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Appropriate exercise for dogs with joint disease

This topic warrants a whole page of its own as there are a lot of considerations to take into account when planning the appropriate amount and type of exercise for your dog​

If your dog has been newly diagnosed with arthritis or developmental joint disease such as elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia, it is likely your vet / physiotherapist has recommend that you reduce your dogs exercise levels in order to help manage the pain and lameness caused by over-exercising.

Appropriate exercise for dogs with joint disease

This is sound advice and you do need to carefully consider the amount, type and nature of exercise you give your dog. However, once you start restricting exercise, other factors need to be taken into consideration, such as:​

Weight management

As exercise levels reduce, your dog may gain weight if sufficient allowances are not made in their calorie intake. You may need to consider reducing the amount you feed them but PLEASE discuss this with your vet before making any changes as it's important that puppies still get the right balanced nutrition for healthy growth & development. Also, dogs already overweight will benefit from going on a calorie-controlled diet which needs careful planning & monitoring by your vet.

​Emotional well-being / behaviour

Exercise is an important part of all dogs' lives and a component in what makes your dog content. Reducing their exercise can sometimes have a negative impact on their mood state and well-being. This may have a knock-on effect and contribute to some behavioural problems. If in doubt PLEASE seek advice from a qualified behaviourist

Puppy socialisation

This is the process by which puppies learn to relate to people and other animals and become used to a wide range of events, environments and situations. Experiences during the first year of a dog’s life make all the difference to future temperament and character. Even well-socialised puppies up to the age of 12 weeks can become fearful again if kept in isolation. ​

​When a diagnosis of developmental joint disease is made and your vet recommends restricting exercise, it is still vital that efforts are made to continue to socialise your puppy up until they are at least a year old. Reading the advice below may help you exercise your dog appropriately and still allow your dog to socialise

​How much exercise?

This is very individual to each patient and depends on whether your dog is suffering a painful flare up, is newly diagnosed or has been experiencing a gradual decline in mobility for some time. Having arthritis does not mean your pet is incapable of exercising. In fact, staying active actually helps arthritis but it is vital that you follow the guidelines below to ensure you maintain joint comfort

As a guide, in an acute flare-up it is important to let the joint settle so you should aim for 2-4 shorter walks a day rather than 1 or 2 longer walks. This could be 4 x 5-10 minutes on lead. As symptoms settle down you can gradually increase this amount by 5 minutes per week until you have built up to a satisfactory level of activity that your dog can manage. Every dog is an individual and how they respond will depend on their individual circumstances. You can always build up gradually but the most important thing is not to over-do it.

Rather than asking "how much exercise should I give my dog?" a more relevant question may be "what type of exercise should I give my dog?"

What type of exercise?

Exercise should be:



​Aim for DAILY structured, regular & predictable exercise.

Avoid out of the ordinary long walks or sudden bursts of energy

For example, during the weekdays they may be having a 30 minute lead walk and at the weekend they may be allowed to play with a friends dog and then run off-lead on the beach. This 'over exercise' can cause flare-ups of lameness / joint pain and lead to stiffness/lameness after rest.

Risk assess your environment; for example going out in to woodland at dusk with your dog off-lead is not advisable if you suspect they may chase rabbits / squirresl / deer etc.

Always warm up: start exercise with a short low-impact walk to ease stiffness before embarking on any more demanding exercise.

Build up gradually: If you are on a gradual lead walking programme and trying to increase or lengthen the walk or let them have more free time on a long line or flexi-lead build this steadily.


Provide your dog with the right amount of exercise for your dogs needs NOT what time you have available

Walks should be lightly to moderately active depending on the stage of the disease and how your dog is coping

Reducing high impact exercise and restricting them may be necessary to keep your dog comfortable but does't mean that they cannot enjoy their walks - you just have to re-think what you let your dog do

Off lead is fine depending on your dogs situation. Do they have good recall, will they be likely to chase wildlife or play boisterously with other dogs

Equally, as your dog ages and symptoms worsen, or you are faced with painful flare-ups, you will need to reduce the exercise further or reconsider 'what' they are doing.



Stop any excessive jumping, twisting or high impact forces through the joints.

Whilst your dog might be capable and keen to chase and jump, it will put too much strain and demand on a joint that is NOT capable of coping with this, especially in the long term.

It may be advisable to keep your dog ON THE LEAD: it's better to keep your dog under your control so that you can set the speed and distance your dog is walking.

Consider activities which mentally stimulate rather than trying to tire them out physically (E.g. obedience training, activity feeding)

Try indoor games and gentle play to supplement their lead walks


Think "Little & Often" - this is the best approach especially in an acute flare-up

More frequent shorter walks are better than 1 long walk which may aggravate symptoms

You can set goals and see if you can gradually increase your dogs exercise either by going further or by introducing some off lead time (if appropriate)

Build up gradually

If your dog exhibits stiffness after rest they may well be over exercising


Keep walks engaging and fun

Provide a chance to seek and explore their environment and socialise with other dogs and people etc.

Restricted exercise needn’t be dull


what your dogs joints can cope with is often different to what your dog thinks they can cope with or perhaps what you would like them to be able to do

Set suitable & realistic targets for your dogs age and stage of arthritis. An 18 month old Labrador with an acute painful flare-up due to underlying hip dysplasia will have different requirements to a 5 year old who's condition is well managed and equally a 13 year old with more severe OA will have different requirements again

Over time, secondary arthritic changes are inevitable but excess forces accelerate this disease process. We, are accountable as pet owners, and can try to slow these changes by taking responsibility for the type of exercise we allow our dogs to engage in.

Alternatives to ball throwing:

Hide and seek for a toy or treat reward (either on long line or off lead if your dog has reached that stage or has good recall.)

Obedience work such as heel work, on a long line or controlled re-calls (you can take this further by trying to gain your Bronze, Silver and Gold award

Rally obedience

Propriocetive walks

​Indoor activities include

Scattering their kibble / activity feeding

Hide & seek for a toy / Kong or treats

Interactive food toys

Filled Kongs

Obedience work: give paw, sit to stand, etc.

Low-impact exercises provided by your physiotherapist

REMEMBER: If your dog is overweight it can put added pressure on their joints. By keeping your dog at a healthy weight you can help alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and make the long term management more effective

If the information above does not provide the answers your are looking for, please email me for individual advice or get in touch with your local veterinary practice or nearest ACPAT physiotherapist.

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