Six Tips to a Healthier Dog

By Nicholas Vaughan D.V.M., C.C.R.P. – April 1, 2015

Much is changing about our city, but a few things will never change about living here. Like, for example, how it’s in your best interest to be in possession of a yoga mat, a pair of running shoes, a pair of cowboy boots, and a pet.  

It’s common knowledge that pets provide us with many health benefits. In fact, it’s almost malpractice if your family doctor doesn’t prescribe a visit to the animal shelter once a week to scratch some furry ears. Lucky for Austin, many of the residents seem to appreciate the health benefits of sharing a home with a pet, making it one of Men’s Health magazine’s Top 20 Cities to Raise a Dog. Given a bird’s eye view of the Lady Bird Lake trail, you would see a perfect smattering of strollers, bright yoga pants, tattooed arms and legs, and leashes galore. It seems every other person on the trail is either walking a dog or being walked by their dog. 

When we usually get our first pet, for better or worse we base a lot of what we know about animals on what our parents taught us. For further knowledge, we rely on veterinarians, breeders, and perhaps a few books. As a veterinarian, it has been my experience that we sometimes get so busy teaching dog owners about vaccines and preventative medicine that we overlook sports medicine and how to best incorporate the practice into your healthy lifestyle. Let’s talk about some basics.


1. Take it slow to build endurance. 

Too often we grab our dog, strap on a collar, and yell “Mush!” Our pooch seems to like it and who are we to judge? It goes without saying that dogs are eager to please. Forget about lactic acid build-up or muscle cramps, they live to make you happy. Reward their enthusiasm by taking it slow, and allowing your friend to build lung capacity and stamina much like you did when you started out. 

2. Leash-train your dog.  

Almost every client I work with believes their dog is leash trained. And I believe them. Until I see the owner get dragged through the dirt or even do the dragging themselves. The “lead” is an important communication tool that not only keeps your pet safe and near your side but also instills trust. Some of my favorite videos to introduce leash training are free on YouTube. Just search for Zak George and head to Zilker to start brushing up on his effective “lead training” drills.

3. Respect the architecture of anatomy. 

Size does not always matter, but form and function do. Understand your dog’s breed and determine if they are built for short sprints, agility, slow endurance runs, or gentle walks. Basset hounds like to jaunt and a Chihuahua likes short distance scrambles. Even though a Great Dane is massive, they would much rather chase something in a circle over and over and leave the distance runs to a pointer or retriever-type dog.

4. Post-exercise massages and stretching.  

We treat our dogs like one of the family, but sometimes we forget to take it to the next level. Dogs that rush to exercise quickly can form adhesions and develop improper gait.  It’s important to massage your dog after long hikes, runs, and swims. Work around the hip area and along the back. When you get experienced, ask your vet where the psoas muscle is located and slowly help your dog stretch this out to reduce hip and lower back pain.

5. Know at what age to push your dog to longer limits.  

It’s common for me to see puppies running full sprint around Austin’s many trails. This can have long term damaging effects on joint maturation and bone growth. Everyone knows the rule of thumb that a human year is close to seven years for a canine. But in that first year of a dog’s life, it is more like 14 human years. It is in the first year where dogs progress through sexual maturation and develop adult bones. Too much high pressure running can injure growth plates and lead to arthritis. Do your pup a favor and keep the distance short until one year of age.

6. Proper diet is important.

This is a Pandora’s box of a topic since there are so many opinions on brands, raw versus kibble, and ingredients in general. It is always smart to discuss food brands with your vet, but an AAFCO food label on the bag is a good place to start. Ingredients are important, but don't forget that some by-products such as viscera and glandular organs are where the most nutrients and vitamins are hidden. No matter what you feed, feed them less rather than more. Lean feeding has been proven to extend a dog’s life by up to two years. 


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