Updated: Jun 26
You have just obtained a puppy! A lovely new family member. You want to give them the best start to life and they've had their veterinary health check and vaccinations- now you are allowed to adventure. But wait? You've heard that they should only have 5 minutes per month of life. Is this true?
Puppy exercise: how much should i exercise my puppy?
Veterinary professionals encounter many puppies daily, from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane - the variety is so vast! So how then do we appropriately give advice on how you should be exercising your puppy to avoid causing unnecessary damage?
There is lots of conflicting and confusing advice when it comes to exercise and puppies. The information can be so overwhelming! Many people will have an opinion, but what is the evidence regarding exercising puppies and joint health?
We know that certain breeds are predisposed to genetic or conformation risk factors but as with anything each dog is individual. We have an extensive array of breeds who may or may not have a certain morphology, a particular shape or form, which may predispose them to joint damage: it is really difficult to give a ‘one size fits all’ advice.
What we can do is examine the evidence, allowing you and the veterinary practice looking after your puppy to make an informed decision on what is appropriate to your dog. The early days
It may be surprising to hear that even when not overly mobile, and not even weaned, a puppy's environment can impact their development. This is not strictly 'exercise' but related to their ability to safely navigate their environment. It also highlights the need to meet your breeder and the environment in which your puppy has been raised.
One study looked at hip dysplasia and found that dogs kept on a floors covered with a slippery material were 1.6 times as likely to develop hip dysplasia, compared with dogs kept on non slippery flooring.
This highlights the need for young dogs to be housed appropriately so that movements within the home/ kennel environment don't predispose them to issues later on in life.
Another study found an increased incidence of hip dysplasia in puppies climbing stairs from birth to 3 months of age.
Growth Plates: Do I need to worry?
Growth plates, medically discussed as an epiphyseal plate, are commonly considered when discussing puppy exercise. Different breeds grow at different rates. For example a small breed dog will reach skeletal maturity a lot faster than a giant breed dog.
Understanding what a growth plate actually is may help us examine the evidence for what is or isn’t a risk when examining puppy exercise recommendations. The epiphyseal plate is responsible for growth in bone length. The epiphyseal plate is mostly composed of cartilage and is visible in radiographs (X-Rays) of young animals. In essence the epiphyseal/ growth plate is the region of bone in a growing dog that results in lengthening of that bone.
Growth plates close at a fairly predictable age, based on the size/ breed of the dog.
For example, in toy and miniature breed dogs we generally see closure of growth plates at 6-8 months of age, while some growth plates of large or giant breeds of dogs may remain open until 14-16+ months of age.
The main issue here is growth plate fractures which can occur with trauma such as falling or jumping from a high (don't let puppies jump from car boots!). These fractures can result in significant alteration of physiologic (normal) growth function. But there can also be other factors at play such as bacterial infections or endocrine issues although these are rarer, we can also see nutritional issues occur if we do not feed appropriate complete diets to skeletally immature dogs.
Exercising your dog sensibly taking into consideration their growth and development is a good idea. Large and giant breeds especially need to have extra care taken to allow their skeletal development to be well managed and avoid unnecessary impacts or injuries.
High impact and repetitive strain injuries
Puppies LOVE to play. They love chasing and tugging and whizzing around after balls. But this might not be such a great idea!
Cartilage, the main tough but flexible connective tissue of a dog's body, can accommodate a slowly applied load (or pressure) better than an high impact load.
What does this mean to me as a puppy owner?
This means that we may need to consider that high impact, jarring, repetitive exercise may not be appropriate for our dogs, especially when they are young. So stop the ball or Frisbee throwing... and change up play time to avoid these.
In one study, running after balls and sticks throwing by the owner were also identified as risk factors for dogs developing joint issues. This was supported by another study that showed this kind of jarring and prolonged exercise, such as running after a ball or a stick at high speed, might lead to the development of osteochondritis dissecans (a disease of the cartilage that affects large breed dogs during early development).
So if I cant throw a ball, what can I do?
Remember, some dogs are more prone to genetic/conformation abnormalities that predispose them to joint disease. Assuming there are no abnormal ‘biomechanical stresses’ (internal forces that exert stress on the joint) acting on the joints, like hip or elbow dysplasia - most studies with moderate running indicate no risk injury to articular cartilage.
For example, in one study skeletally immature dogs who undertook 15 weeks of jogging at a rate of 40 km per day had no change in cartilage content! Realistically this is not an exercise routine that many, if any, owners would be subjecting their dogs to anyway! 40km is a LONG way!
As our puppies progress through life, as long as they have no abnormalities of their joints (bearing in mind many popular breeds do!) one study suggested that a lifetime of relatively low-impact weight-bearing exercise in dogs with normal joints did not cause damage to joint cartilage.
But here's the crux, many of our dogs sadly do have issues. Many breeds experience hip and elbow dysplasia, brachycephalic dogs can experience spinal malformations that cause them to suffer proprioceptive (nerve, balance and posture) issues, and small breeds commonly suffer patella luxation (dislocation of the kneecap). So, we have to be very sensible about our exercise and ensure we have regular checks with our veterinary team to check on your puppy's progress.
It's not 'one size fits all'
It’s easy to get confused by the advice with regards to puppy exercise, and as stated above it is impossible to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach when we are faced with the variety of breeds that owners may purchase or rescue.
Many dogs do have genetic or conformational risk factors predisposing them to disease which will change exercise recommendations, each exercise plan will be individual to your puppy.
Therefore it is important to use a mixture of veterinary advice, common sense and knowledge of your breed and their personality and their health status to make informed decisions on what exercise you should be undertaking.
Overall socialisation and behaviour is very important in later life, we do need our dogs to be experiencing all the world has to offer in a calm and positive way so that they are well rounded individuals and well socialised.
Implementing a sensible exercise routine that takes into consideration your individual dog, its breed and its mental and physical needs is always important. And after taking that into account, making sure you avoid high impact, repetitive, prolonged jarring exercise would be a very rational plan.
Veterinary Voices: Top Tips
Exercise for puppies needs to be tailored to your dog as an individual
Keep your puppy at a lean body condition score, do not allow them to carry unnecessary weight
Feed your puppy a healthy, complete and good quality diet appropriate for their age and breed. Getting the nutrition wrong at a young age can cause issues.
Each dog should be assessed individually based on their breed, temperament and physical status
Puppies should be free of hip and elbow dysplasia, and genetic predisposition to joint damage
Certain high impact exercises, twisting or jarring may be risk factors for damage! Do not let your dog obsessively chase balls and toys. Avoiding jarring, high concussive (a hard blow or collision) activity during the formative months may be a prudent recommendation
Robyn J Lowe FdSc, Dip AVN (Small Animal), Dip HE CVN, RVN
Further Reading/ References
What is the Logic Behind Not Exercising Puppies Until the Growth Plates are Closed? https://www.mylamedog.com/post/what-is-the-logic-behind-not-exercising-puppies-until-the-growth-plates-are-closed
Incidence, risk factors, and heritability estimates of hind limb lameness caused by hip dysplasia in a birth cohort of boxers https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15757132/
Osteoarthritis and Exercise: Does Increased Activity Wear Out Joints? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6220608/
The Epiphyseal Plate: Physiology, Anatomy, and Trauma: https://vetfolio-
Growth Plate Injuries Growth Plate Injuries | IVIS