How Much Exercise Should a Puppy Get? (Part 1)
We had a reader recently ask about how much exercise a puppy should get. This is a great question and certainly worthy of a post or two. Speaking from experience, I wish that I had this knowledge many years ago when raising our Chocolate Labrador, Sally. Sally was an energetic lab (aren’t they all?) and I mistakenly took her running with me starting from about age 4-5 months old. We ran a lot and built up our miles until she was easily doing 6-8 miles, 3-5 times per week. Unfortunately, this amount and type of exercise, at her young age, probably did her more harm than good- she ended up with numerous orthopedic issues although she never had any known bone injuries.
A Puppy’s Body is Different than an Adult Dog’s Body
A puppy really does race through their formative years, going from birth to young adult in a blink of an eye, at least compared to a human’s development. The puppy is a calorie burning machine and their body will evolve markedly during the first year to year and one half of their lives. Besides an enhanced metabolism, puppies are different from adult dogs in several ways including:
- They have less stamina;
- They have less muscle mass and are anaerobically less efficient;
- They are far less coordinated;
- They think they have endless energy; and, most importantly,
- Their bones need time to develop.
One of the primary reasons that a puppy’s exercise routine should be different from an adult dog’s routine is due to the fact that their bones are not fully developed until they move into adulthood. The growth plates, or physis, of a puppy’s bones will ‘close’ as they age. The growth plates are softer than the bone itself and are located near the ends of the bones. In most cases, the bone growth plates of a puppy will close (i.e., finish forming and calcifying) by the age of 18 months. Some bones in the body will close sooner, within 4-5 months, while some bones will take longer to fully develop. Smaller dogs will see a faster growth plate closure rate than larger dogs.
Because the growth plates of a bone are softer than the bone itself, they are susceptible to injury, much like soft tissue (tendons, ligaments) are susceptible to injury. It is for this reason that a puppy’s exercise regimen should be different from an adult’s. Overdoing it or exercising a puppy incorrectly can lead to bone injury that could need surgical repair. Further, overuse or injury could cause the growth plate to close prematurely, which can result in a shortening of the bone and a lopsided and uneven skeletal structure.
Most of the longitudinal (length) bone growth in a dog’s body will end between eight months and one year so the most severe injury risk is up until this point in time. A veterinarian can advise a dog parent on when the growth plates are closed through an examination and x-rays.
In my next article on this topic, I will provide some examples of the types of exercise that are safe for puppies at different age ranges.