Updated November 28, 2020
The other day I took the sutures out of a vasectomy (yes, a dog vasectomy!) and said, “great, now he can get back to running.”
It turned out he hadn’t been for a run yet. The owners asked a good question: “is that OK for his growth plates?”
If you read what’s said online, you’ll see a lot of dire predictions about exercising puppies, and some of them are true. Some of them, however, are completely debunked by the evidence.
How do you know which ones? That’s my job.
Puppy Over-Exercise: The Evidence
Five papers have looked at whether puppy joint problems are more common with exercise. I’ve ranked them from newest to oldest (references below).
- In large breeds up to 3 months of age, those who use stairs have an increased risk of hip dysplasia (HD). Those allowed daily off-leash exercise in a park-like terrain, or born in a rural area have a decreased risk of HD.
- Young Labradors with a history of running after balls and sticks thrown by their owners have more hip dysplasia and elbow problems.
- Boxer puppies are more likely to develop HD if they are housed by the breeder on slippery surfaces.
- Osteochondrosis dissecans (a cartilage defect of immature joints) is more common in dogs that have played with other dogs.
- HD is decreased by the confinement of at-risk puppies in small areas where activity is restricted.
Puppy Exercise Recommendations
So what do we make of this? Firstly, not all science is equal. To me, it’s clear that the more recent studies are higher quality.
Secondly, joints and growth plates aren’t the only consideration in exercising puppies. Therefore, I’ll use the science to make specific joint advice and then give advice for all puppies.
For Puppies At Risk Of Joint Problems
Breeders need to:
- Avoid slippery surfaces such as newspaper, tarpaulins, tiles, floorboards
- Encourage moderate walking exercise on irregular terrain like grass
- Prevent access to stairs
Restriction of activity is probably only necessary if high-impact activity and smooth surfaces can’t be avoided.
Owners need to:
- Avoid fetch and ball games
- Avoid rough play such as at dog parks
Generally, this is most important for breeds with an adult weight above 25kg, but please consult your vet for specific advice. Now, for how long should we apply these restrictions?
When To Start Running Puppies
In the absence of clear evidence, the following guidelines seem appropriate, based on estimated times of growth plate closure:
- Small breeds: 9 months of age
- Medium breeds: 10 -11 months
- Large breeds: 12 – 14 months
- Giant breeds: 18 – 24 months
These dates are especially important for at-risk breeds. For other breeds, joint injuries probably aren’t likely at any age. Let’s not forget: wolves don’t sit around in deckchairs until their growth plates mature.
Whether you run a pup or not, read here why I would be especially careful about fetch games and why sticks are dangerous to dogs.
How Far To Walk Puppies
General walking advice for all puppies is:
- Daily or twice daily exercise is essential when your puppy is fully vaccinated. Until then, puppy school will give them the best start.
- Once you begin, a puppy will often just sit when the lead is attached. Don’t pull; keep it loose and wait for your pup to get curious. If all they do is sit on the street that’s OK. You’ll find that it’s the mental stimulation your puppy needs, not the exercise.
- Then go at your puppy’s pace. Some can go miles and miles, others get tired at the end of the street. Therefore, avoid venturing too far from home, especially if your pup is too big to carry!
- As a pup matures, their stamina and endurance grow too. If you push too far or fast too early you risk making your dog anxious about the very thing they should love.
What About Splayed Legs?
I often get asked whether puppies who sit with their hind legs spreadeagled are at risk of damaging their hips. The answer is no. In fact, by demonstrating that they are comfortable doing this they are likely to have better than average hips.
Normal puppies like this should in no way be confused with ‘swimmers’ who have permanently splayed legs and can’t walk. These pups can be successfully rehabilitated but require urgent veterinary attention.
Lastly, there are a lot of ways walking can be dangerous for puppies. You’ll find most of them in my list of ten common fatalities of dogs.
Special mention should be made for using leashes, teaching good social skills and avoiding warm temperatures.
But don’t let that put you off. Walking dogs is essential for their mental health, but it’s also pretty good for ours. I hope to see you out there soon!
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
- Krontveit, R. I., Nødtvedt, A., Sævik, B. K., Ropstad, E., & Trangerud, C. (2012). Housing-and exercise-related risk factors associated with the development of hip dysplasia as determined by radiographic evaluation in a prospective cohort of Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, Leonbergers, and Irish Wolfhounds in Norway. American journal of veterinary research, 73(6), 838-846.
- Sallander, M. H., Hedhammar, A., & Trogen, M. E. (2006). Diet, exercise, and weight as risk factors in hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in Labrador retrievers. The Journal of nutrition, 136(7), 2050S-2052S.
- van Hagen, M. A., Ducro, B. J., Broek, J. V. D., & Knol, B. W. (2005). Incidence, risk factors, and heritability estimates of hind limb lameness caused by hip dysplasia in a birth cohort of boxers. American journal of veterinary research, 66(2), 307-312.
- Slater, M. R., Scarlett, J. M., Donoghue, S., Kaderly, R. E., Bonnett, B. N., Cockshutt, J., & Erb, H. N. (1992). Diet and exercise as potential risk factors for osteochondritis dissecans in dogs. American journal of veterinary research, 53(11), 2119-2124
- Riser, W. H. (1975). The dog as a model for the study of hip dysplasia. Growth, form, and development of the normal and dysplastic hip joint. Veterinary pathology, 12:234–334.