The Pet Connection: Activity trackers give clues to dogs’ health issues

I’ve been wearing an activity tracker for the past six weeks, and it’s a good incentive to get up and move a little more so I can make my goal of 10,000 steps per day. But what about my dogs? Are they getting their recommended daily dose of exercise?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that wearable activity monitors are available for pets – they drew a lot of attention at the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas last February – but how do they work, and how accurate and useful are they?

The tiny accelerometers contain a sensor that detects movement in all directions. Some units contain GPS capabilities that provide specific information on geographic location and distance traveled. They may also monitor heart and respiratory rates.

The benefit for pets – primarily dogs – is the ability to monitor how active they are every day. A lot of us probably think our dogs spend time running around in the yard chasing squirrels while we’re gone, but that’s not necessarily the case. Those of us who work at home know that our dogs tend to snooze the day away, getting up only when we go to the kitchen or call them to go out for a walk.

Putting an activity tracker on your pet can be a wake-up call, alerting you that perhaps he’s not quite as active as you imagined. While the monitors are good at detecting movement, they can’t always differentiate between types of movement.

For instance, a dog who sniffs the ground vigorously while lying down moves his head enough to register activity on the tracker, but that doesn’t qualify as exercise. And a dog who scratches all day will rack up minutes of activity, but that’s also not true exercise.

Some measurements may not be as accurate for some movements, says internal medicine specialist Bess J. Pierce, director of the Center for Animal-Human Relationships at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va.

“For example, in one study, there was no significant difference between trackers in all test dogs for trotting and walking, but the measurements became more variable when dogs were trotting up and down stairs.” An activity tracker can’t assess overall fitness, but it can be useful for determining how many minutes per day your pet is active and the distance he logs, whether he’s running around in the yard, walking with you on leash or hiking off leash with the opportunity to run back and forth.

Most trackers allow you to monitor activity trends over time and keep logs or diaries of downloaded data. An app can allow you to compare his activity level to other dogs of a similar age, breed or size. And they’re not just for young, active dogs.

“These monitors may be especially useful in geriatric dogs,” Pierce says. “For example, if an older dog is arthritic and has a sudden decrease in activity level, then it may be associated with an acute flare-up of joint pain.”

Other uses include helping veterinarians follow a pet’s weight-loss progress or tracking scratching activity in dogs with allergies who are very itchy. A sudden decrease in activity could also signal a medical problem.

If you’re thinking of getting a canine activity monitor, choose one that’s pet-specific. Simply attaching your own device to his collar won’t yield accurate results

“As long as a tracker is used within its limits, the information provided can be accurate and useful in monitoring your pet’s activity,” Pierce says. “Plus, it’s just plain fun to see what your pet has been up to during the day.”

The buzz

A therapy dog named Susie was named 2014 American Hero Dog at the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards on Oct. 30. The pit bull mix from High Point, N.C., survived a savage beating and burning by her owner, who left her for dead. She was rescued and nursed back to health at a local shelter.

In a tear-worthy twist, Susie was adopted by Donna Lawrence, the victim of a dog attack that nearly killed her. Together, the two helped each other heal and helped bring about passage of the state’s “Susie’s Law,” which sets harsher penalties for people convicted of animal abuse.

▪ When your pet undergoes surgery, is he properly hydrated? A recent study published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research confirmed the importance of giving IV fluids to pets during even minor surgical procedures to help maintain blood pressure and compensate for fluid loss.

Deborah Silverstein, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, found that increasing the amount of fluid delivered to the animal enhanced the total number of small vessels – arterioles, venules and capillaries – receiving blood flow. The American Animal Hospital Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners recommend IV drips during any surgery.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Dr. Becker can also be found at; on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.