Treading Lightly

Pet ExercisePet exercise equipment has surprising benefits for daycares, shelters, and rehab

By Eve Becker

The images are disturbing: dogs tethered to treadmills, running for long stretches of time to increase their cardiovascular endurance to “train” for dog fights. The cruelty is unbearable, as is the concept of people using exercise equipment to torture animals.

Yet pet professionals help us look beyond this painful association. Pet treadmills have their benefits, whether used as supplemental exercise or for rehab.

“It’s sad that there is a negative connotation to [pet treadmills], because dogs do need something to supplement outdoor activity,” says Barry Ravegum, sales manager for GoPet USA, which manufactures canine exercise equipment. “Pets need proper exercise, since more than 50 percent of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight.”

“Ideally, outside is the perfect way to do it, but there are times when that can’t be done and that’s when exercise equipment comes into play,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, or you’re just too busy that you can’t get outside and get that walk in every day. You need some other way to get your pet more exercise.”

In addition to home use, treadmills and treadwheels (think of a large hamster wheel) are used in pet daycares and animal shelters. At a shelter, a dog can burn off extra energy on a treadmill before being shown to a potential adoptive family.

Pey TherapyRavegum recalls visiting a shelter in New York and seeing Pit Bulls “bouncing as high as my head in their kennel runs.” The shelter had a treadmill to help the dogs run off their excess energy. According to his observations, “The more exercise they get, the easier it is to keep them calm. Their behavior is much better. So when people come, and they’re looking at which animal they want to take home, they’re not getting dogs jumping as high as their heads.”

The equipment can also be used in pet daycares, especially for dogs who are not social and can’t participate in playgroups.

Last year, Paradise 4 Paws, an upscale pet resort and daycare in Chicago and Dallas, launched a treadmill training program. It’s become a popular option for dogs who are not social with other dogs, says Saq Nadeem, Paradise 4 Paws “top dog” and founder. “They’re not eligible for playgroups, so they can’t go and socialize with other dogs. They need an alternate form of exercise. That’s where the treadmill program comes in.”

Nadeem has witnessed the treadmills being especially effective for highly energetic dogs. He believes that for “dogs who have very high activity needs, treadmills can play a pretty critical role in giving them a balanced life—both for the pet and the pet parent.”

But for dogs at home, there’s no substitute for a brisk walk outside, advises Jamie Damato Migdal, dog trainer and owner of CanineLink, a consulting service for the pet industry. “You don’t ever want an artificial exercise to replace a natural type of exercise like walking. Walking allows your dog to have enrichment, socialization, and interaction. A treadmill can’t give you that,” she explains. “It’s much better to get out there with your pet—get out and get in the elements regardless of the temperature. Exercise your dog, exercise yourself, work on training, work on socialization, work on good leash manners—all of the things you can’t do on a treadmill.”

“In a rehab setting I think it’s brilliant, especially under the advice of a veterinarian or another medical professional,” she says.

According to veterinarian Barbara Royal, DVM, of the Royal Treatment Veterinary Center in Chicago, both land and underwater treadmills are invaluable for pet rehab.
“I can’t do without them anymore,” Royal says. “The treadmill has been an incredible tool for many more things than you’d think it would be for.”

“You can really control muscle development on a treadmill,” she adds. She uses the treadmill to help target specific muscles, and she varies the speed to shorten or lengthen the animal’s stride. Also, walking on a treadmill has less concussive force than walking outside, she says.

She also stresses the importance of staying with your pet while they are exercising and to watch them carefully.

“You have to be careful. A dog will keep going even if they’re tired,” she warns. “You do need to rest them on a land treadmill. They can’t thermoregulate as easily as we can. They’re not really made to do fast speeds for very long. They can do a slow speed for a good period of time, but if they are really panting on the treadmill, you’ve got to stop them.”

Royal cautions people to understand that every animal has her own tolerance. Her most essential piece of advice: “You have to know your animal.”

Pet Treadmill Safety Tips
– Introduce the pet to the treadmill while the machine is off. Walk them off the front and the back of the machine, to show them how to safely exit.
– Never tie a pet’s leash to the treadmill. They need to be able to get off if they are tired.
– Always stay near the treadmill while your pet is on it. Do not walk away.
– Start gradually, with only a minute or two on the treadmill.
– Be aware of what your pet can tolerate, stopping exercise if the pet is panting hard or if his tongue is lolling.
– Find the proper size treadmill for your pet. The tread surface should be one-third longer than the length of your dog to get a full stride.
– Pet treadmills have a quieter motor than human treadmills, plus they have protective bars on the sides, a lower step-on-height, and a more protected motor. As with all exercise equipment, be sure small children never go near it or turn it on without adult supervision.

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