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Pet Project

Can Animals Influence Lifestyle Changes?

If patients can't seem to find an internal motivation to exercise or make other lifestyle changes, maybe they'll do it on behalf of their pets.

The percentage of overweight and obese pets has increased to 25% to 40%, says Catherine McClelland, DVM, a veterinary affairs manager with Hill's Pet Nutrition, based in Topeka, Kansas. "And that's a conservative estimate." Meanwhile, a recent public health estimate for people is that more than half of Americans are overweight.

The Pet-Human Health Connection

Veterinarians are starting to tap into the concept of pairing people and pet health:

  • A public service designed for veterinary office waiting rooms, titled "50 Ways to Love Your Rover" and sponsored by Hill's Pet Nutrition, touts a broad range of health promotion tips for both dogs and their owners. Exercise is featured prominently in the campaign.
  • A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology1 linked passive smoke to feline cancer.
  • In medical and veterinary journals, veterinary students and their professors have proposed several animal-human health initiatives such as identifying domestic violence, promoting vaccinations, preventing infectious diseases, and urging parents to keep kids and pets from riding in the cargo areas of pickup trucks.

Mark Stafford, MD, an internist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who collaborated on the Hill's public health campaign, says that pets have a salutary effect on human health because they provide an activity outlet and companionship. Though he doesn't specifically advise patients to adopt pets, he has noticed some health benefits in patients who have pets. "They get people up and moving, and the people who are moving are the ones living to old age," he says.

Though walking a dog might be an excellent way for patients to start an exercise program, it's not for everyone, he notes. This type of exercise may be inappropriate for patients who don't have the agility to navigate with a pet on a leash or don't have the upper-body strength to handle a large animal.

Pets as Exercise Partners

Walking the dog is a common exercise recommendation that many physicians may make, but there are several other exercise opportunities. A recent Web search turned up additional exercise examples for animal companions: hiking, backpacking, bicycling, skating, jogging, swimming, and skijorning (combines mushing with cross-country skiing). A wide array of specialty sporting goods products enable people and their pets to participate in some of the more nontraditional activities. Canine backpacks allow dogs to carry their own food and supplies on backpacking trails, hands-free leashes make jogging more comfortable for the two-legged jogger, and life vests protect dogs who are swimming companions.

Several resources on the Web offer safety tips for exercising with pets.2,3 One such list can be found at Examples include:

  • Take breaks and maintain hydration. For long walks, people should take along a collapsible water dish so that the animal can have access to clean water. (Pets can also be taught to drink water squirted from a water bottle.)
  • Start slow. Gradual conditioning will make the activity safer by strengthening the pet's muscles, cardiac system, and foot pads.
  • Set a pace both can enjoy. Fast and out-of-control breathing, drooling, stumbling, and lack of awareness are signs of overexertion in animals. Signs of heatstroke include bright red gums and tongue, thick saliva, and vomiting.

Lisa Schnirring


  1. Bertone ER, Snyder LA, Moore SA: Environmental tobacco smoke and risk of malignant lymphoma in cats. Am J Epidemiol 2002;156:268-273
  2. Vogel T: Planning an outdoor adventure that's safe for the dog. Available at
  3. Four-legged runners. Running & FitNews 2001;19(4):5

Field Notes

A Dehydration Link to Altitude Sickness?

Researchers at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore have found that dehydration is related to acute mountain sickness (AMS). Their report, published in the September issue of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, examined people making a traditional Hindu pilgrimage to a high-altitude lake in the Nepal Himalayas.

The hypothesis was that the physiologic changes induced by dehydration lead to incomplete compensation for altitude-induced hypocapnic alkalosis and the development of clinical disease.

Subjects were evaluated with urine studies, pulse oximetry, and physical examination done at 4,243 m. They found that AMS scores rose as urine specific gravity increased and oxygen saturation and urine pH decreased. Their findings expand on a similar study performed in 1999 on Mount Everest.

Pediatricians Call for Handlebar Standards

Safer handlebar designs should be integrated to decrease the severity of bike accidents in children, according to researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Their study, which appeared in the September issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, found that about 80% of internal organ injuries in nonmotor vehicle bicycle crashes are associated with handlebar impact

They estimate that hospital costs from bicycle handlebar incidents in 1997 was $9.6 million. A 1998 study from the same researchers identified the circumstance and mechanism of injury: riding at low speed, losing control, and falling on one end of the handlebar. The most common internal injuries were splenic, kidney, liver, and pancreatic lacerations and contusions. Biomechanical engineers from the same institution designed a retractable handlebar that absorbs the energy of the impact.

The researchers made the following recommendations:

  • Voluntary or mandatory product handlebar modifications should be adopted.
  • Clinicians should educate parents about choosing and maintaining their child's bicycle.
  • Parents and physicians should learn as much as possible about the circumstances of a child's fall from a bicycle to determine if internal organ damage may have occurred.

Are Certain Sports Risk Factors for Eating Disorders?

University of Minnesota researchers have confirmed that girls involved in activities such as gymnastics and ballet that emphasize maintaining a certain weight are more likely to practice unhealthy eating behaviors.

The findings, published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, noted that girl participants were 1.5 times more likely than nonparticipants to engage in disordered eating. Depression, a history of sexual abuse, or abuse of cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana were risk factors. They found that low body weight for height was not a reliable indicator of disordered eating. Their survey was based on 5,174 Connecticut public school girls in grades 7, 9, and 11.