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It is amazing how much we know about calorie expenditure in humans during exercise. Charts are available that list countless types of exercise and the number of calories that are burned at various levels of intensity. Exercise machines equipped with monitors can also calculate calorie expenditure. So how many calories do animals burn during exercise?

What We Know and Don’t Know About Pet Calories

Surprisingly, we know very little about exercise and calorie expenditure in pets. A common belief among veterinarians and pet health practitioners is the 70/30 Percent Rule. It is thought that pets enrolled in weight loss programs that include exercise lose 70% of their calories due to calorie restriction and 30% due to calorie loss during exercise. Although this sounds good, there is no evidence to support it.

Although there is extensive veterinary exercise physiology research in horses, there is precious little of the same research in cats and dogs. So what do we know about exercise in cats and dogs? Let’s start with cats. The answer is zip, zero, cero, and zilch. We have no idea how many calories a cat burns when jumping at a feather toy for x number of minutes or chasing a laser light until the cat starts panting.

We know a little more in dogs. One study suggests that a dog walking at a pace of 3.7 -4 miles an hour (~15 minute miles) will burn .8 calories per pound per mile This means a 20 pound dog will only burn about 64 calories during a one hour walk. This calorie loss is easily cancelled by the treats the dog receives when it gets home to reward its athletic efforts. Furthermore, it is unlikely that most owners can maintain a 15-minute mile pace so the average one hour walk for a dog would burn fewer calories. How many? Again we don’t know as there are no studies at slower paces.

A more recent study estimated that a 22 pound dog trotting on treadmill submerged in approximately 10 inches of water would burn about 64 calories in 30 minutes if maintaining a pace of 6.8 miles per hour. This pace is only 2 miles an hour less than the pace of a competitive marathoner! Could your overweight pet maintain this pace for 30 minutes? And it would still mean a paltry 64 calorie burn.

I just finished serving on the American Animal Hospital Association task force to establish guidelines for Dog and Cat Weight Management. One of the main concerns of our document’s reviewers was that we did not elaborate on exercise expenditure. Although all eight of us on the panel agreed that exercise is important in weight management, we could not produce any other credible studies to address their desired content. We could only infer from human studies, which unfortunately is not proof. We recommended more research in this area.

What Is The Answer?

This discussion is not to discourage exercise. It is merely meant to point out my often repeated phrase that “we tend to underestimate calories and overestimate exercise.” The expenditure of 64 calories for a 20 pound dog is not insignificant, but it is not monumental and easily cancelled by feeding practices.  

Exercise is healthy. It also creates a stronger bond between owners and their dogs. The key is not to overestimate the value of exercise, especially for your pet. It is not going to contribute to 30% of weight loss but it is not wasted effort. As long as you are exercising at a pace that makes you sweat and the dog pant it is promoting a healthier lifestyle for both.

How do you exercise with your pets? Let us know in the comments.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  6

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  • Long Walks & New Routes
    10/10/2013 12:03pm

    My american bulldog loves nothing more than exploring a new street. A couple times a week I switch our normal route and he cant stop sniffing :)

  • Panting
    10/10/2013 06:42pm

    You mention sweat for humans and panting for dogs.

    How about kitties? Quite honestly, I find any kind of open-mouth breathing or panting in a cat to be troublesome since the only time I had a cat do that, she played for about 30 seconds and would start to pant. She was hyperthyroid.

    Do you have any thoughts at all about kitty exercise?

  • 10/12/2013 09:11pm

    Unfortunately, you are over cautious. Cat physiology is designed for short burst of activity that either yields prey or more typically ends in failure. They lack stamina for extended exercise efforts. That is why they are easy prey for coyotes. Without an elevated escape route they tire quickly and are easily feasted upon. That is why they tend to pant after short bouts of exercise. This is not a pathological sign but merely a reflection of their physiology. Panting equals momentary exhaustion. After a period of rest, they are ready for more exercise. The unfortunate fact that your kitty had heart disabilities due to hyperthyroidism, should not lead you to the notion that all panting cats have the disease. And please know exercise did not kill your kitty, hyperthyroidism did. It is like concluding that because someone you know pants due to heart disease that everyone that exercises and pants has a heart problem and should not exercise. Panting is a normal response to overcome the acidosis created by exercise. Play with your kitties. If you think that their exercise tolerance may be low then consult your veterinarian and have them evaluated. Fear should never trump exercise. It is too important for health.
    Dr. T

  • title of research
    11/16/2013 04:00pm

    Hello Doctor,
    very interesting article, I was looking for a formula to calculate how many calories my dog burns and run into this article. I was not aware of the lack of studies for this topic. I see that you mentioned a couple of researches that suggest that dog will need a lot of exercise to burn a significant amount of calories, could you write the title of those papers I would like to read more about it.
    Thanks in advance

  • 11/16/2013 06:44pm

    Sources are:
    Tipton C, Carey R, Eastin, W, et al. A submaximal test for dogs: evaluation of effects of training, detraining and cage confinement. J. of Applied Physiology Aug 1974; 37:271-75

    Grandjean D, Paragon B. Nutrition of racing and working dogs. Part 1. Energy Metabolism of dogs. Compendium 14(12):1608-15.

    Shmalbberg J, Scott K, Williams J, Hill R. Energy expenditure of dogs exercising on an underwater treadmill compared to that on a dry treadmill. Not Yet in Print

  • Exercise Definitely Helps
    04/01/2014 11:27pm

    Lack of scientific validation aside, there is no question in my mind that exercise is important not only for a dog's overall health and energy level but for weight control as well.

    I have utilized exercise in conjunction with diet to reduce weight in two of our dogs. One, an obese Cavalier King Charles Spaniel came to us as a foster dog with severe MVD with CHF.and ten extra pounds. When we got her as a foster dog, she weighed almost 29 pounds. The wet cardiologist set her target weight as 19 pounds. That meant she had to lose 10 pounds. I was very skeptical; I need to lose 10 pounds. At least.

    I put her on a diet that wasn’t really a “diet”. I fed her the amount of calories and nutrients appropriate for her target weight. She had been so neglected and abused that when she came to us, she didn’t even know how to play. She had no interest in toys. She slept or laid quietly, getting up only to eliminate and to eat. But a dog who sleeps all day is burning a minimum of calories. We took her for short walks several times a day. If we didn’t, she got absolutely no exercise at all.

    As she lost weight she could tolerate more exercise and we increased her walking times accordingly. It took less than 3 months to get the weight off. She lost less than a pound a week and her weight loss was very consistent but I think that’s because we slowly increased her exercise as she was able to tolerate more.

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