded with sensory stimuli. Pain signals compete other sensory signals, such as heat, cold, touch, and proprioceptive input (knowledge of where the limbs are in space). These signals are processed in the spinal cord. If more signals are competing with pain signals, fewer pain signals may be transmitted to the brain, where pain is perceived. This is why, if you rub your skin after you bang your shin on the coffee table, it hurts less. Active dogs have sensory input from their skin, joints, and muscles, all sending signals to the spinal cord at the same time. So active dogs tend to be less painful.

Maintaining Cartilage

Cartilage gets its nutrients from joint fluid. The body replenishes joint fluid when the joint moves.

Exercises can also help maintain or re-establish normal range of motion in joints as they recover from injury or surgery.

Movement is important to maintain joint health.

Muscle Mass and Tone

Exercise helps maintain muscle mass and tone. Normal muscle tone is important for normal posture. Good muscle can also decrease arthritis pain by providing stability to the joint.

Neurologic Benefits

Nerves need stimulation to remain healthy.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Regular exercise helps maintain proprioception (limb awareness). Exercise can also provide mental stimulation to help combat dementia.

Weight Control

40-50% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese.

That extra weight can increase wear-and-tear in arthritic joints.

Fat cells also secrete pro-inflammatory chemicals that can sensitize the body to pain.

Dogs can experience a runner’s high

This can lead to improved overall feelings of wellness and improved quality of life.

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