The role of physical exercise in treating emotional disorders in pets.

The role of physical exercise in treating emotional disorders in pets.

By: Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVB

Many times over, I have heard clients recount that even though their dog takes a long walk or jogs with them in the morning, they still show signs of anxiety such as separation anxiety or generalized anxiety. I am not surprised when I hear this because it is generally my experience that even well exercised dogs are often no less anxious than dogs who are not well exercised. On the other hand, many of us have had the experience that a tired dog gets into less trouble. So, which one is it?

It is both. In my experience, dogs who exhibit negative behaviors because they are simply bored or underenriched (such  as a normal puppy who doesn’t get much exercise) can greatly benefit from exercise. However, dogs who are anxious are still anxious even though they are well exercised.  I understand this on a personal level as an amateur athlete and marathon runner. When I run a marathon, I am tired physically, but I am no less likely to get upset with my husband for not doing the dishes or worry about my daughter when she is away from home. 

A recent study showed that dogs do benefit from the same mood changing neurotransmitters that we do–the neurobiological reward–when they engage in vigorous exercise. 

The key word here is “vigorous.” In order for the dogs to receive the benefit of these calming neurotransmitters they had to go on the equivalent of a 7 mile run, for example. Most of us are not exercising our dogs in this way. Most of our dogs couldn’t exercise safely in this manner anyway. Even if they could, the effects of these neurotransmitters as any runner can tell you is short lived. While my endorphins make me feel strong during my run, I am just as irritable (plus I am dog tired) after an hour or so. 

If your dog has an anxiety problem, he will need more than exercise and exercise unless it is sustained and vigorous will not help your dog anyway. If your dog is a young, mischievous dog who gets into trouble when you are not watching, he will most likely benefit from exercise. Exercise is important for enrichment and for physical health and emotional well-being, but don’t expect it to cure your dog’s emotional disorder. 

It goes without saying that you should speak to your veterinarian before you start any exercise program with your dog. Remember not to ever exercise your dog in the heat of the day!​