Keeping Canine Athletes Healthy


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Sports medicine is a growing discipline. It seems rehabilitation facilities are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Similarly, rehab medicine is of growing interest for pet owners. There’s now even a specialty veterinary college for sports medicine.

Experts on the topic converged at Purina Farms, Gray Summit, MO for the Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium, September 29 to October 1.

Presenters shared their knowledge, as well as new research. Including an update on stem cell therapy. Dr. Brittany Jean Carr, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation resident in Annapolis Junction, MD says stem cell therapy may help some pets with joint injuries or arthritis.Pet expert Steve Dale reports form Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium

Having said that, she also said that it’s perhaps unfair to consider stem cell therapy a magic bullet, but instead for the therapy to be part of a larger plan which may include surgery, rehabilitation at a specialty facility (as some rehab treatments have not been studied following stem cell therapy, and may prove to be detrimental) as well as rehab at home, and appropriate pain relief medication.

When injuries occur, Dr. Christine Zink of Ellicott City, MD points out that dogs may not “tell us” by yelping, limping or acting hurt in any way, at first because of the adrenaline rush, particularly if dogs are participating in canine sports events.

Zink, who is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathobiology and American College of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation says, “It’s the client’s job to find pain before the dog shows lameness. We can then prevent it from getting worse. And in my experience, when a client’s feels something isn’t right about their dog, they’re usually right.”

Attendees include Dr. Carr, Dr. Zink and a special guest

Attendees include Dr. Carr, Dr. Zink and a special guest

She adds that it’s also important for veterinarians to have an understanding about dog sports and events so they are better educated about what might happen. For example, likely injuries may differ in dogs that compete in Frisbee disc competition compared to agility (an obstacle course for dogs).

Lots of high-level canine athletes are videotaped during their events, and showing a veterinarian that video may be helpful. By carefully observing whether the dog using a correct lead leg when turning, or observing if the dog is slipping – even so slightly – might offer a hint about what direction to look for regarding a diagnosis.

Carr notes that arthritis is a real problem for all dogs. About 20 percent of middle-aged dogs, and 90 percent of elderly dogs suffer from arthritis. Traditional medication and weight loss have been used to treat this condition, but movement can help and both therapies at a specialty clinic and at home are likely to be helpful.

Pet expert Steve Dale reports from Purina Canine Sports SymposiumLike human athletes, canine athletes are more prone to injury. Still, being athletic is overall healthful for dogs, says Dr. Robert Gillette, who has been an advisor to U.S. Military Canine Programs and Army Veterinary Corps, and is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine. Canine athletes are also far less likely to suffer from obesity, as over half of all dogs in America are obese or overweight.

Of course, canine athletes do best with diets appropriate for their level of activity.

Gillette adds, “The body needs appropriate energy to maintain homeostasis, and additional energy is required for physical activity. The maintenance energy requirement is defined as the energy used by moderately active adult dogs in a thermonuetral environment. When the body performs at a level greater than it’s normal daily routine, there is a greater need for energy.”

Gillette continues, “Strength/power activities rely heavily upon one enzyme and the glycolic energy systems and endurance activities rely heavily upon the oxidative energy systems. If we take this one step further, energy utilization can be dependent upon which parts of the musculoskeletal system are working. Sprinting or jumping relies heavily on the actions of the lumbar back muscles and muscles of the rear legs for a relative short period of time. Examples are lure coursing, dock jumping or high jumping.

Another speak Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, associate professor of Clinical Nutrition and Sports Medicine Rehabilation, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Another speaker Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, associate professor of Clinical Nutrition and Sports Medicine Rehabilitation, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

“An example of a strength activity is when a dog is gripping the bite sleeve and most the activity is in the mouth and neck muscles,” he continues. “A whole body strength sport is weight pulls. During these activities, the two tissues needing energy are muscles and nerves. Endurance activities include sled dog racing and bird or game hunting and scent tracking/trailing. In these activities, dogs perform their tasks for periods longer than four minutes.”

Pet expert Steve Dale reports from Purina Canine Sports SymposiumPurina research scientist Dr. Brian Zanghi points out, “Nutrition studies have shown that properly feeding to ideal body condition can play a big role in an older dog’s wellness and longevity, but estimating a senior’s dog body condition score to its estimate body fat condition and lean mass is difficult and not well defined. We do that based on Purina’s 14 year longevity study, dogs with leaner body condition lived 15 percent longer (1.8 years).

“Deciding on the best age to recommend pet owners switch to senior food should be based on subjective retirement status of the working pet,” adds Zanghi, who is based in St. Louis, MO. “In other words what makes a dog old varies greatly on the individual.

“Targeted nutrients in the diet can make a difference. For example, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can promote joint health, and help improve mobility in dogs with arthritis,” continues Zanghi.  “Medium-chain triglycerides can promote alertness and mental sharpness in older dogs.”

Gillette explains, “It’s important to understand the role of energy systems in athletic and working dogs, and well as for a patient going through rehabilitation. Nutrition and physical conditioning are the key components to any successful training or rehabilitation program.”