Osteoarthritis—a painful joint condition most commonly affecting the hips, knees and elbows—is on the rise in dogs. Recent findings from Banfield Pet Hospital’s State of Pet Health Report reveal a 66% increase in this disease over the past ten years. Commonly thought of as a condition that impacts older pets, osteoarthritis can actually occur at any age. Genetics, joint abnormalities or injuries can contribute to the disease. As pet owners, we can’t always prevent osteoarthritis, but we can play an active role in managing one of the associated risk factors: obesity.

Overweight dogs are 2.3 times more likely to develop osteoarthritis than dogs at a healthy weight. Extra pounds put extra stress on joints, which can speed up the development of this chronic disease. Worse still, the combination of obesity and osteoarthritis form a vicious cycle. Obesity contributes to osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis causes discomfort that can keep pets from being active. Lack of activity can lead to more weight gain, and the problem compounds.

Managing Your Dog’s Weight

Luckily, there are things you can do as a pet owner to keep your dog at a healthy weight. Two important variables to monitor are your dog’s food intake and their activity level.

Your veterinarian can work with you to determine how many calories your dog needs per day to maintain an appropriate weight based on their breed, age and overall health. Once you have that information, it’s a matter of paying close attention to what your dog eats. Using a measuring cup will help ensure you don’t overfeed during meals. Accounting for treats is a critical part of the equation. Calories from treats need to be counted in your dog’s daily total, and treats should make up no more than 10% of their overall intake.

Activity can be a little harder to track. You know when you take your dog for a walk, but you may not always have visibility to how much exercise they get at home, or during a stay at doggy day care. Activity trackers like the one made by Whistle can be a useful way to monitor this data. You’ll be able to see how active your dog is and use this information to determine an appropriate exercise plan for your pet.

The Role of Genetics

Some dogs are genetically predisposed to weight gain. A study on Labrador Retrievers performed at the University of Cambridge found that a variant in the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene was associated with obesity and appetite. The POMC gene helps regulate how the brain recognizes hunger and the feeling of being full. The more copies of the POMC variant that a dog had, the heavier and more food motivated it was. While food motivation may be helpful when training a dog (dogs that feel hungrier may work harder for treats), it can prove problematic when it comes to controlling weight gain.

If your dog is a high-risk breed for obesity, like the Labrador Retriever, Cocker Spaniel or Cairn Terrier, you may need to work even harder to keep your pet’s weight in check. But knowing that it could help reduce your dog’s risk of osteoarthritis later in life makes it worth this extra effort.