Labrador Retriever

Michelle Diener, DVM
Written by:
Published: August 30, 2022
Labrador Retriever

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The Labrador Retriever is the most popular dog breed in the United States, based on registration statistics obtained by the American Kennel Club. This breed was first recognized by the AKC in 1917 and originated in Newfoundland.

Labradors are medium- to large-breed sporting dogs and weigh 55-80 pounds on average, with females on the lower end of this range. Typically, their height is between 21-25 inches. They have a wide skull and nose, deep chest, strong tail, and a very muscular build.

Caring for a Labrador Retriever

It is for good reason that the Labrador Retriever is so popular. Labradors tend to be highly affectionate toward people, even strangers, and do exceptionally well with children and other dogs. However, supervision is still important when first introducing a Lab to these family members.

Labrador Retrievers have a double coat that repels water. An undercoat of short hair is covered by a layer of longer hair. Due to this double coat, Labradors shed a lot, and frequent brushing to manage the shedding is required.

Labrador Retrievers love water and are great companions for families who like to spend a lot of time outdoors.

Labrador Retriever Health Issues

Labrador Retrievers are generally a healthy breed, but there are some potential health issues owners should be aware of.

Ear Infections

Labrador Retrievers are prone to ear infections for a couple of reasons:

  • They have ears that hang down loosely, which can trap moisture and wax, leading to inflammation and infection within the ear canal.

  • Most Labrador Retrievers love water and swimming, but water that gets in their ears during swimming or a bath can lead to an ear infection.

Symptoms of an ear infection can include:

  • Redness of the ear canal

  • Brown or yellow debris in the ear canal

  • Head shaking

  • Head tilt

  • Rubbing ears on carpet/furniture

  • Odor in ears

  • Pawing at ears

To minimize the risk of ear infections in Labrador Retrievers, clean their ears with an ear cleaner that contains a drying agent (like EPIOTIC® Advanced). Do this every 2 to 3 weeks for maintenance, and also after swimming or a bath.

Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia

The tricuspid valve pumps blood on the right side of the heart from the atrium into the ventricle. Labrador Retrievers with tricuspid valve dysplasia (TVD) have a valve that does not function properly and allows blood to leak backward into the right atrium. Over time, the right atrium and right ventricle become enlarged.

Labrador Retrievers with TVD may or may not have a heart murmur that can be heard during a routine physical exam. They can be asymptomatic or show signs of right-sided heart failure, which include:

  • Coughing

  • Fluid in the abdomen

  • Distended abdomen

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Rapid heart rate

TVD is usually diagnosed with patient history, physical exam, chest x-rays, ECG, and echocardiogram. Surgery can sometimes be performed to replace the tricuspid valve with a prosthetic one from a cow or a pig. Heart medications are often needed for management of this condition.

The prognosis of TVD in Labrador Retrievers can vary based on the severity of the disease. Some Labradors with TVD can live a normal life span. Those that have TVD or a familial history of TVD should not be bred.

Elbow Dysplasia

Elbow dysplasia encompasses several inherited orthopedic conditions that ultimately lead to degenerative joint disease (DJD) within the elbow. Labrador Retrievers may have:

  • Ununited anconeal process (UAP)

  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)

  • Medial compartment disease (MCD)

  • Elbow joint incongruity

Any of these conditions can cause lameness in the affected forelimb, especially after exercise. Pain is often detected when a veterinarian checks the range of motion in the elbow.

Sometimes elbow dysplasia can occur in both elbows. X-rays or advanced imaging (CT scans) are the most common tests used to diagnose this condition.

Orthopedic surgery is needed to treat elbow dysplasia. There is generally a good prognosis if surgery is done when the dog is young and the disease process is in its early stages. Labrador Retrievers with a history of elbow dysplasia should not be bred.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is an inherited orthopedic condition where the head of the femur does not sit snugly in the hip joint. As a result, the femoral head tends to rub against the hip socket, and over time, there is bony remodeling of the hip joint, which leads to arthritis.

Hip dysplasia can develop in one or both hip joints. Some Labrador Retrievers are born with congenital hip dysplasia (although this is rare); others develop it during their geriatric years. Symptoms include:

  • Lameness

  • Slowness to rise from a lying-down position

  • Bunny-hopping gait when running

  • Reluctance to run, jump, or go up or down stairs

  • Holding the affected leg out to the side when sitting up

PennHIP is a screening method that can be performed on puppies as young as 16 weeks of age. It requires sedation or anesthesia. Specialized x-rays of the pelvis are taken to detect which dogs will likely develop hip dysplasia during their lifetime. Identifying these dogs through a PennHIP evaluation allows for early treatment.

Treatment of hip dysplasia can vary depending on the severity. In some cases, hip dysplasia can be managed through supplements, medications, and reduced activity levels. In other cases, a dog may need to undergo surgery to correct the issue.

Centronuclear Myopathy

Centronuclear myopathy (CNM) is a rare congenital disease that affects the skeletal muscle. With this condition, reflexes in the hind limbs become impaired.

Clinical signs include an abnormal gait and the inability to perform physical exercise, like go on a walk or run. The muscles become weak, especially in colder climates. Usually, symptoms first arise in Labradors at 2-5 months of age. By age 1, the dog’s head, neck, and leg muscles generally become atrophied, which causes weakness and continued gait issues. The condition tends to become stable after 1 year of age.

A muscle biopsy is needed to diagnose this condition. Genetic therapy is the treatment of choice. DNA testing is available to determine if a Labrador Retriever carries the genetic mutation for CNM. Reputable breeders will have their dogs tested and will not breed those that have the genetic mutation.

Exercise-Induced Collapse

Exercise-induced collapse (EIC) is an inherited neuromuscular disease that first affects the hind limbs. A Labrador Retriever with EIC will have episodes of decreased muscle tone in the hind limbs after vigorous exercise or excitement. The hind limbs will suddenly become weak, which can lead to incoordination when walking and even collapse.

Dogs usually recover, but can have more episodes of EIC later on. During an episode, a dog’s rectal temperature can reach 107 ℉, which is life-threatening. Labrador Retrievers with EIC usually start having episodes around 12 months of age. Your veterinarian can help you determine the best action plan if your dog suffers from EIC.

A DNA test can be done to detect whether a Labrador Retriever carries the genetic mutation and is at risk for EIC. Dogs that have the genetic mutation should not be bred.

Hemangiosarcoma

Hemangiosarcoma (HAS) is an aggressive form of cancer that most often originates in the spleen, liver, or heart of a Labrador Retriever and forms a blood-filled tumor that can rupture at any time, causing a dog to bleed internally, which is life-threatening.

Some clinical signs include:

  • Weakness

  • Pale gums (white)

  • Fluid in the abdomen (ascites)

  • Lack of appetite

  • Difficulty breathing

Hemangiosarcoma can spread very quickly to other areas of the body and at first may not be detectable with imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, or CT/MRI). This cancer has a very grave prognosis.

Nutritional Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy (nutritional DCM) is a heart disease Labrador Retrievers may acquire by eating a grain-free diet that contains peas, legumes, or lentils among the top five ingredients. DCM causes the heart to become dilated and unable to function properly.

Labrador Retrievers with mild to moderate DCM may be asymptomatic. In severe cases, symptoms include rapid heart rate, cough, difficulty breathing, lethargy, lack of appetite, collapse, weight loss, and even death.

This heart condition may first be detected by a veterinarian hearing a heart murmur during a routine exam, or by a blood test called an NT-proBNP assay that measures heart function. If a Labrador Retriever has an elevated proBNP and/or a heart murmur, additional testing will be recommended (ECG, blood pressure, chest x-rays, and echocardiogram) to determine the cause.

If nutritional DCM is diagnosed early, it can be reversed by feeding the dog a high-quality diet containing grain, and also by providing cardiac supplements. If the disease is advanced it cannot be reversed, but heart medications may be able to manage it for a period of time. You can prevent this condition by feeding your Labrador a well-balanced diet that includes grain.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is a disease of the eye that can occur as a result of various genetic mutations. The retina slowly degenerates over a period of time, leading to permanent dilation of the pupils and eventual blindness.

PRA can be diagnosed with an eye exam. It usually develops in Labrador Retrievers at 3 to 9 years of age.

Gene therapy may be helpful for dogs with this condition, but more research needs to be done to improve the outcome. Reputable breeders will have their dogs DNA-tested for the genetic mutations for PRA. Dogs that carry these genetic mutations should not be bred.

What to Feed a Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retriever puppies should be fed a high-quality puppy formula made for large breeds until they are a year old. Once they reach adulthood, they will need to transition to a high-quality adult formula for large breeds.

To avoid complications with nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), talk with your veterinarian about appropriate dog foods that are not grain-free. A grain-free diet with peas, legumes, or lentils among the top five ingredients has been linked to this heart condition.

Make sure that whichever dog food you choose is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

How to Feed a Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retrievers do best with twice-daily feedings, morning and evening. They love to eat and are known to eat very quickly. If you notice your dog gobbling food down, consider a slow-feeding device. This will regulate the amount of food your dog can eat at one time and prevent regurgitation and stomach upset that can happen if they eat too quickly.

Labrador Retrievers are deep-chested, and if they eat too quickly this can lead to bloat, an emergency situation where the stomach twists on itself.

How Much to Feed a Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retriever puppies have rapid growth spurts, so feed them a high-quality puppy formula when they are under 12 months of age. Puppy food will provide the extra calories they need to grow to their full potential. Follow the feeding guidelines on the back of the bag of large-breed puppy formula based on age and expected body weight.

Once your Labrador Retriever is 1 year old, switch to a high-quality large-breed adult formula—which has fewer calories than the puppy version—to prevent unwanted weight gain. To determine how much to feed your Labrador Retriever, check the feeding guidelines on the bag and chat with your veterinarian to find the appropriate portions to help keep your dog at a healthy weight.

Nutritional Tips for Labrador Retrievers

Starting a Labrador Retriever on a joint supplement early in life can help slow down or possibly prevent arthritis. Virbac Movoflex, Synovi Chews, Dasuquin, Cosequin, and Flexadin are some examples of joint supplements that have gone through clinical trials and been proven effective.

Another supplement to consider for a Labrador Retriever is an omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil). This supplement helps to reduce inflammation in the joints, makes the coat shiny, and protects the skin barrier from allergens in the environment. Some good fish oil supplements are Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet, Vetoquinol Triglyceride Omega 3 Fatty Acids, and Nutramax Welactin Omega 3.

Behavior and Training Tips for Labrador Retrievers

Labrador Retriever Personality and Temperament

Labrador Retrievers have a wonderful temperament. They are very affectionate toward children, other pets, and even strangers.

They love to play and are highly energetic throughout most of their lives. They need lots of exercise and attention to make them happy.

Labrador Retrievers are considered moderate barkers. They are not known for digging in the yard. It is rare for a Labrador Retriever to show any sign of aggression.

Labrador Retriever Behavior

Labrador Retrievers are prone to eating things that they shouldn’t—especially as puppies. They may try to eat socks, shoes, furniture, and other items, or get into the trash. Therefore, keep a watchful eye on puppies and spend the time to train them on what they can and cannot eat.

To help deter barking, start redirecting the behavior early and finding healthier outlets.

Labrador Retriever Training

Labrador Retriever puppies are very energetic and will grow into very strong dogs. It’s important to take the time to train them correctly when they are young.

It is highly recommended that Labrador Retriever puppies participate in puppy training and obedience training classes. They need to be socialized with different people and pets, so they get used to being around others at a young age.

Be sure to quickly correct any bad puppy behaviors that arise—such as biting, growling, chewing on objects, and trying to eat random items—so that these behaviors do not continue and worsen over time.

Fun Activities for Labrador Retrievers

  • Scent work

  • Tracking

  • Agility

  • Obedience training

  • Dock diving

Labrador Retrievers can go through specialized training to become service dogs or participate in drug and bomb detection or search and rescue. They also make great therapy dogs.

Labrador Retriever Grooming Guide

Labrador Retrievers don’t require a lot of grooming, but they do shed a lot. Deshedding and brushing will be important parts of your daily, weekly, and monthly grooming care routines.

Skin Care

Labrador Retrievers do not require any specialized skin care routines, but it’s important to ensure that they are fully dried after swimming and baths to avoid skin issues.

Coat Care

Labrador Retrievers have a thick double coat that is water-repellent. A double coat means that a thick undercoat of short hair is covered by a layer of longer hair. Due to this double coat, Labrador Retrievers shed a lot and require frequent brushing to manage the shedding.

Labradors also need an occasional bath to keep their skin and hair coat clean.

Eye Care

Labrador Retrievers often have a mild amount of clear or brown eye discharge, which is normal. It’s helpful to use a moistened washcloth to clean the eye discharge away when it forms.

Ear Care

Due to their pendulous ears and love for swimming, Labrador Retrievers are prone to ear infections. It’s helpful to routinely clean their ears with an ear cleaner that contains a drying agent (like EPIOTIC® Advanced) every 2-3 weeks, as well as after baths and swimming, to minimize the risk of ear infections.

Considerations for Pet Parents

Labrador Retrievers are great family dogs. They are energetic, friendly, and love to go on adventures with their families. However, their high energy and strong tails can be dangerous for toddlers and other young children.

The Labrador Retriever is also a high-shedding dog breed. These dogs will need consistent brushing to keep their shedding under control, but be aware that dog hair will have a permanent presence in your home.

Labrador Retriever FAQs

Is a Labrador Retriever a good family dog?

Yes, Labrador Retrievers make excellent family dogs, as they are affectionate and have the patience and tolerance to do well around children and other dogs.

Are Labradors Retrievers smart dogs?

Yes, Labrador Retrievers are very smart, and therefore easy to train. They aim to please and will quickly learn various tricks to receive the praise and treats that follow.

What are the drawbacks of Labrador Retrievers?

Labrador Retrievers shed a lot due to their dual-layer coat. They need frequent brushing to minimize shedding. They are also a very energetic breed, so they require exercise to keep them content and less destructive.

Labrador Retrievers are prone to ear infections, so they need to have their ears cleaned with a routine ear cleaner that contains a drying agent, ideally every 2-3 weeks, to minimize the risk. They also tend to eat things they shouldn’t—especially as puppies—so taking the time to train them properly at a young age is important.

Labradors can develop a heart condition called nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy if they are fed a grain-free diet that contains peas, lentils, or legumes among the top 5 ingredients. They are also predisposed to elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, hemangiosarcoma, exercise-induced collapse, progressive retinal atrophy, centronuclear myopathy, and tricuspid valve dysplasia. Most of these are genetic predispositions and are less likely to occur in a Labrador Retriever that is purchased from a reputable breeder.

What are the different types of Labrador Retrievers?

There are yellow, black, and chocolate Labrador Retrievers, depending on coat color.

What is the difference between a Labrador and a Labrador Retriever?

There is no difference between a Labrador and a Labrador Retriever. Both refer to the same breed of dog.

Featured Image: iStock.com/lizcen


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