When it comes to our weight, we’re keenly aware of the connection between taking the extra step and losing that extra pound. Human weight loss program almost always advocate activity-boosters like hitting the gym before work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and using fitness trackers to stay on track.
Some of this conventional wisdom about exercise can be attributed to the work of research initiatives from organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) that explored the relationship between activity and health. The outcome was the creation of data-backed guidelines outlining the activity levels required to reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other inactivity-related issues. These clinically-validated guidelines built the foundation for exercise to become considered a fundamental part of wellness - physicians began speaking with their patients about exercise, school systems designed smarter physical education programs, and fitness tracking companies were able to provide informed daily activity goals.
Dogs aren’t as lucky
As someone who spends more time worried about my dogs’ health and happiness than my own, I found that I didn’t have a good answer to a simple question - how much activity should my dogs get every day?
I wasn’t alone - a lack of research has left pet owners without guidance about how much activity dogs needs to reduce the risk of health issues.
And pet owners need help. Pet obesity is literally growing - the prevalence of overweight dogs increased by 158% in the past 10 years and experts estimate that over 50% of dogs are now overweight or obese. This is particularly concerning given the ever-growing evidence about the negative consequences of excess fat, including new findings that obesity can take over two years off the expected lifespan of a dog.
Our team at Pet Insight Project - with access to both activity data from Whistle and clinically-validated weight and body condition score assessments from Banfield Pet Hospital - found we had a unique opportunity to shed some light on the activity requirements of dogs, especially as it relates to obesity prevention.
obesity rate & activity levels
We first set out to see if a link existed between the amount of activity a dog gets and the likelihood that it is overweight or obese. While it is somewhat intuitive that the more active a dog is, the less likely it is to be overweight, the strength of the relationship between activity minutes and obesity rate was surprising. Adult dogs that averaged over 60 minutes of daily activity were less than half as likely to be overweight.
We double-clicked the data, looking at a few different age and breed segments to see if the same trend applied to dogs as different as Chihuahuas and Golden Retrievers.
The relationship between activity and obesity holds: Retrievers and Chihuahuas both exhibit the same strong relationship between inactivity and obesity as the rest of the adult dog population.
The Chicken or the egg?
But which comes first? Decreased activity or weight? Do overweight dogs simply get less activity because they are carrying addition weight that makes movement more challenging?
To help answer this, we took a look at dogs who were considered to have an ideal body weight by their veterinarians, and then followed those dogs to see what portion of them became overweight in future veterinary visits. We found that dogs that became overweight averaged 20% less daily activity than dogs that maintained a healthy body weight.
While that is an interesting insight, simply telling pet owners that their dog needs “more” activity isn’t very helpful.
To help provide more actionable guidance, we categorized the ideal weight dogs into groups based on their average daily activity and examined the rates at which those different groups developed obesity.
We found that adult dogs that averaged over 80 active minutes per day were ~40% less likely to become overweight in the future.
While it’s true that declining activity and increasing weight is a reinforcing cycle - one that more and more dogs are finding themselves in - lower levels of activity levels seem to come first for many dogs.
The takeaway? Activity matters, especially in the context of fighting obesity. While this may feel intuitive, this is (to our knowledge) the first attempt to statistically describe how much activity it takes to see a reduction in a dog’s risk of becoming overweight.
We’ll continue to explore this important health issue as we help the pet care community establish effective activity guidelines and provide dog owners with clearer answers about their dogs’ exercise needs. While the exact number of activity minutes may not be determined yet, it’s safe to say that most dogs simply need more.
If your dog is struggling with excess weight, one proven method to increase activity is setting an ambitious but achievable daily goal and making sustainable adjustments to your daily routine to hit it. Adding an extra block or two to you and your dog’s normal walk route adds up when you do it every day!
Do you and your dog have a weight-related story? We’d love to hear from you. Email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Weight & Activity”.