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Excercise in the Winter Time

Avoiding weight gain in our canine population during the wintertimeexercising away those winter blues!

Winter monthsa time of "semi-hibernation"Icy Nose

One of our passions at Westgate Pet Clinic is finding ways to help keep our canine population lean and healthy all year round.  Often during the winter months, pets get less activity as we quit venturing outside as much.  Walking, running, or dog park visits become less frequent, but we tend to put the same amount of food in the bowl for our pets. Often at preventative health visits to the clinic, we observe a seesaw pattern of weight gain and weight loss during the year, with most pets gaining at least a mild-moderate amount of weight during the wintertime when people and pets are less active.  Most of these pets do lose some weight over spring, summer, or fall, but the most common trend is to steadily have at least some overall gain of weight each year, which compounds issues of inactivity in our older pets as they develop mobility issues related to arthritis or injuries that either develop or are aggravated by weight gain.

What are things we can do to help our dogs avoid weight gain in the winter months?

Calorie Restriction

Calorie restriction is one simple way to avoid weight gain.  Calories unused = weight gain.  If schedules are too busy for exercise (or if you or your pet really dislike the cold and prefer some TLC on the couch during the winter months), then reducing the amount of food and/or treats fed is an easy way of limiting weight gain over the winter.  Because every dog is different, I would recommend you consult with your Westgate Pet Clinic veterinarian about how much reduction would be recommended for your pet.   We want to make sure that each pet is still getting a complete and balanced diet from their daily calories.


Skijoring is a fun way to help your dog stay healthy and lean during the wintertime.  It is also a great way for you and your pet to bond and enjoy some really great places in the Twin Cities area. 

What is skijoring?  Skijoring is a sport in which a dog (or dogs) assist a cross-country skier. 1-3 dogs is the most common use, and both the skier and the dog are usually working in this sport.  The human involved gets exercise through using their skis and poles, and the dog gets exercise through running and pulling (to various degrees).  Equipment is fairly minimal, involving a skijoring harness for the human involved, a sled dog harness for the dog, and the duo or the team is connected with a length of rope (usually a nylon rope made with a quick release). 

Sporting breeds and northern breeds (Siberian and Alaskan Huskies, and Samoyeds) are the most common skijoring dogs.  Any large, energetic dog will usually love to skijor, but even smaller dogs under 40# may be out running alongside their owners (just don’t expect a lot of pulling action!).   Dog temperament and level of motivation probably have more to do with skijoring success than the size of the dog.  In my own personal experience, our springer spaniel mix around 45 pounds was a much better skijoring dog than our 65 pound lab-shepherd mix!

Where can one skijor with their dog in the Twin Cities area? Several opportunities exist through the Three Rivers Park District.  There are designated trails at Cleary Lake and Eagle Lake regional parks.  A Three Rivers Park District cross-country ski pass is required on these trails.  Multi-use trails at Baker, Crow-Hassen, Elm Creek, and Murphy Hanrehan do not require a pass or permit.  For more details, see https://www.threeriversparks.org/activities/skijoring.aspx.

Where can one find skijoring equipment?  A couple good options are Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis or Black Ice Dog Sledding Equipment, a catalog company.  

Ready to go beyond recreational skijoring?  There are usually at least a few opportunities a winter for skijoring competition, including a skijoring event put on by the Minneapolis-based Loppet Foundation during the annual Loppet Festival.  For more information about this local race, see http://www.loppet.org/cityoflakesloppet/loppet-events/saturday/chuck-dons-7k-skijoring-loppet/

Agility is for the dogs!

If cross-country skiing is just not your thing, then consider a class at a local dog obedience school to allow your pet to burn some calories learning the sport of agility.  Your dog can zoom up the a-frame, cross over a high dogwalk, overcome fear of the bump that inevitably comes with the drop of the teeter-totter, weave through a set of poles (easier said than done!), pause at the table, leap over jumps, and run through a tunnel to the home stretch.  Each course is different and the possibilities are endless, making it a constantly challenging activity, both physically and mentally for both dog and handler. 

Two places in the area that offer agility classes are The Canine Coach! and Twin Cities Obedience Training Club.  These dog schools also offer basic through advanced obedience classes, which are usually a prerequisite to agility classesduring agility, dogs are usually off leash, and they must be able to respond to their handlers commands (think of the confusion that could otherwise ensue!).  For more information on agility opportunities, contact these dog schools. 

Health considerations related to skijoring or agility

Because ice and crusty snow encountered during skijoring may be a risk for lacerations or abrasions of the foot pads, I would recommend using Musher’s Secret, an emollient that helps condition your dog’s pawswe have this available at Westgate Pet Clinic.  I would also recommend investing in some dog booties that will protect your dogs feet.  These will also help keep down snow clumping of the fur between the toes in some of our breeds and make running on a very cold surface more comfortable.  If you ever notice that your pet is having issues with a pad (licking, chewing, limping, or an obviously injured pad), prompt veterinary attention can help the problem from escalating. 

With either sport, watch for any limping and have this addressed by your Westgate Pet Clinic veterinarian.  Also, make sure you take cues from your pet.  If they are running or pulling less than they usually do, or refusing or missing obstacles on the agility course, then maybe they need to stop for the day, take some days off, or do less distance or duration of time for their sessions. 

Canine athletes working hard need to stay hydrated.  Make sure to bring fresh water for your dog and avoid community type dog bowls for concerns of canine respiratory and gastrointestinal pathogens including viruses.  Offer small, frequent amounts of water, allowing them to drink larger amounts only after they are recovered from an exercise session (the latter will decrease risk of a sometimes fatal condition called GDV, gastric dilation volvulus). 

Health considerations for our canine athletes on the bench

Some dogs are naturally predisposed through their anatomy to have issues arise with exercise.  Also, our aging population may have degenerative conditions that begin to show through in their exercise sessions.  If you think your pet is having any problems with mobility or is showing any signs of pain during or after exercise, please see your veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic to have them evaluated.  Because exercise is so important for maintaining ideal body weight, mobility, as well as giving our pets the mental stimulation that they need, we always hope to find the right balance for them to continue doing what they love and enjoy the highest quality of life.  If your pet is having more days on the bench than not, consider canine rehabilitation exercises through Dr. Teresa Hershey at Westgate Pet Clinicshe will work with you and your pet to troubleshoot those issues that are keeping your canine athlete from doing the things they love the most. 

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