Combining Exercise with Calorie Control Helps Dogs Preserve Muscle Mass


Adding controlled physical exercise to a weight loss program for pet dogs helps preserve muscle mass more effectively than calorie restriction alone.

A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association has found that adding controlled physical exercise to a weight loss program for pet dogs helps preserve muscle mass more effectively than calorie restriction alone.

Obesity is an increasingly common problem in dogs that decreases their quality of life and lifespan, and increases their risk of orthopedic problems and even certain cancers.

Research has shown the health benefits of exercise for people who are overweight. And, because weight loss typically involves loss of both fat and muscle mass, it is better to preserve as much lean muscle tissue as possible to help maintain metabolic rate and physical strength—both of which ultimately help with maintenance of the goal weight.

However, studies examining the effects of physical activity on weight loss in overweight dogs are lacking. Little is also known of the effect of weight loss and exercise on heart rate in overweight dogs

Anne D. Vitger, DVM, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark, and colleagues therefore conducted a 12-week study in overweight dogs enrolled in a weight loss program. They aimed to determine whether combining a controlled exercise program with dietary calorie restriction would result in improved cardiorespiratory fitness and preservation of muscle mass than calorie restriction alone would.

In this study, the researchers assigned overweight, medium- and large-breed dogs (body weight 15kg-55kg) to join either the fitness and diet (FD) group or the diet-only (DO) group, according to owner preference. The dogs ranged in age from 2 to 13 years, were otherwise healthy, and typically experienced only short or light intensity walks each day.

The dogs in both groups were fed the same high protein, low fat diet with a calorie content that aimed to achieve a weight loss rate of 1% to 2% of body weight per week. Dogs in the FD group also exercised 3 times per week on underwater and land-based treadmills at the university hospital. However, dogs in the DO group stayed on their usual daily exercise routine.

Throughout the study, the researchers weighed each dog every 2 weeks, and monitored each animal’s daily activity levels. At the beginning and end of the study, they also assessed each dog’s heart rate during exercise, body condition score (BCS), and body composition. Sixteen dogs completed the study—8 in each group.

The researchers discovered that the combination of exercise and calorie restriction prevented loss of lean muscle in dogs. At the end of the study, although weight loss was similar in the FD group and the DO group (13.9% and 12.9%), dogs in the FD group maintained muscle tissue, while those in the DO group lost it. At the end of the study, heart rate during exercise was also lower in dogs in both groups than at the beginning of the study.

The results of this study therefore support “inclusion of controlled physical training for obesity management in dogs.”

Dr. Parry graduated from the University of Liverpool, England in 1997 and is a board-certified veterinary pathologist. After 13 years working in academia, she founded Midwest Veterinary Pathology, LLC where she now works as a private consultant. She is passionate about veterinary education and serves on the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association’s Continuing Education Committee. She regularly writes continuing education articles for veterinary organizations and journals, and has also served on the American College of Veterinary Pathologists’ Examination Committee and Education Committee.

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