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How to Care for Your Canine Athlete


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Caring for a canine athlete is a lot of work. Canine athletes require specialized nutrition, exercise, and veterinary plans to keep them in peak shape and prevent injuries. What’s more, sporting activities can predispose dogs to certain health conditions. Let's explore how to care for a canine athlete, conditions to watch for, and average veterinary costs for athletic dogs.

Health considerations for canine athletes

As any human athlete knows, sports can take a toll on the body — and the same is true for our furry companions. Canine athletes have very specific needs that must be met to ensure good health and performance.  Below are some things to consider when formulating a care plan for your four-legged athlete. 

Feed a high-quality diet

dog food caring for a canine athlete

Canine athletes need a high-quality diet to fuel their bodies. Very active dogs with high protein demands require at least 25% of their calories from meat-based proteins. Athletic dogs will also need more fat than what’s available in most commercial dog kibbles.

Depending on your canine athlete’s activity level, your vet may recommend feeding high-performance dog foods with a higher fat and protein content.

The exact macronutrients and amount of food your canine athlete needs will depend on their sport, breed, age, and weight. A vet or a canine nutritionist will be able to help you determine your dog’s exact nutritional needs based on their activity level and metabolic rate.

Keep your pup hydrated

Active dogs need a lot of water, so make sure water is available to your canine athlete at all times — especially during exercise. Look out for signs of dehydration, like low urine output, high heart rate, and dry, pale-colored gums.

Unfortunately, the amount of water dogs will willingly drink isn’t always enough to sustain them, so you might have to get creative! Bone broth is a great way to offer extra liquids if your dog doesn’t seem to be drinking enough on their own. Keep in mind that dogs who exclusively eat dry kibble will need extra water due to the lack of moisture in their food.

Don't let your dog overexert themselves

Dogs don’t always know their limits, so pet parents must be vigilant in monitoring their dog for signs of overexertion. Exercise fatigue is the body's way of protecting itself from damage during intense exercise. If your dog experiences exercise fatigue, you should stop physical activity immediately. Severe exercise fatigue can cause long-term problems and even death in extreme circumstances.

Your dog may be experiencing exercise fatigue if they’re:

Watch out for joint problems

Unfortunately, joint problems are prevalent in canine athletes, especially in their older years. Watch for changes, no matter how subtle, in your dog's activity levels, movement, and body.

Dogs are great at masking their pain, so talk to your vet if you notice any odd behavior or bodily changes. Symptoms of joint problems to look out for include:

  • Limping
  • Favoring a limb
  • Muscle stiffness and inflammation (especially after a rest)
  • Pain
  • Hot or swollen joints
  • Decrease in performance abilities
  • Loss of interest in sports or playtime

Know the signs of heat exhaustion

brown dog panting, how to care for a canine athlete

Heat exhaustion is always a risk when dogs exercise in hot temperatures. If your dog exhibits any of the below symptoms, stop exercise immediately and move them to a cooler area:

Pet parents can treat mild heat exhaustion at home with cool or lukewarm baths and rehydration. Dogs showing more severe symptoms, like loss of consciousness, seizures, or vomiting, will need to visit the vet immediately.

Don’t skip warm-ups and cool-downs

Warm-up and cool-down exercises are key for preventing injury and helping your dog reach peak performance. Ideally, you should conduct your pet’s warm-up 10 minutes before engaging them in a competition or exercise routine. Warm-ups may consist of low-impact exercises like stretches, short jumps, brisk walks, and games like tug-of-war.

Cool-downs are equally important, preventing soreness, helping with blood flow, and allowing the dog to calm down mentally and physically. To cool down your canine athlete, start with a short 5- or 10-minute walk and finish with passive stretches and a massage. 

Consider your pet’s age

A dog’s growth plates aren't fully developed until 1 to 2 years of age. Because of this, vets don’t recommend high-impact exercise until the bones mature.

Strength training may begin as early as 6 months old for most puppies. Training for puppies younger than 6 months should focus on teaching obedience commands and skills. It’s always best to consult your vet about age-appropriate training exercises before beginning a routine.

Be consistent with exercise

Canine athletes need interactive and engaging exercise 5 times a week in addition to regular playtime and walks. Experts warn against not exercising dog athletes enough since this can put them at higher risk of injury when they compete.

At the same time, you don't want to overexercise your dog either. If you're not sure how much exercise your dog needs, chat with your vet.

Common health conditions in canine athletes

The extra wear and tear that competing puts on the joints can put canine athletes at a higher risk of developing orthopedic conditions. Here are some of the most common health conditions vets see in canine athletes.

Lumbosacral disease

Lumbosacral disease is a painful and often debilitating condition that results from compression of the spinal nerves or the gradual breakdown of the bones in the lower back.

Experts don’t know the exact cause of this condition, though some theorize that lumbosacral disease can be caused by injuries, skeletal deformities, and other degenerative diseases.

Symptoms of lumbosacral disease may be mild at first, but dogs may experience loss of limb function or incontinence as the disease progresses. Dogs with lumbosacral disease might also:

  • Be hesitant to perform certain activities
  • No longer wag their tail 
  • Have trouble squatting
  • Groom excessively

lab sleeping with gray fur

Biceps tenosynovitis

Biceps tenosynovitis is another common orthopedic condition that affects canine athletes, particularly larger breeds. Experts define biceps tenosynovitis as the painful swelling of the biceps brachii tendon that runs from both shoulders down the front legs.

Labrador Retriever and Rottweilers have a higher incidence of this condition though it can affect any breed. Symptoms of this condition include:

Cruciate ligament rupture

The cruciate ligaments are found in the knee and may rupture due to injuries caused by athletic activities or from gradual wear and tear on the joint. Sudden symptom onset is typical with cruciate ligament ruptures due to trauma from athletic activities.

Dogs may go from running and playing to yelping and limping in a split second. Dogs with a history of dislocated kneecaps or those who have had cruciate ligament ruptures before are at a higher risk of this condition. Signs of cruciate ligament injuries in canine athletes include:

  • Extreme pain
  • Inability to bear weight on the affected leg
  • Unusual gait 

Paw injuries

Due to the nature of canine sports, paw injuries like lacerations, bruises, and burns are common. Coming in contact with sharp rocks, hot pavement, or glass are just some of the ways that a dog’s paw may become injured during sporting activities.

Even running on hard or uneven surfaces can cause bruises to the footpad. Likewise, running on gravel may cause pebbles to become lodged between the toes causing pain and bruising. You may want to check your dog’s paws if they experience any of the following symptoms:

Average vet care costs for canine athletes

Regular veterinary care is essential for keeping your canine athlete healthy. They can also identify orthopedic problems before they worsen. So how much can you expect to spend on vet care for your canine athlete? Let’s take a look at some average costs:

  • Physical exams: $50–$100
  • X-rays: $80–$400
  • Bloodwork: $70–$150
  • Vaccinations (annually): $25–$100
  • Flea and tick preventatives (annually): $40–$200 
  • Heartworm preventatives (annually): $60–$250
  • Dewormer (annually): $68

There’s always the potential for injury any time a canine athlete competes. Protect your dog and your wallet by having your pet insured. Start searching for pet insurance today to find the “pawfect” option for your active fur-baby.

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