Muscle health and fitness in canine athletes involves a multi-pronged approach encompassing everything from nutrition and exercise to massage and chiropractic.
Any athlete can tell you the importance of muscle health when it comes to optimizing performance. The same applies to dogs. Whether your companion is a hardcore flyball athlete, an agility champ or a long distance hiker, maintaining healthy lean muscle will ensure years of injury-free performance. Your dog won’t be heading to the nearest gym to do bench presses, but there are many other ways you can keep his muscles strong and healthy.
Nutrition – he is what he eats
• Protein is the most important nutrient for maintaining healthy lean muscle. Quantity is not as important as quality. Vegetables are made of protein, but often lack one or several amino acids. Animal-based proteins, however, are complete. When specifically talking about muscle health, diets with a high lysine to calorie ratio are best. This information is not readily available on labels, but the manufacturer should be able to provide a breakdown of the amino acid content; this information can then be compared to the caloric density of the diet.
• Another important nutrient for muscle health is L-carnitine, also found in meat. It is a derivative of the amino acids lysine and methionine. There is some evidence that it increases energy metabolism and helps burn fat while preserving lean muscle mass in overweight dogs. This supplement is very safe, but there is no evidence that it benefits dogs of healthy weight.
• Vitamin E and selenium are both proven antioxidants. When given in combination, they appear to work synergistically to help scavenge oxidative damage from the breakdown of muscle tissue in active dogs.
The most important consideration is not to overfeed or over-supplement. Certain vitamins are not easily excreted from the body if given in high doses, and can be toxic. Also, high protein diets may lead to weight gain if the caloric intake is too high. No dog benefits from being overweight!
Massage those muscles
There are many varieties of massage techniques – shiatsu, Swedish, Tui Na, the list goes on. The aim of massage is to maximize circulation of both the blood and lymphatic systems. Manual manipulation of muscle tissue feeds the cells with blood and vital fluids and drains away waste products from normal muscle work. The massage therapist can identify areas of congestion, trigger points and “tight bands” and use specific movements to facilitate breakdown of damaged tissue and enhance repair. Improved circulation maintains the flexibility and pliability of tissue, especially the connective tissue. Because connective tissue has poor circulation, it heals very slowly; maximizing circulation and drainage speeds healing or can help avoid injury altogether.
Chiropractic and acupuncture
Both these modalities can be used to treat injuries, but can also be beneficial for the maintenance of muscle health.
• Chiropractic adjustment aims to optimize the alignment of the spine. This maximizes circulation and nerve conduction from the central nervous system to the periphery of the body and limbs.
• Acupuncture can be used in a similar fashion to encourage circulation and stimulate the nervous system. Acupoints can be stimulated in an injured area to break down stagnation of blood and fluids. Acupoints further away from the injury are then stimulated to encourage drainage.
Exercise – cross training
Dogs naturally exercise themselves, but those that do specific activities need additional consideration. Doing the same activity over and over can lead to stress and repetitive use injury. Dogs in sports that require lots of stopping, starting, changing direction and jumping should spend time doing a variety of other activities to encourage balance and flexibility. Cross training will improve performance and protect against injury.
For example, dogs that do lots of running or jumping need to mix up their training regimen. Slow things down. Put the dog on a leash and walk slowly up and down a steep hill to encourage weight shifting and balance. Use weighted backpacks during a walk to increase strength and stamina. Try swimming to reduce ligament-straining concussion on the joints. Or do something completely different, like nose work, to challenge the muscles between the dog’s ears for variety and mental stimulation. Keep it fun!
Chronic soft tissue injury and pain can become a vicious circle because the dog compensates for them, creating other issues and causing further injury and pain. But these simple steps will help keep your canine athlete’s muscles strong, healthy, pain-free and in peak condition.