What's all the fuss about Fetch?
The team at Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) can often be heard telling owners that ball throwing is not an ideal activity for their arthritic dog. In fact, CAM would go as far as to say that it is not an ideal activity for any dog, whatever their age or condition. Here, three team members look at the impact of throwing a ball on a dog both physically and mentally.
Many dogs derive a great deal of pleasure from chasing a ball, and many owners undoubtedly derive pleasure from throwing a ball and watching their dog having fun.
What many owners and their dogs don’t realize however is that this activity may not be as beneficial as it seems, and in dogs with underlying conditions such as arthritis this activity is likely to cause harm.
...What many owners and their dogs don’t realize however is that ball throwing may not be as beneficial as it seems...
In order to understand why we recommend that dogs with arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions do not chase balls, it is necessary to understand a little about both the musculoskeletal system of the dog as well as the behavioural aspects of this activity.
Dogs, like other quadrupeds tend to move forwards in straight lines and lack the rotatory aspect of bi-pedal movement. Their fore and hind limbs are developed to fulfil specific functions. The hind limbs act as the ‘motor’ for the dog, propelling them forwards, and the forelimbs act primarily as the braking and shock absorbing system for the dog. Dogs have developed light, long limbs powered by strong muscles around the hips, spine and shoulder girdles. Power is transmitted from the back legs along the spine to propel the dog forward. They carry about 60% of their weight through their front legs and 40% through their hind legs.
...In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand a little about the musculoskeletal system of the dog. Their fore and hind limbs are developed to fulfil specific functions...the dog’s fore limbs are attached to the dog only by a group of muscles known as the thoracic sling...
In order to allow dogs to move efficiently by taking long strides they have sacrificed stability at their shoulder joints so that the dogs’ front limb has no bony attachment to the skeleton. Humans also have very shallow shoulder joints but they do have a bony attachment by way of their clavicle or ‘collar bone’.
What this means is that the dog’s fore limbs are attached to the dog only by a group of muscles known as the thoracic sling and, at the same time, they are also supporting most of the weight of the dog.
During movement, the dog has both internal and external forces acting on them by way of the mass of the dog to the ground, as well as forces exerted by muscles and ligaments. Movement is also affected by the dog’s own conformation, the surface that it is on and the restraints it may be using.
As owners and breeders of dogs we have influenced the form of our dogs to change their function. While dogs no longer need to hunt down prey or run from attackers, humans have bred them for our own purposes. It is not hard to see that this species has a huge diversity of form, from the sledging breeds who have muscles designed to work at steady speed over long distances, to greyhounds who have muscles that work efficiently for short sharp bursts of speed. Some dogs have over angulated hind limbs that allow them to take long strides but subsequently have less stability due to the strength required to stabilize their flexed limbs.
Our dogs have changed both in form and function from their wolf ancestors, so when we ask a dog to run repeatedly from virtually standing to a gallop, brake sharply, often skidding on the underlying surface, throwing their neck back initially, and then bringing all their weight forward as they reach for the ball, often twisting at the same time, we can see that the forces on a dogs skeleton and muscles are enormous. Increasing speeds can, as much as double the forces generated. It is thought that the most dangerous component of ball chasing occurs during braking, and thus is often responsible for shoulder injuries
...so when we ask a dog to run repeatedly from virtually standing to a gallop, brake sharply, often skidding on the underlying surface, throwing their neck back initially, and then bringing all their weight forward as they reach for the ball, often twisting at the same time, we can see that the forces on a dogs skeleton and muscles are enormous...
We also know that repeated micro-trauma to muscles and cartilage is the cause of long-term damage and that the older a dog gets the more likely it is to be carrying small injuries. This will cause a dog to try and compensate thus further altering the loading of its limbs.
In summary chasing a ball combines sharp acceleration, high speeds, rapid and uncontrolled deceleration that includes rotatory forces, on fundamentally unstable joints. In addition this activity is usually repeated over and over again.
Muscles are prone to trauma during high energy activities such as racing and leaping for a ball. The explosive action that the dog undertakes to chase in a sudden moment uses incredibly powerful propulsive forces. The same forces used to initiate this high-speed activity are experienced in reverse when suddenly braking and landing. Unpredictable actions involved in these strenuous actions such as braking, twisting and landing can result in muscles being put under great stress for which they aren’t designed, or weren’t prepared. Imagine a muscle trying to contract but ripped into extension, or already at full extension but then forced to lengthen more.
...Imagine a muscle trying to contract but ripped into extension, or already at full extension but then forced to lengthen more...
It is sadly normal for a dog not to be given the chance to "warm up" prior to a ball game. Gently exercising prior to high stress activities “prepares” them for the work ahead and results in less damage, but how many dogs are thrown a ball as soon as they reach the garden, or straight after they have got out of the car. It is common to see owners lob a ball with a ball chucker twenty times and then pop the dog straight back in the car with no cool down either.
Dogs have four legs so four areas to subtly offload weight, which means they can easily compensate with two or three when first carrying a minor injury. The owner does not notice this subtle transfer of bodyweight and developing muscular imbalance. So the games/ and activities continue as does the opportunities for further damage. Now that the dog’s body has started to compensate, these overworking tissues are more likely to get damaged in these hazardous activities. Sadly we often find that the owners can misinterpret their dogs compensated overdeveloped muscles as a sign of health, not realising that other areas of the dogs body have correspondingly decreased in bulk and function.
...Sadly the owner does not notice this subtle transfer of bodyweight and developing muscular imbalance. Owners can misinterpret their dogs compensated overdeveloped muscles as a sign of health. Eventually we have multiple areas of concern, all from one “fun” activity...
Eventually this ability to shift weight and function fails. The compensatory areas themselves become tense and painful but by this stage we have multiple areas of concern, all from one “fun” activity.
The Veterinary Behaviourist
Ball throwing is an activity that many dogs and owners engage in on a regular basis. In recent years, concerns have been raised about the mental and physical impact this can have on dogs.
Many dogs get very excited during games of fetch. This increased arousal can involve increased heart rate and adrenaline levels, causing an increase in cortisol levels, and can lead to ‘frantic’ behaviours as a result of reduced impulse control and frustration tolerance.
...Many dogs get very excited during games of fetch. This increased arousal can lead to ‘frantic’ behaviours as a result of reduced impulse control and frustration tolerance...
Adrenaline is designed to be released in short bursts, as a one off during a chase for example, but by repeatedly throwing the ball means it is released for much longer periods.
Cortisol levels take several days to return to normal (some reports say up to several weeks), prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can be damaging to long term health.
Adrenaline and cortisol both play a role in the expression and regulation of behaviour, increased levels over a long period of time can be responsible for a number of problematic and dangerous behaviour, including inability to ‘switch off’, cope with different situations and even aggressive displays.
In summary, you can see why CAM is not advocate of ball throwing for dogs. The negative physical and mental impact, both long and short term, far outweigh the positive; most of which are only experienced by the dog in the “high” of the moment. We would always recommend alternatives as a way to exercise and mentally stimulate your dog, and strongly advise to throw that ball launcher in the bin!
About the Authors
Canine Arthritis Management (CAM) was developed by Hannah Capon, a veterinary surgeon with wide-ranging experience of working with arthritic dogs, their owners and fellow professionals to create effective long-term management plans. CAM is committed to promoting better care of our arthritic canine friends. They believe that through education the disease can be better tackled to give our dogs longer, healthier lives free from pain. CAM also offers manual therapies, educational talks and much more. To know more about CAM, visit their website and follow them on facebook, for useful tips and regular updates.